By Elizabeth Shepherd

21 November 2013 - 10:26

Research shows that the UK's culture is a strong pull factor for international students. Photo of Shakespeare statue in Bancroft Gardens, Stratford Upon Avon: ©VisitBritain / Britain on View
Research shows that the UK's culture is a strong pull factor for international students. ©

Photo: VisitBritain / Britain on View

There are several factors - beyond economic and demographic – affecting where students will choose study. The British Council's Elizabeth Shepherd asks what other 'Megatrends' there are and shares some important predictions.

The future is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty, but that hasn’t stopped forecasting mechanisms being popular across the international education sector. Often, the best way to analyse what’s going to happen in education is to look at economic and demographic data. How these two sets intersect forms the basis of our latest forecasting report, 'The future of the world’s mobile students to 2024', which provides a resource for higher education institutions' strategies.

However, mathematics can’t account for all possibilities. Human interactions are naturally unpredictable, so models based on data alone can be less than air-tight. The UK Higher Education International Unit’s Horizon Scanning report – with its rich and nuanced qualitative approach – pulls together data, analysis and expert opinion that is ‘further shaped by judgement’ to produce a ‘descriptive and analytical’ view of the future of higher education. Together, these two reports give a complementary and comprehensive account of both the numbers and expert human views.

Seven trends to consider when thinking about the future higher education

Our investigations show that an increase in the number of people who can afford an overseas education won’t be the only factor to affect future trends. The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies describes 'Megatrends' as great forces in societal development that will affect all areas of general human growth and progress in years to come. These long-term forces, or Megatrends, have great importance now, and will continue to be very important in the future. So what are they?

Since we began developing an international higher education forecasting model, we have been refining the list of core factors that will have a profound effect on the direction and growth of international higher education. Although it’s not an exhaustive or complete list, we have identified seven Megatrends. These are: demographic shifts, economic dynamics (both these Megatrends are featured in our forecasting study), changes to political conditions, growth in education provision, digital technology, global workforce demands and cultural impact.

Why culture is an important trend

The UK is a leading destination for international students, and will no doubt be affected by each of these long-term factors. But recently, the strong attraction and pull of UK culture has been even more evident. On 12 November, the US Institute of International Education released its latest Open Doors statistics. They revealed that the UK remained the leading destination for US students wishing to study abroad, with 12.2% of the total numbers at 34,660, and a growth of 4.5% from the previous year 2010/11. Despite the pull factors of emerging study destinations such as China, which is increasingly prosperous, has extensive language learning opportunities and offers large scholarships from both US and Chinese governments, US students continue to choose to study abroad in the UK.

The predictions

We predict that in 2024, the three countries that currently host the most international students – the US, the UK and Australia – will also be the fastest-growing markets in absolute terms with 179,000, 126,000 and 71,000 more students per year respectively - based upon available OECD data for student-hosting countries. The UK will remain a top-three destination for international students and hold onto the second largest market share of all international students. One contributing factor will be the significantly higher numbers of Indian and Chinese international students. These two countries will continue to be the fastest-growing outbound markets in 2024.

These predictions come from our forecasting model, which is based on the analysis of economic and demographic data. It’s a sound and robust method, leading to a conclusion we can present with confidence. However, these numbers must be accompanied by wider analysis of human behaviours across education institutions, governments, commercial industries and different cultures. We must also keep an eye on developing digital technologies, which allow for greater access to education opportunities. By combining these complementary factors, or Megatrends, we can begin to paint a clearer picture of what the future of higher education may look like.

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