Economics, Politics & Technology Disrupting Higher Education and the International Mobile Student

By DJ Nelson, Staff Writer

For many years individuals have been crossing country borders to seek higher educations. These students fall into three separate categories: internationally mobile students, foreign students and credit-mobile students.

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UNESCO defines an internationally mobile student as “an individual who has physically crossed an international border between two countries with the objective to participate in educational activities in a destination country, where the destination country is different from his or her country of origin.” The mobile student differs from the foreign and credit-mobile student as they are typically seeking a tertiary degree, did not migrate because their parents moved, and their enrollment status is in the destination country, not their home country, as exchange students are.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development there are over five million internationally mobile students today. This number is projected to grow, but the destinations of these students are starting to change. Enrollment data shows that there was a decrease in the number of international students attending universities in the U.S. from 2016 to 2017. The top destinations for international students have been the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, and the Russian Federation. In fact, in 2016 UNESCO found that over half of the 4.8 million international students were enrolled in one of these countries.

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The decrease in U.S. international student enrollment has certainly brought attention to a change that has been ongoing for decades. The U.S. has been losing a portion of its market share of international students for much longer than the 2016 to 2017 data alludes. This means that even though international student enrollment appeared to be increasing from 2012 to 2016 (see graph), the U.S. was losing a portion of the total number of international students that could have been in attendance at a U.S. university, but instead sought out education elsewhere.

“Disruption will happen in higher education like nothing we have seen before, and first-world institutions are going to suffer the hardest. The real opportunities exist in the developing world.” –Rob Brown of Navitas, September 2016.

BRICS are seen as the forefront in the shift away from U.S. and western European countries. New global economic rankings will impact international student mobility and these emerging counties are harnessing a larger share in the higher education system. China has a goal of enrolling 500,000 international students by 2020, which will make them one of the major importers of students. All the while, China remains, and will continue to be, the largest exporter of  international students because of their increasing middle class population with continued economic growth. BRICS and countries with greater economic growth want to gain from the economic benefits that international migrant students contribute to society.

International student mobility is not only driven by economic shifts, but political and technological changes too. The strict immigration policies in the US and the UK are partly to blame for the decrease in international mobile student enrollment. And with U.S. universities getting more expensive, there was a need for an alternative, and driving technological advancements make it cheaper and easier to access similar levels of higher education.

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Although we see a decline in the U.S. and British share of international students, BRICS countries have plenty of challenges to overcome before they pose a major threat to the West. For starters, English is the dominant language in academic teaching and research. China and Russia are offering more and more courses in English at higher course levels, and India started out ahead of the other BRICS countries as they have already been teaching courses in English for years. Brazil is lagging to adapt, and may be the last to offer higher level courses in English, but they are suffering the least from brain drain, having the highest rate of returning students who receive degrees in other countries. Another issue for Russia had been the major cutbacks on higher education that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they are presently working to rebuild the academic system. Having competitive salaries for students after graduation has also posed as a challenge for some of these countries. The idea is to reap economic benefit from international students once they become immigrant workers.

A complete shift from West to East is unlikely, but we should be thinking about shifts in higher education, and how and where it will be offered in the near future. Students, universities and policymakers should be aware of the current economic, political and technological trends that are affecting the global academic system.

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