KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Expo Hall at the 62nd annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference evokes Disney’s Epcot Center. Foreign countries have staked out territory here in America’s heartland to promote themselves as destinations for international students: Study in Japan, Malaysia, Korea; “Study in the heart of Europe!” (in Belgium). Over in Canadian country, signs prompt passers-by to “Imagine studying in” -- “Étudier en” -- British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan…. Quebec’s universities have a separate booth nearby: “A unique crossroads.”
The international student market is booming. Foreign student enrollment in the United States is at a record high of 671,616 students. Worldwide, upwards of 3 million students now study outside their home countries, an expanding pie that every country wants a piece of. “As the pie’s increased, more countries are hosting more international students,” Robert Guttierez, senior manager for research and evaluation for the New York-based Institute of International Education, said during a session Tuesday on trends in global student mobility. “So actually the relative share, if you want to call it that, of the United States has dipped from 28 to 21 percent [from 2001 to 2008], though we host the largest number of international students worldwide, followed by the U.K., France, Germany, and Australia.”
Among the countries clamoring to increase their share, China hopes to play host to 300,000 international students by 2020; its current enrollment, per IIE’s Atlas of International Student Mobility, is 195,000. Japan, too, has a target of 300,000; it’s at 123,000.
“We’ve also seen increased competition, from the U.S., from the U.K and from Canada,” Jen Nielsen, manager of education for Australian Education International, said during the session. “Canada has told us that they want to overtake Australia as the third-most popular English-speaking destination. They’ve been really ramping up in certain markets. But also I think [we’re facing competition] from more nontraditional competitors, like Singapore, for example, which has positioned itself in the Asia-Pacific region as a hub for attracting international students.”
International student inflows and outflows are complex. Students from different countries tend to go to different countries for different reasons. Australia’s largest source country for international students is China, and 40 percent of Chinese students in Australia are undergraduates, the most popular major being business. Australia’s second-largest source of international students is India, and about two-thirds of Indian students in Australia are in the vocational education sector; the most popular degree is a diploma in hospitality management.
In the United States, by contrast, Indian students are concentrated at the graduate level, in engineering, computer science, management and business programs, and they are mainly clustered geographically in five states -- California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas and New York, said Rahul Choudaha, associate director of development and innovation for World Education Services, during the session on international student mobility. India sends more foreign students to the United States than any other country, and Choudaha doesn’t expect the numbers to drop any time soon.
Although India has rapidly been building up its own higher education system -- enrollment in Indian engineering programs grew from 115,000 to 653,000 between 1997 and 2007, for example -- the expansion, he said, has come at the expense of quality. Much of the growth has been among poor or average-quality institutions, which he called the “laggards” (as opposed to the “achievers” and the “aspirers”).
(“Maybe," he said, laughing, during a follow-up interview, “I should be more politically correct.” He cautioned, too, that he was speaking of the quality of the institutions and not of the students they attract.)
The whole point is that, while the system is developing, there aren’t yet enough high-quality Indian institutions for high-quality students to attend. This being the case, Choudaha said, “I believe that the demand for international education will remain very high.”
In Latin America, demand for international education is very low, as is supply: “Mobility to and from Latin America is unfortunately very low, and not only is it low, it’s uneven,” said Thomas Buntru, director of international programs for the Universidad de Monterrey and president of the Mexican Association for International Education. Just 0.17 percent of students in Latin American universities are of foreign nationality, and just 0.87 percent of Latin American students study abroad. Most exchange that does happen involves the United States (65 percent) and Europe (21 percent), followed by Asia (8 percent), Oceania (3 percent) and Africa (3 percent).
Buntru cited a number of limiting factors, among them low academic reputations of Latin American universities (as measured, for instance, in international rankings), insufficient course offerings in foreign languages, especially English, and financial constraints, as most countries in the region have either developing or emerging economies. All that said, Buntro said he was cautiously optimistic about the potential for growth, in part because of the growing importance of Spanish as an international language.
Back in the Expo Hall, countries and colleges promoted themselves, as did a wide range of for-profit companies that have developed to support study abroad and international student recruitment and services: credential evaluators, insurance companies (Cultural Insurance Services International: “You can’t imagine what kind of trouble your students can get into”), study abroad providers, testing companies, and recruitment agencies (the use of agents in recruiting international students to the United States is on the rise ).
At the very back of the expo hall were the hometown institutions -- Kansas State and Park Universities, the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the Study Missouri Consortium all have booths. Of the 671,616 foreign students studying in the United States in 2008-9, 11,285 came to Missouri, and 8,668 to Kansas.