Questioning the international education option

University studies, as we know, have become a globalised activity. Over the past decade or two there has been an explosion in student migration, and the more developed university systems (and it would have to be said, the English language ones in particular) have hosted increasingly large numbers from countries where higher education did not have the capacity to meet all local demand, or who wanted to enjoy a more international student experience.

Perhaps the country that pursued international markets with the greatest energy and professionalism was Australia.  Australian universities became highly active and skilled recruiters, in Asian countries in particular, and they also developed the practice of establishing branch campuses in overseas locations. At one point in the late 1990s I was watching with awe as Monash University established itself in Malaysia, South Africa and even London, creating a dynamic multinational brand. During this period, higher education became one of Australia’s foremost export products and a major contributor to resources and employment for the country.

But now all that is coming under stress. Currently Australia has around 214,000 overseas students studying in its universities (more than the entire Irish university student population), but researchers from Curtin University predict that this will fall to 148,000 over the coming five years, with a loss of AUS$ 7 billion to the economy. Already Monash University may be making 300 staff redundant as a result of falling overseas student numbers. The reasons for this are many, including operational matters such as visa rules, and competition from other countries. But I suspect that more of it is to do with changing attitudes in some of the countries from which students are recruited, who are now less willing to be one-way importers of another country’s educational products.

Taking all this closer to home, what should we be concluding? First, I believe that the volume trade in international students is coming to an end. The idea that students from, say, Asia might come and help some European or other western country’s balance of payments, or more than that, help subsidise domestic students is no longer viable (just as some politicians in Ireland are, ironically, warming to that theme). That was never really a global business anyway, it was just a case of exploiting market opportunities.

This does not mean that student migration will no longer happen; rather it means that it will happen as part of a broader package of collaborative and strategic partnerships, which will involve mutually helpful arrangements between countries and institutions, and which will be based not just on teaching some migrants who are all coming one way, but rather on exchanges and research partnerships. It requires a totally different mindset. Reaching out overseas will still be a higher education imperative, but not based solely or mainly on generating an export business. It is time for international education to become an educational, rather than mainly an economic, option.

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4 Comments on “Questioning the international education option”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    I remember reading of racist attacks suffered by Indian students in Australia a while ago, which had a negative impact on recruitment, unfortunately it is now often the case that foreigh students are ‘tolerated’ for the income they bring in but they do not feel ‘welcome’ in Europe and other Western countries. The VISA restrictions are the symptom of a serious malaise regarding the difficulty we have in re-negotiating our European/Western identities in a 21st century multicultural context, and the economic crisis does not help!

  2. I think what’s going on here that the market is becoming crowded with weakly differentiated suppliers. Lots of Universities chasing the same international students with the same kinds of offerings, and now competing also with developing local Universities. I suspect the raw numbers of students are going up, but early market entrants like Australia are feeling the pinch of competition.

    This is no bad thing, and will force Universities competing for International students to find their niche and fight for it. You can’t enter a commercial space like international education and not expect it to be hardball.

    Incidentally, am just read Ben Wildavskys book ‘The Great Brain Race’ on globalization of education. Promising, will post a review when done.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Being currently involved in negotiating (in a small way) an international exchange programme with a US university, I am excited at the educational and social possibilities that may be opened up for both sides – for students and faculty. If the process turns into a sustainable source of income in the future, great, but I think that the opportunity for cross-cultural communication and the development of genuine collaboration between two providers is more satisfying and, probably, in the long run more valuable to the Irish economy.

  4. wendymr Says:

    Canada is another country that recruits international students in huge numbers – the last official figures I can find are for 2008, and 178,000 international students were in programmes of study in Canada in that year (from a government press release announcing a report on the economic impact of international students). I believe, from what individual colleges and universities are saying, that the number is still increasing. Large numbers of these students are from China, with numbers on the increase from other far Eastern countries and the Middle East.

    If I were to hazard a guess as to why Canada is so popular a destination, I’d say it has to do with work permits and immigration: any international student in a college or university programme can apply for and get an open work permit, as can any accompanying spouse/partner. Since recent changes, these students can even receive free job-search and placement help, funded by government. Post-graduation, with one year’s Canadian work experience in a professional or skilled area, these graduates can apply for permanent residence in Canada – the path to citizenship. In Ontario, there is also a new programme which allows graduates of Masters programs in Ontario universities to apply for permanent residence without the need for Canadian work experience. So for those who see international education as a route to migration, Canada may well offer a better option than some of the other choices.

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