So, in the midst of all the handwringing about the world’s major higher education student destinations all losing their damn minds (Trump, Brexit) and the implications this has for higher education internationalization, I think we’re in serious danger of missing a much bigger story going on in China.
Don’t get me wrong. Trump and Brexit are big stories, but on a global scale what they are going to do is shift mobility patterns a bit. The precise English language destination countries will change (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and possibly Ireland) but neither event actually changes the underlying demand for quality English-language education. And as long as demand holds up, internationalization across the globe as a whole will continue on.
But what happens if demand doesn’t hold up?
Now, we’re not at that stage yet. Among middle class parents in China, there is still a lot of interest in international education, even if everyone’s first choice remains Peking or Tsinghua. But the government, for a variety of reasons, has been making study overseas harder. Last year, they have cracked down on the creation of new 2+2 or 3+1 programs, largely to keep corruption at bay (there were several institutions where found to be embezzling money associated with those programs). In 2014, the government stopped approving new international programs at public high schools. Last month, a new law banned for-profit schools from using international curriculum until grade 10. The Minister of Education has called for a ban on “textbooks promoting Western values.” (see this Economist story for more). In short, the Chinese government is making it increasingly hard for Chinese parents to prepare their kids for study in foreign universities.
There is a balancing act going on here. On the one hand, the Communist regime wants to limit potential sources of ideological contamination. On the other hand, for many Chinese parents – perhaps especially Communist Party members, sending child abroad to study is still part of the “Chinese dream” (Xi’s daughter, for instance, studied at Harvard). Moving too far, too fast in this direction could set off a lot of urban discontent, which the regime would prefer to avoid if possible. But at the same time, the direction is unmistakable and we do not know how far the government intends to go. If western values in textbooks are undesirable, at what point do individuals educated in the west at institutions steeped in western values also become undesirable? If it becomes unpatriotic to hire foreign graduates – what then?
Now, I’m not even sure something of that magnitude would shut off the taps: lord knows there are a lot of people in China (again, including Communist Party members) who view having a child studying or working overseas as a pretty good insurance policy if things start to go sour in China. So you could still imagine a big Chinese market for international education-cum-immigration. But it might be more difficult to get those kids up to speed to get into a western university.
In that eventuality – and it’s one I definitely think all universities should be prepared for – attracting Chinese students is going require one to mean pursuing one of both of the following strategies. First: attracting students at an earlier age (perhaps 14 or 15) and putting them through local Canadian high schools. For wealthier families that means bringing mothers over as well; for everyone else, it would be interesting to for universities and school boards to jointly create some communal living arrangements (including student life personnel) to help Chinese students succeed. Second: for students who stay in China through to the gaokao (i.e. age 18) and then decided that they wish to try study abroad, there is going to be an increase need for pathways providers to help students get through what will amount to a bridge year. I suspect my colleagues at IDP and Navitas will be busy over the next few years.
In short: yes, Trump and Brexit represent big short-term opportunities for countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand because they divert demand. But there remains a long-term threat to internationalization in that the Chinese Communist Party may move to actively suppress demand. Keep your eye on the ball.