International student mobility trends to watch in 2020

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What will international student mobility look like in 2020?

By U2B Staff 

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Seismic shifts in the global socio-political and socio-economic landscape in recent years have had a profound effect on international student mobility in higher education, a world that not two decades ago still seemed resilient to disruptive change.

Globalisation, Trump’s election, the Groundhog day fatigue of Brexit, the breakneck pace of technological progress and the rise of the global middle class from Asia, have combined to create a period of unpredictability in international higher education.

Rising nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigration policies in the UK and US have led to declining international enrollments in these former destination favourites. Demographic changes have also lent its weight to the problem; US population trends predict a more than 10 percent reduction in college enrollments by the end-2020.

Meanwhile, massive investments in higher education in countries across Asia such as China, South Korea and Singapore have led to their institutions’ dramatic rise in global league tables, threatening Western dominance.


As far as source markets go, the Chinese boom period in the four top English-speaking destination favourites of the US, UK, Canada and Australia is now slowing, influenced heavily by geopolitical trends and the emergence of less expensive study destinations in Asia and Europe.

Exploding appetite for overseas study among Latin Americans, as well as the rise of lower-middle-income countries such as India, Nigeria and Vietnam, meanwhile, are adding new dimensions to the ebb and flow of international student mobility.

For higher education institutions, such volatility in the market affects forward-planning and adds to the pressure cooker environment they already operate in, with consequences for budgets, academic programmes and recruitment strategies. 

In view of this, how should institutions adjust for global headwinds, both now and in the future? 

To gain a better understanding, U2B caught up recently with Dr Rahul Choudaha, the US-based international education expert at DrEducation, who spoke on the topic during the last Australian International Education Conference in Sydney.

The following are four key points raised by the higher education expert on what international education in 2020 will look like and what universities need to do.

#1: Change the only constant

As 2020 comes rushing in, it is quite likely that the current period of dynamism in international student mobility will remain firmly rooted in place. 

Although international education will grow, the composition, direction and demand of students studying abroad will continue to experience intense change.

Affecting its growth and sustainability, Rahul says, will be a confluence of factors, namely:

  • Lower prospects of work: Nationalist policies and job market complexities are making it less attractive for students to study abroad
  • Higher cost of education: An increasingly saturated higher education marketplace and federal budget cuts are placing higher education institutions under increasing pressure to find new revenue streams/recover cost by raising international enrollment/tuition fees

#2: Demand for better ROI

Probably one of the most prominent trends to emerge in the world of higher education in recent years is the demand for better returns

To meet the needs of an increasingly demanding clientele, it’s no longer enough for universities to simply promise an updated curriculum delivered by experienced lecturers – they must provide proof of ROI.

Influenced by global uncertainties over the future world of work, today’s parents and students want to know their education dollars will lead to gainful employment post-graduation. They also want a learning experience that is transformative, contemporary and guaranteed to equip them with both the hard and soft skills necessary to thrive in any job market.

2020 will be no different.

“One of the overarching themes shaping international student mobility in 2020 is the increasing expectation among students and families for value for money,” Rahul says.

“Career outcomes have always been one of the dominant motivations for investing in overseas education.

“However, the combination of increasing cost of education and decreasing chances of getting post-graduation work is pressing a segment of price-sensitive students and families to become more conscious about their return on investments. 

“While the overall aspirations to study overseas remains robust, it is facing challenges in terms of translating some of the aspirations into reality due to above developments.”


#2: China & India

There’s no talking about international education without including China and India. 

As the world’s two most populous nations, international enrollments at many universities across traditional destination favourites like the US and UK are, by and large, dictated by study abroad decisions made in these countries.

For example, Chinese and Indian students contributed an estimated US$18.3 billion and US$8 billion respectively to the US economy in 2016, of the total US$57.3 billion contributed by international students that year, according to a StudyPortals report. 

In the UK, the figure is US$5.3 billion from Chinese students and US$1.2 billion from Indian students, of the US$25.5 billion international student receipts the same year.

But, as we mentioned above, the new political order in the two destinations has been transforming student mobility patterns and directions. 

The decline in demand for places in the US from China and India, Rahul has said, has greatly contributed to the overall decline in interest to study in the former international education favourite. 

According to recent research by the Institute of International Education, there was a 7.1 percent decline in international enrollment in US business schools from 2017-2017 and 2018-2019, a drop of nearly 14,000 students from 196,054 to 183,170.

This slowdown, Rahul says, will put universities in a “serious position of inability to meet their international enrollment goals”

“At the same time, countries with welcoming policies will benefit from this turbulence in the third wave.”

According to recent analysis by the education expert, the past, present, and future of international student mobility can be characterised by three waves: Wave I from 2001 to 2008 shaped by the 9/11 attacks; Wave II from 2008 to 2016 shaped by the global recession; and Wave III from 2016 onwards, influenced by the new political order of anti-immigration rhetorics, the resultant rise of Canada, Australia and Asia, as well as socioeconomic shifts changing the patterns of mobility from countries like China, India, Nigeria and Vietnam.


#4: Education, Disrupted: Preparing for the Fourth Wave

Under the “Fourth Wave”, digital disruption will really begin to bear on international student mobility trends and patterns, according to Rahul.

“The Fourth Wave is likely to be the influence of technology in addressing affordability, access, and diversity issues in international education,” he explains.

He offers several pieces of advice for institutions. In his words: 

  • Higher education institutions must first move away from treating international students as one monolithic block and start recognising and understanding the diversity of international students in terms of needs and expectations
  • Next, universities and colleges must assess the effectiveness of their recruitment and marketing operations to align future strategies with the diversity of international students. 
  • Finally, higher education institutions will price themselves out of the student reach unless they start to reinvest a portion of their tuition earned directly into shaping recruitment and student success. 

Higher education, he says, will remain integral to human capital development and continue to serve as an incubator of future talent and productive citizens. 

But with new and emerging technologies changing the nature and future of work, universities and the world of higher education must assess and adapt to these changes to meet evolving global needs.

“Those who continue to ignore the changes and do not respond to them will become obsolete,” Rahul says.

“The key is that the importance of higher education will not diminish, but the nature and form of how to engage students and employers will change.”