UK universities
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Indian students, as well as their peers from other lower, middle-income countries Nigeria and Vietnam, will likely replace China as the key drivers of future international student growth, a new report has found.

With the slowdown of China’s GDP growth, the nations with some of the most dynamic emerging economies in their respective regions, “are likely to drive demand in growth”, according to the report by StudyPortals.

International students are now more likely to be branded “spies” in the US, or blamed for the influx of “job-stealing” migrants in the UK, but the report shows that these countries employ such political positions to their own economic disadvantage.

At tertiary level, international students had an estimated global economic impact of US$300 billion in 2016, the year for which available data is most complete. The estimated figure includes the direct impact, as well as “indirect and induced” economic impact. The latter includes the ripple effect of international student expenditures on jobs, tax revenues and household income (knock-on effect).

The report quotes Claudia Münch and Markus Hoch’s 2013 study, The Financial Impact of Cross-border Student Mobility on the Economy of the Host Country:

“Student mobility gives rise to chain effects that cannot be expressed in mere economic terms. On the one hand, this refers to the possibility of cross-border knowledge transfer which benefits the participating countries. On the other hand, student mobility represents a significant means of recruiting qualified international professionals for the local labour market.

“Furthermore, the student body is able to acquire multicultural competences which on the level of the individual are valuable for future careers, and on the societal level contribute towards understanding and breaking down prejudices between peoples.

“Moreover, cross-border student mobility facilitates the formation of international networks, which can in the long term lead to intensified economic relations among participating countries.”

Using data and definition from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, this calculation is one of the first of its kind in providing global estimates. Previous estimates have largely been limited to country-level.

International students are defined as degree-seeking students “who have crossed a national or territorial border for the purpose of education and are now enrolled outside their country of origin”. It excludes any students who are in high-school programmes, non-degree programmes or exchange programmes.

In 2016, the report found, international students’ total contribution to the US economy was US$57.3 billion. Students from China, India and South Korea contributed US$18.3 billion, US$8 billion and US$3.6 billion respectively. These three Asian countries make up 32 percent, 14 percent and six percent of its 971,417 international student cohort.

Across the pond, British institutions of higher education hosted 432,001 international students that same year. They contribute an estimated US$25.5 billion, led by China, Malaysia and Hong Kong at the top.

In Australia, the economic impact of international students was estimated at US$19.8 billion, France at US$6.7bn, Germany US$6.7bn and the Netherlands US$5.3bn.

Indian students and the future of international education

Indian students in tertiary institutions abroad number only a fraction of Chinese students: 5.9 percent compared to China’s 17 percent in 2016.

Both countries led the first of the “three waves of international student mobility” (a ‘wave’ indicates key events impacting mobility directions) as described by study author Rahul Choudaha, though most enrolments were at the Master’s and doctoral level. Taking place between 2001 to 2008, this wave was mostly shaped by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Following the financial recession of 2018, another wave was initiated.

“US universities become proactive with recruitment as reflected by the “debate” about the use of commission-based recruitment and launch of first pathway program,” said the report.

At the same time, “the rapid expansion of Chinese upper-middle class fuels the growth momentum at the undergraduate level while Indian students continue to enrol at master’s level.”

By 2010, China became the top source country for international students at US colleges and universities, according to IIE Open Doors data. In 2016, the total number of Chinese students abroad was 866,072, with an estimated direct economic impact of US$23.76 million.

While the tuition they paid became a lifeline for many universities in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, analysts have warned of the lack of diversity this brought to their campuses.

The Indian contingent showed slower, but steady growth in the US, increasing 90 percent from 103,260 in 2008-09 to 196,271 in 2017-18, according to IIE Open Doors data.

In the coming third wave of international student mobility, from the year 2016 and beyond, Indian students, as well as their Nigerian and Vietnamese counterparts, will likely drive the demand in growth.

But since this period is characterised by the new political order of anti-immigrant policies, the US and UK are likely to experience stagnant growth or even declining enrolment “due to increasingly restrictive immigration policies and uncertainty”.

“Political and economic turbulence in the Continental Europe trigger diverse policy questions related to tuition, housing, and stay rate,” wrote the report.

Meanwhile, Canada and Australia will likely have to “assess and reflect on the concerns of sustainability of growth and over-reliance on few countries”.

With post-study work opportunities more difficult and the overall increase in international education, the report warned of “serious threats” in keeping the growth momentum of international students.

“For the last couple of decades, international student mobility has been on a growth trajectory, [but the] bulk of the mobility is driven by students moving from lower-income countries towards higher-income countries in search of better prospects of life and career,” it noted.

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