Carmen Neghina

Shifting trends in international higher education and student mobility


The growth in student mobility requires higher education institutions, as well as governments to adapt their recruitment strategy in order to attract international students and stay competitive in the market. Recently, the British Council published a trend report, discussing the changes in higher education. We summarised three striking trends that will accompany the higher education industry into the future.

Shifting demographics in higher education

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia are the countries that offer the most English-taught programmes (ETPs). However, due to the rapid growth in student mobility, educational institutions around the world try to catch up to compete with these countries. The demand for higher education will increase in Asia in particular, mostly due to the powerful and growing economy of China and India (source: Asia Rising report by Studyportals). Asia will see the highest growth of tertiary students in the coming years – preparing to shift focus from sending students to study abroad to also welcoming them on their own campuses. With this huge transformation, student recruitment efforts need to be directed at prospective students coming from and going to study in Asian countries. While this huge shift is predicted to happen in the near future, the Asian youth population is expected to decline dramatically over the next decades, implying that the demand for education in these countries will decrease. However, another continent is expected to pioneer the demand for higher education: Africa. With a huge increase in population, Africa ranks fifth out of the top 10 most quickly growing 18 to 22-year-old populations to 2025 (source: British Council). These new developments require higher education institutions to start recognising the shift in student mobility and adapting their marketing activities to target African students to study abroad.

National internationalisation strategy

The growing demand for higher education grabs the attention of governments to implement a national internationalisation strategy and make international student recruitment a priority on a national level. By implementing policies that help attract a higher number of international students, these strategies also boost the national economy: new human capital helps to create expertise and leverage domestic economic growth. The policies are designed in a way to represent the national brand that is attracting international students by offering, for example, financial aid, international student housing, less strict visa-policies or cooperation with companies. Governments set up international student recruitment targets mainly to stimulate international cooperation and diversity on domestic campuses but also to remain internationally competitive as the number of mobile students tends to increase at full speed.

The following countries revealed their international student recruitment targets:

English as a medium of instruction (EMI)

With the growth in student mobility and the governments’ policies to attract more international students, EMI gains in importance for higher education institutions. Not only is English the second-most prevalent language spoken (following Mandarin), it is also the official research language at universities and institutions worldwide. Thus, it comes as no surprise that programmes with EMI are getting more popular worldwide. While English-taught programmes are predominantly offered in English-speaking countries, Central and Western Europe, as well as Asia Pacific, they follow tight on providing their students with English-taught study options. This trend is reflected in the internationalisation of companies that seed their interests in a global context. Thus, more and more companies are shifting their working language to English and placing the focus on an international audience – both employees and clients. That’s why having above average English skills as a university graduate can give students advantages in the job market.

For higher education institutions, the future holds changes in trends that are waiting to be mastered. Following up on these trends forces institutions to act accordingly to strengthen their position in the increasingly competitive landscape of international student recruitment. It requires taking the shifting trends of international higher education into account, one of these being to reach and target the right future students across borders with the right study programmes.

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