Real Talk

The changing face of international education and its effect on US higher education

US universities have been transformed by the cultural and educational offerings of international students. Since 2000, the number of students around the world studying outside their own homes has more than doubled, to reach five million students — and around one fifth of these choose to study in the US.

They have provided colleges with much-needed income at a time when public universities are facing severe constraints and private institutions are in intense competition for funds. But more importantly, international students change the culture on campuses, making them more open to the world.

As one university leader in the UK said: “The coming together of people from different parts of the world to study has the potential to form creative global communities that learn to interact and collaborate in new and previously incomprehensible ways.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that the total number of international students will reach 8 million by 2025. This means that growth is slowing down, but not stopping: the future of international education is a bigger market with more competition. Both the challenges and the opportunities for universities will be bigger than ever.

The rise of domestic and regional competitors

The success of the US in attracting students from all over the world is underpinned by its world-class teaching and research. But as the quality of university education increases in countries that currently supply many international students, we can expect that a large number of them will choose to stay closer to home.

Take the example of Asia. Colleges such as the National University of Singapore and Peking University are now both ranked higher in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings than New York University, which has 38 Nobel Prize-winners among its alumni.

So it’s no surprise that student numbers in east Asian and Pacific countries have been surging: they overtook Western universities in 2003 and by 2020, it’s estimated that the region will enroll more than 100 million students. By 2035, China is on target to be the world’s largest provider of higher education.

Similar patterns are repeated in south Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, all of which are increasing the capacity of their higher education systems.

Where is the growth in the market coming from?

China sends 260,000 students a year to US universities, but it’s facing a decline in its college-age population in future years, as it copes with a major demographic shift. So it’s likely to find meeting demand with its domestic universities increasingly easy.

But a growing global middle class in emerging economies will help to ensure that the total demand for college education keeps rising, with the numbers seeking education abroad continuing to rise. The number of people defined as middle class in Asia, for example, is expected to reach three billion by 2030, with those families typically wanting a university education for their children. This is good news for American universities looking to attract international students, as middle class families are more likely to be able to afford to send children to study abroad.

Countries in Africa already have a demand for higher education which outstrips supply, and Africa’s population is expected to grow from 1 billion today to 2.4 billion in 2050. Nigerian international student numbers have increased from 16,129 in 2000 to 52,066 in 2013, for example. Many of those study currently study in the UK, but the changing market may make the US more appealing.

Challenges for established countries

Increasing competition has inevitably seen the market share fall in the top five destinations for overseas students, including the US. As well as domestic and regional institutions, students can choose from newer entrants to the international education market, such as Russia.

Other destinations face unique challenges. In the UK, you could call it the Brexit effect. Following the vote to leave the European Union, applications to UK universities from EU students fell by 9% for the October UCAS deadline.

The decline is linked to uncertainty over the British government’s financial support for European students following the public’s decision to leave the EU. Despite being the world’s number two destination for international students, the UK has also tightened visa restrictions for overseas students from other countries.

The 9% decrease may signal an end to the upward trend in EU applications to UK universities in recent years. Those students will need to look elsewhere. This is where its effect on the US becomes clear: thanks to a shared language, shared culture, and some overlaps in teaching and learning approaches, America is an obvious choice for international students who wanted to study in the UK and are now looking elsewhere.

New frontiers: how research collaboration is changing international education

The next stage in international education could be moving on from the undergraduate focus to increasingly close research collaboration. Take the joint Global Innovation Initiative, for example, which offers grants for projects involving the US, UK, Brazil, China, Indonesia, and India.

It’s intended to support collaborative research on issues of global significance in science, technology, maths, and engineering subjects. So far it’s created 37 new collaborations, with funding of between $100,000 and $200,000 each, creating new connections between universities across the world.

How American institutions can widen their appeal

Engaging in international research projects like these can help to consolidate the international reputations of US institutions. It can also help them teach international students even more successfully, strengthening their position in a competitive market.

Close collaborative projects not only give US educators new insights into their field of research, but also a deep understanding of the approaches taken to it abroad, helping them to better understand international students and their needs.

Combine this with the existing reputation for world-class teaching and research, and US universities are in a strong position to thrive in the new landscape of international education.

And with more US students studying abroad, there’s a greater understanding of international diversity on campus than ever before. That means a richer, more relevant experience for domestic students and a more welcoming environment for students who are far from home.

Degrees Digital Magazine | Issue 10


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