By Kevin van Cauter

15 October 2015 - 12:58

We can’t afford to be arrogant or complacent.
'We can’t afford to be arrogant or complacent.' Photo ©

Alan Newman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What are the global trends in student mobility, and can the UK maintain and grow its position as a major host country for international students? The British Council’s Kevin Van Cauter takes a look.

British Council research, including The shape of things to come and the future of the world’s mobile students, suggests that the long-term outlook for the UK as host country for international students remains positive, but there are worrying short-term trends.

Student mobility: international context and trends

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the total number of globally mobile students is around 4.5 million. This is based on an OECD figure published in 2014, reflecting the picture in 2012. The number is predicted to grow to between six and eight million by 2020.

Historically, international mobility grows at the same pace as domestic higher education enrolments, so for every 100 students enrolling in higher education globally, two people cross an international border for their higher education programme.

Forecasting bilateral mobility trends is complex, and these trends can be influenced by many factors, including trade links, cultural and languages ties, exchange rates, and the national policies of both sending and host countries.

Two major factors, though, are economic growth (as economies grow, enrolment in higher education grows); and demographic shifts (namely, countries with growing, youthful populations). Looking at these factors can help identify those countries where demand for higher education (and thus international higher education) is likely to grow.

The demographic trends are clear: by 2024, four countries (India, China, Indonesia and the US) will account for 50 per cent of 18- to 22-year-olds globally; this is despite the fact that China’s 18- to 22-year-old population is forecast to fall to 40 million by 2024.

The highest growth in higher education enrolments is predicted to come from traditional sending countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, but also in emerging economies such as Ethiopia, Pakistan and Mexico. By 2024, these countries, and others, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will make up over 50 per cent of all globally outbound students.

The UK's competitiveness is not to be taken for granted

The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data for 2013/14 indicates a record number of 493,570 international students who studied in UK higher education institutions. Non-EU domiciled students increased by four per cent and newly enrolling international students increased five per cent on 2012/13.

Of all students in UK higher education, 21 per cent are international. But we can’t afford to be arrogant or complacent. In an as-yet-unpublished British Council survey of students considering studying in the UK, 98 per cent of those who stated the UK as first-choice destination also stated a second choice.

Looking at the competitive global context, it is a different picture. The UK has lost market share to rival English-speaking destination countries in each of the last three years. However, it is now at a similar level to 2010 and has returned to its long-term position of attracting one third of this market.

In a growing global market, the link between transnational education and recruitment is undoubtedly a UK strength. It represents a fundamental shift in the way UK qualifications are delivered and accessed by international students. New routes offer students a genuine choice of pathways and providers. According to a report published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in November 2014, more than one third of international first-degree students are recruited through transnational courses delivered overseas, and a high proportion of these students go on to postgraduate study in the UK, many of them spending just two years in the UK, making it a cost-effective route.

It can be argued that these routes to UK higher education underpin the UK’s competitive position and mitigate some of the downward trends. Transnational pathways also contribute significantly to the growth in international postgraduate-taught programmes in the UK. Many Indian students, for example, are undertaking programmes delivered at branch campuses of UK institutions in the Middle East.

So while the UK’s competitive position is not to be taken for granted, and there are significant challenges ahead, the long-term trends indicate significant opportunities. What is needed is renewed commitment across government, agencies and institutions to a concerted approach to attracting international students to UK education, however and wherever delivered.

Kevin van Cauter spoke about international student recruitment at the Westminster Higher Education Forum yesterday, 14 October 2015.

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