Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Internationalization

International students, international research collaborations, etc.

March 03

Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – A Summary

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at some of the big changes going on in higher education globally.  To wit:

  • Higher education student numbers are continuing to rise around the world. This massification in many countries is being accompanied by stratification.  Getting a “distinctive” degree at a prestige university remains hard; going abroad remains a good way of getting it.  So increases in international student numbers are likely to continue, ceteris paribus.
  • Institutions in developing countries are unlikely to increase their global prestige level any time soon. Climbing the ladder costs money most developing-world governments don’t have, and in any case, the definition of prestige is changing in ways that make it difficult for universities in developing countries to follow.
  • Demographic forces have been a significant part of the rise in global student numbers; however, for the next decade or so, these trends will not be quite so favourable (though by 2030 they should be trending positive again).
  • Similarly, the end of the commodity super-cycle means a lot of countries that were getting rich off the rise of countries like China are no longer getting richer, in developed-country currency terms, anyway (and even India is not doing well by this measure). This means at least some potential international students are looking for cheaper alternatives.

So what does all this mean?  How do we sum up these trends?

First of all, we need to stop all this nonsense talk about international higher education being a “bubble”.  It’s not.  The fundamentals of demand – rising numbers of students wanting a prestige degree – are strong, as are developed universities’ market position as a purveyors of prestige degrees.

There are two things which could undermine this.  Demographic headwinds might mean that universities would need to do more to increase the percentage of students studying abroad in order to keep up the trends (rather than simply relying on the overall trends in increased participation).  Clearly, recent economic setbacks and currency slides in a number of countries make it more difficult to do this, at least if you’re an institution in one of the countries where the currency remains strong.  If, like Canada, you’re not, then this is a chance to steal a march on countries who either have strong currencies (the US) or who through some sort of policy lobotomy have decided they don’t want international students (the UK).  In any case, international student numbers have held up for the last few years in the face of these headwinds: the real test is what happens if economic growth starts to stall in China.

The other potential game-changer is one I alluded to a couple of times last year (see here and here); which is whether or not sending-country governments start to deliberately shut off the taps, deny students exit visas, and begin discriminating against graduates of foreign universities in the labour market.  A year ago, that might have sounded crazy; today, such moves are by no means unthinkable in Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey.  Others may follow.

In short, there is risk today in the world of international student mobility.  But it is political rather than economic.  All we can do is keep plugging away and hope that the global situation does not get worse.

In the meantime, the OTTSYD be taking a break for reading week, and will return to our regular schedule on March 13.

February 17

Four Mega-trends in International Higher Education – Economics

If there’s one word everyone can agree upon when talking about international education, it’s “expensive”. Moving across borders to go to school isn’t cheap and so it’s no surprise that international education really got big certain after large developing countries (mainly but not exclusively China and India) started getting rich in the early 2000s.

How rich did these countries get? Well, for a while, they got very rich indeed. Figure 1 shows per capita income for twelve significant student exporting countries, in current US dollars, from 1999 to 2011, with the year 1999 as a base. Why current dollars instead of PPP? Normally, PPP is the right measure, but this is different because the goods we’re looking at are themselves priced in foreign currencies. Not necessarily USD, true – but we could run the same experiment with euros and we’d see something largely similar, at least from about 2004 onwards. So as a result figure 1 is capturing both changes in base GDP and change in exchange rates.

Figure 1: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 1999-2011 (1999=100), in current USD

Figure 1: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 1999-2011 (1999=100), in current USD

And what we see in figure 1 is that every country saw per capita GDP rise in USD, at least to some degree. The growth was least in Mexico (70% over 12 years) and Egypt (108%). But in the so-called “BRIC” countries world’s two largest countries, the growth was substantially bigger – 251% in Brazil, 450% in India, 626% in China, and a whopping 1030% in Russia (and yes, that’s from an artificially low-base on Russia in 1999, ravaged by the painful transition to a market economy and the 1998 wave of bank failures, but if you want to know why Putin is popular in Russia, look no further). Without this massive increase in purchasing power, the recent flood of international students would not have been possible.

But….but but but. That graph ends in 2011, which was the last good year as far as most developing countries are concerned. After that, the gradual end to the commodity super-cycle changed the terms of trade substantially against most of these countries, and in some countries local disasters as well (e.g. shake-outs of financial excess after the good years, sanctions, etc) caused GDP growth to stall and exchange rates to fall. The result? Check out figure 2. Of the 10 countries in our sample, only three are unambiguously better off in USD terms now than they were in 2011: Egypt, Vietnam, and (praise Jesus) China. Everybody else is worse off or (in Nigeria’s case) will be once the 2016 data come in.

Figure 2: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 2011-2015 (2011=100), in current USD

Figure 2: Per Capita GDP, Selected Student Exporting Countries, 2011-2015 (2011=100), in current USD

Now, it’s important not to over-interpret this chart. We know that many of these countries have been able to maintain. Yes, reduced affordability makes it harder for student to study abroad – but we also know that global mobility has continued to increase even as many countries have it the rough economically (caveat: a lot of that is because of continued economic resilience in China which has yet to hit the rough). Part of the reason is that if a student wants to study abroad and can’t make it to the US, he or she won’t necessarily give up on the idea of going to a foreign university or college: they might just try to find a cheaper alternative. That benefits places which have been pummelled by the USD in the last few years – places like Canada, Australia and even Russia.

In short: economics matters in international higher education, and economic headwinds in much of the world are making studying abroad a more challenging prospect than they did five years ago. But big swings in exchange rates can open up opportunities for new providers.

February 06


Here’s a new one: the Canadian Federation of Students has decided, apparently, that charging international students higher tuition fees is “xenophobic”.  No, really, they have.  This is possibly the dumbest idea in Canadian higher education since the one about OSAP “profiting” from students.   But as we’ve seen all too often in the past year or two, stupidity is no barrier to popularity where political ideas are concerned.  So: let’s get down to debunking this.

The point that CFS – and maybe others, you never know who’s prepared to follow them down these policy ratholes – is presumably trying to highlight is that Canadian universities charge differential fees – one set for domestic students and another, higher, one for students from abroad.  Their argument is that this differential is unfair to international students and that fees should be lowered so as to equal those of domestic students.

It’s not indefensible to suggest that domestic and international tuition fees should be identical.  Lots of countries do it:  Norway, Germany and Portugal to name but three and if I’m not mistaken, both Newfoundland and Manitoba have had such policies within living memory as well.  But the idea that citizens and non-citizens pay different amounts for a publicly-funded service is not a radical, let alone a racist, one.  A non-citizen of Toronto wishing to borrow from the Toronto Libraries is required to pay a fee for a library card, while a citizen does not.  This is not xenophobic: it is a way of ensuring that services go in priority to people who pay taxes in that jurisdiction.  If an American comes to Canada and gets sick, they are expected to pay for their treatment if they visit a doctor or admitted to hospital.  This is not xenophobic either: the price is the same to all, it’s just that we have all pre-paid into a domestic health insurance fund but foreigners have not.

It’s the same in higher education.  American public universities all charge one rate to students from in-state and another to those out-of-state.  Not xenophobic: just prioritizing local taxpayers.  In Ontario, universities are not allowed to use their tuition set-aside dollars – collected from all domestic tuition fees – to provide funding to out-of-province students.  Irritating?  Yes.  Xenophobic?  No.

International students are in the same position.  Their parents have not paid into the system.  Only a minority of them will stay here in Canada to pay into it themselves.  So why on earth should they pay a similar amount to domestic students?  And it’s not as if there’s massive profiteering going on: as I showed back here, in most of the country international fees are set below the average cost of attendance.  So international students are in fact being subsidized; just not very much.

In any event, even if we were charging international students over the going rate, that wouldn’t be evidence of xenophobia.  Perhaps it has escaped CFS’ notice, but there is not a single university in the country which is turning away undergraduate students.  According to every dictionary I’ve been able to lay my hands on, xenophobia means irrational fear and hatred of foreigners; yet now CFS has discovered some odd variant in which the xenophobes are falling over each other to attract as many foreigners as possible.

My guess is that most people at CFS can distinguish between “xenophobia” and “differential fees”.  What’s happened, though, is that part of the brain trust at head office simply decided to use an emotive word to try to stigmatize a policy with which their organization disagrees.  That kind of approach sometimes works in politics: just think of the success Sarah Palin had when she invented the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counselling under American federal health care legislation.

But effectiveness is not the be-all and end-all of politics.  Sarah Palin is a cancerous wart on democracy.  You’d kind of hope our own student groups would try to avoid imitating her.

January 12

Post-Brexit Options

One highly amusing by-product of the frantic Canada-EU-Walloon trade negotiation finale last fall was watching the UK government suddenly realize that negotiating agreements with a 27-country trade bloc is actually really difficult and that this Brexit thing is almost certainly not going to end well.  Which of course has some reasonably significant implications for UK universities.  But how exposed are UK universities to Brexit?

Arguably, the bigger post-Brexit implications have to do with staff who may be denied residency, future staff who won’t be allowed entry and broken research partnerships with EU-funded colleagues on the continent.  But I’m going to limit my analysis here to the student intake because it’s a little easier to quantify.

Let’s at what’s at stake for the UK in terms of international student numbers.

UK International Student Numbers by Country of Origin


Source: UK Council for International Student Affairs. EU shown in red, non-EU in blue

Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), only about 30% of the UK’s international student body comes from the EU, with Germany and France the largest source countries.  That’s about 125,000 students, paying roughly £9,000 per year, so that’s a £1.1B hit to the sector.  That sounds big (and of course it’s nothing to be sneezed at), but in a sector worth around £33B, it’s not *that* crucial.

Now, how much of this money would institutions actually give up if Brexit goes through?  That’s still a big unknown, because it depends on how many foreigners will be allowed to get visas post-2019 and whether or not students will be considered within the cap.  For the past few years – since now-PM Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010 in fact – the Home Office has been including non-EU students in the cap, and as a result international student numbers have been falling for quite a while now and are now about a third lower than they were before the Cameron government took office.  A similar result with EU students would see a loss of about £400 million to the sector.

But, say some, that’s without accounting for any loss from higher tuition fees.  Pre-Brexit, EU students pay what domestic students pay.  Post-Brexit, they will in theory pay a higher “international” fee.  These fees depend on the type of course undertaken: they average £13,394 for lecture-based programs, £15,034 for laboratory-based programs and £24,169 for clinical disciplines (see here for more details).  Some feel that a shift to these higher fees may deter even more students.  Frankly, this is a weak argument: if institutions really want foreign students, they can lower the fees (the bigger threat is probably these students’ loss of access to UK student loans, without which many might find even the current fees a struggle to bear).  And anyways, these higher fees mean that if UK universities only lost 1/3 of their EU students, they’d actually be up on the deal thanks to higher tuition rates.

Anyways, as you can tell, I’m not convinced that the loss of EU students is in fact a major challenge to the UK higher ed sector, though obviously it might be to specific universities who are overweight with this group.  It certainly makes you wonder why some institutions are musing about creating “overseas” campuses inside the EU (see here, here).    The answer, primarily, is that these proposed campuses are about trying to get around research collaboration barriers more than they are about gaining student numbers through branch campuses. I can’t actually imagine many EU countries (or the EU itself) would be daft enough to leave such loopholes open, but you never know.  But in any event, branch campuses are high-cost, high-risk and for students tend to be very much second-choice to home institutions.  If there are a lot of frustrated, wannabe-English students in Europe as a result of Brexit, they’re probably likelier to head to Ireland or North America as they are to go to University of East Anglia – Lens, or University of Chichester-Malmo.

In short, the student-side of Brexit should be a lot less concerning than the staff side of Brexit.

December 14

More on International Fees in Canadian Universities

Due to a few unexpected issues yesterday, we had to postpone the One Thought. With no further ado, here it is:

The day before yesterday we looked at what universities in different parts of the country are charging in terms of international tuition fees.  Here’s a quick graph to refresh your memory:

Figure 1: International Undergraduate Tuition Fees, by Province, Canada, 2016-17


Figure 2 shows the same data but with a different Y axis.  Instead of showing the figure in dollars, let’s show the figure as a percentage of national average total institutional expenditures per FTE students (minus sponsored research), which in 2014-15 was $24,732.

Figure 2: Provincial Average Tuition as a percentage of National Average Institutional Expenditures per FTE student


What figure 2 shows is that on average international students are covering more or less (95%) covering the cost of their education through tuition, but that is mostly because of policies in Ontario, where the figure is 120% of cost.  In the other three “big provinces” the fees are about 85% of cost, whereas elsewhere the figure is lower; as low as 38% in Newfoundland’s case.

Now, let’s think about these figures in terms of how Canada positions itself as an education market.  Are we a bargain player, or a luxury player?  This isn’t quite a straightforward question to answer because not everyone reports data in the same way.  But, basically, here’s the basic story: in the US according to the College Board’s Trends in College Prices 2016, 4-year private non-profits charge US$33,480 (for both national and international students); out-of-state charges at public 4-year universities are US$24,930.  In the UK, international fees vary substantially based on whether the course is a lecture course, a laboratory course or a clinical course; the Times Higher 2016 survey of fees, the average for these three types of courses are, respectively, £13,442, £15,638 and £20,956.  In New Zealand, the most recent data available comes from the Education Counts website; according to this, in 2015, the average tuition at universities was NZ$24,150.  So far as I can tell there is no “official” average for fees in Australia (not even for domestic students), but this 2014 survey shows that the average in “indicative fee” for international students is A$23,521.  Given that a couple of years have passed and fees certainly aren’t going down, we can probably round that up to an even $25,000.

Now, let’s translate all those figures into a common currency.  And let’s do it the way an international student likely would; namely, in $USD, using current exchange rates.  Normally, I do these kinds of comparisons in $PPP but since international students have to convert money to buy in each currency, exchange rates make more sense.  So, at current rates of exchange, here is what the competitive picture in each jurisdiction looks like:

Figure 3: Average International Student Tuition Fees, Selected Jurisdictions, in $USD


In brief, prices for international students in the US are substantially higher than they are elsewhere in the Anglophone world: US privates are charging 85% more than Canadian universities, and the publics are charging about 35% more.   National averages for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and UK (lecture courses) are all very tightly bunched together at between $17-18,000 US.  Only Ontario seems to be trying to play around the same price point as US publics.

One question that arises from this chart is: why exactly aren’t universities in the rest of Canada charging more?  What do Manitoba and Nova Scotia, let alone Newfoundland, gain by having such low fees?  Well, part of the story has to do with the way provincial subsidies work in these provinces.  In both Manitoba and Newfoundland, institutions get block grants and so all money from international students is “additional” to institutional budgets (I have a feeling this is true in Nova Scotia as well but wasn’t able to confirm before publication).  They can set them low because they simply do not need to get income equivalent to cost of education, the way Ontario universities do.  But while that might make sense from an institutional point of view, it’s not as clear why that makes sense from a provincial one: what’s in it for provincial governments to provide this level of subsidy for international students?

One possible argument is that these provinces need to price low in order to attract students (Winnipeg winters are perhaps a tough sell in South East Asia); and since education is a funnel for immigration, maybe the way to think about this money is as a “loss leader” for future population growth.  But then again, we already know that Atlantic Canada has a harder time hanging on to students after graduation than the rest of the country , so maybe this isn’t such a winning idea after all.n

I’d argue in fact that low-pricing is self-defeating in international higher education.  A degree from a (reasonably) prestigious institution is in fact a Veblen good: higher prices drive greater demand because they give an aura of exclusivity.  It’s the one type of good where demand curves don’t slope downwards and institutions would be kind of crazy not to take advantage of that.  There’s a good case to be made that institutions in the Atlantic and prairie provinces could increase international student tuition.


December 06

Alarm Bells in China

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.


November 24

Who’s More International?

We sometimes think about international higher education as being “a market”. This is not quite true: it’s actually several markets.

Back in the day, international education was mostly about graduate students; specifically, at the doctoral level. Students did their “basic” education at home and then went abroad to get research experience or simply emigrate and become part of the host country’s scientific structure. Nobody sought these students for their money; to the contrary these students were usually getting paid in some way by their host institution. They were not cash cows they did (and still do) contribute significantly to their institutions in other ways, primarily as laboratory workhorses.

In this market, the United States was long the champion since its institutions were the world’s best and could attract top students from all over the world. In absolute terms, it is still the largest importer of doctoral students. But in percentage terms, many other countries have surpassed it. Most of them, like Switzerland, are pretty small and small absolute numbers of international students nevertheless make up a huge proportion of the student body (in this case, 55%). The UK and France, however, are both relatively large markets, and despite their size they now lead the US in terms of percentage of doctoral students who are international (42 and 40% vs 35%). Canada, at 27%, is at right about the OECD average.

Figure 1: International Students at Doctoral Level as Percentage of Total

Let’s turn now to Master’s students, who most definitely *are* cash-cows. Master’s programs are short degrees, mainly acquired for professional purposes and thus people are prepared to pay a premium for good ones. The biggest market here are for fields like business, engineering and some social sciences. Education could be a very big market for international Master’s but tends not to be  because few countries (or institutions, for that matter) seem to have worked out the secret for international programs in what is, after all a highly regulated profession. In any case, this market segment is where Australia and the UK absolutely dominate, with 40 and 37% of their students being international. Again, Canada is a little bit better than the OECD average (14% vs. 12%).

Figure 2: International Students at Master’s Level as Percentage of Total

Figure 3 turns to the market which is largest in absolute terms: undergraduate students. Percentages here tend to be smaller because domestic undergraduate numbers are so large, but we’re still talking about international student numbers in the millions here. The leader here is – no, that’s not a misprint – Austria at 19% (roughly half of them come from Germany – for a brief explainer see here). Other countries at the top will look familiar (Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia) and Canada doesn’t look to bad, at 8% (which strikes me as a little low) compared to an OECD average of 5%. What’s most interesting to me is the US number: just 3%. That’s a country which – in better days anyway – has an enormous amount of room to grow its international enrollment and if it hadn’t just committed an act of immense self-harm would have be a formidable competitor for Canada for years to come.

Figure 3: International Students at Bachelor’s Level as Percentage of Total


Finally, let’s look at sub-baccalaureate credentials, or as OECD calls them, “short-cycle” programs. These are always a little bit complicated to compare because countries’ non-university higher education institutions and credentials are so different. Many countries (e.g. Germany) do not even have short-cycle higher education (they have non-university institutions, but they still give out Bachelor’s degrees). In Canada, obviously, the term refers to diplomas and certificates given out by community colleges. And Canada does reasonably well here: 9% of students are international, compared to 5% across OECD as a whole. But look at New Zealand: 24% of their college-equivalent enrollments are made up of international. Some of those will be going to their Institutes of Technology (which in general are really quite excellent), but some of this will also be students from various Polynesian nations coming to attend one of the Maori Wānanga.
Figure 4: International Students in Short-Cycle Programs as Percentage of Total


Now if you look across all these categories, two countries stand out as doing really well without being either of the “usual suspects” like Australia or the UK. One is Switzerland, which is quite understandable. It’s a small nation with a few really highly-ranked universities (especially ETH Zurich), is bordered by three of the biggest countries in the EU (Germany, France, Italy), and it provides higher education in each of their national languages. The more surprising one is New Zealand, which is small, has good higher education but no world-leading institutions, and is located in the middle of nowhere (or, at least, 5000 miles from the nearest country which is a net exporter of students). Yet they seem to be able to attract very significant (for them, anyway) numbers of international students in all the main higher education niches. That’s impressive. Canadians have traditionally focused on what countries like Australia and the UK are doing in international higher education because of their past track record. But on present evidence, it’s the Kiwis we should all be watching, and in particular their very savvy export promotion agency Education New Zealand.

Wellington, anyone?

November 04

Offshore Medical Schools

One of the most interesting (to me, anyways) facets of international higher education is the phenomenon of international medical schools.

In North America, we associate these exclusively with medical schools in the Caribbean.  These mainly for-profit institutions have little research capacity and mainly teach students who are unable to get into mainstream domestic institution (they were most famously satirized in Doonesbury, when the famously dissolute Duke went to Port-au-Prince to open the Baby Doc School of Offshore Medicine in Port-au-Prince).  There’s St. George’s University in Grenada (whose residents famously needed rescuing by Marines in 1983), the Medical University of the Americas in Nevis, Caribbean Medical University in Curacao.  The one which advertises most aggressively in Canada, is Ross University, located in Dominica, which is owned by DeVry.

Most people get sniffy when they hear about this.  Typical American neo-liberal set-up, they say.  But the thing is this kind of offshore arrangement is increasingly common around the world.  For instance, Germans have a whole range of offshore medical school options.  It’s just that they are located in Hungary rather than the Caribbean.  Seeing the excess demand for medical school places in Germany, a clutch of Hungarian universities – public universities, mind – began offering medical programs in German and English to some success.

(On the whole, of course, German students prefer doing their studies in a German-speaking country.  For quite some years their favorite tactic was to enroll at the University of Vienna, which like all universities in Austria is open access, and places were awarded in a first-come first-serve rather than a competitive basis.  This would result in line-up outside the registrar’s office starting a week to ten days before registration day.  Many of the locals found this quite irritating, as they not unreasonably thought the University should mostly be educating Austrians rather than Germans, and they tried to close access to medicine to non-nationals. However, because of EU rules on freedom of movement and national treatment, the European Commission told the Austrians that first-come-first-serve for Austrians meant first-come-first-serve for all EU nationals.  Last I heard this has gone to the European Court.  Meanwhile, Hungarian schools are cashing in.)

There are other examples of this.  In Malaysia, for instance, public medical schools tend to cater mainly to ethnic Malays.  The Chinese community has organized itself in such a way as to create local alternatives (e.g. Taylor’s University School of Medicine), but the Tamil community has tended to go the offshore route, heading in the thousands towards medical schools in Ukraine and Western Russia (e.g. Kursk State Medical University).

You can deny people admission to expensive higher education programs.  But helping students denied entry to a program is the very definition of a market opportunity.  Some institution, somewhere, is going to try to meet that need.  It just isn’t always going to be in the paces you think.  But in medicine at least, it creates some of the world’s more unlikely international student flows.

September 14

The Canadian Way of Study Abroad

A few years ago, I think around the time that HESA Towers ran a conference on internationalization, I realized there was something weird about the way Canadian higher education institutions talked about study abroad.  They talked about it as helping students “bridge the gap between theory and practice”, “increasing engagement”, and “hands-on learning”.

That’s odd, I thought.  That sounds like experiential learning, not study abroad.  Which is when it hit me: in Canada, unlike virtually everywhere else in the world, study abroad to a large degree is experiential learning.

In Europe, when they say study abroad, they mostly mean study at a foreign institution in the same field through the Erasmus program.  In the US, they may mean this, or they may means studying in facilities owned by their home universities but located in different countries.  For instance, Wake Forest owns a campus in Venice, Webster University has a campus in Leiden, University of Dallas has one in Rome (have a browse through this list). Basically, if your students are paying megabucks to be at a US campus, the ideas can’t just give them exchange semesters at some foreign public school because who knows about the quality, the safety, etc.

But look at how Canadian institutions showcase their study abroad: McGill talks up its science station in Barbados.  University of Alberta showcases its international internships.  University of Saskatchewan has a fabulous little Nursing programs which ties together practicums in East Saskatoon and Mozambique.  The stuff we like to talk about doesn’t seem to actually involve study in the sense of being in a classroom, per se.  That’s not to say our universities don’t have typical study-abroad programs: we’ve got thousands of those.  They’re just not where the sizzle is.  It’s a distinctly Canadian take on the subject.

This brings me to a point about measuring the benefits of study abroad.  Let’s take it for granted that being abroad  for a while makes students more independent, outward-looking, able to problem-solve, etc.  What is it, exactly, about being abroad that actually makes you that way?  Is it sitting in classes in a foreign country?  Is it meeting foreign people in a foreign country?  Is it meeting people from your own culture in a foreign country (too often the main outcome of study abroad programs)?  What about if you actually get to work in a foreign country? And – crucially for the design of some programs – how long does it take for the benefits to kick in?  A week?  A month?  A year?  When do diminishing returns set in?

Despite study-abroad being a multi-billion dollar niche within higher education, we actually don’t know the answer to many of these questions.  There isn’t a lot of work done which picks apart the various elements of “study abroad” to look at relative impact.  There is some evidence from Elspeth Jones in the UK that many of the benefits actually kick in after as little as 2-4 weeks, which suggests there may be cheaper ways of achieving all these purported benefits.

Of course, one of the reasons we have no answers to this is that it’s pretty hard to unpack the “treatment” involved in study abroad.  You can’t, for instance, randomly assign people to a program that just sits in class, or force people to make friends among locals rather than among the study-abroad group.  But, for instance, it would be possible to look at impacts (using some of the techniques we talked about yesterday) based on length of study abroad period.  It would be possible to compare results of programs that have students mostly sit in class to ones where they do internships.  It would be possible to examine internships based on whether or not they actually made friends among local students or not, a question not asked enough in study evaluation work.  It would also be possible to examine this based on destination country: are the benefits higher or lower depending on proficiency in the destination country’s language?

These questions aren’t easily answerable at the level of an individual institution – the sample size on these would simply be too small.  But one could easily imagine a consortium of institutions agreeing to a common impact assessment strategy, each collecting and sharing data about students and also collectively collecting data on non-mobile students for comparative purposes (again, see yesterday’s blog), perhaps through the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium.  It would make a heck of a project.

If anyone’s interested in starting a consortium on this, let me know.  Not only would it be fun, but it might help us actually design study abroad experiences in a more thoughtful, conscious and impactful way.  And we’d find out if the “Canadian Way” is more effective than more traditional approaches.

Worth a try, I think.

September 13

Measuring the Effects of Study Abroad

In the higher education advocacy business, an unhappily large proportion of the research used is of the correlation = causation type.  For instance, many claim that higher education has lots of social benefits like lower crime rates and higher rates of community volunteering on the grounds that outcomes of graduates are better than outcomes of non-graduates in these areas.  But this is shaky.  There are very few studies which look at this carefully enough to eliminate selection bias – that is, that the people who go to higher education were less disposed to crime/more disposed to volunteering to begin with.  The independent “treatment” effect of higher education is much more difficult to discern.

This applies in spades to studying the question of the effects of study abroad.  For instance, one widely quoted study  of the Erasmus program showed that five years after graduation, unemployment rates for graduates who had been in a study-abroad program were 23% lower than for those who did not.  But this is suspect.  First of all “23% lower” actually isn’t all that much for a population where unemployment is about 5% (it means one group has unemployment of 4% and the other 5%, more or less).  Second of all, there is a selection bias here.  The study-abroad and non-study abroad populations are not perfectly identical populations who differ only in that they have been given different “treatments”: they are different populations, one of which has enough drive and courage to pick up sticks to move to another country and (often) study in another language.  It’s quite possible they would have had better employment outcomes anyways.  You can try to limit bias by selecting a control group that is similar to the study abroad population by selecting a group that mimics them in terms of field of study, GPA, etc, but it’s not perfect and very few studies do so anyway (a very honourable mention here to the GLOSSARI project from Georgia headed by Don Rubin)

(Before we go any further: no, I don’t think employability skills are the only reason to encourage study abroad.  I do however think that if universities and colleges are going to frame their claim for more study abroad in economic terms – either by suggesting students will be more employable or making more general claims of increasing economic competitiveness – then it is incumbent on them to actually demonstrate some impact.  Claiming money on an economic imperative and them turning around and saying “on that doesn’t matter because well-rounded citizen” doesn’t really wash.

There are other ways of trying to prove this point about employability, of course.  One is to ask employers if they think study abroad matters.  They’ll usually say yes, but it’s a leap of faith to go from that to saying that study abroad actually is much a help in actually landing a job.  Some studies have asked students themselves if they think their study abroad experience was helpful in getting a job.  The answer is usually yes, but it’s hard to interpret what that means, exactly.

Since it’s difficult to work out directly how well internationalization is helping students get jobs, some people try to look at whether or not students get the skills that employers want (self-discipline, creativity, working in teams, etc).  The problem with this approach of course, is that the only real way to do this is through self-assessment which not everybody accepts as a way to go (but in the absence of actual testing of specific skills, there aren’t a whole lot of other options).  Alternatively, if you use a pre-post evaluation mechanism, you can at least check on the difference in self-assessment of skills over time, which might then be attributed to time spent in study abroad.  If that’s still not enough to convince you (if, for instance, you suspect that all students self-assessments would go up over the space of a few months, because all students are to some degree improving skills all the time), try a pre-post method with a control group, too: if both groups’ self-assessments go up, you can still measure the difference in the rate at which the self-reported skills increase across the two groups.  If they go up more for study-abroad students than for stay-at-homes, then the difference in the rates of growth can, cautiously, be attributed to the study abroad period.

Basically: measuring impacts takes time, and is complicated.  And despite lots of people in Canada avowing how important outbound mobility is, we never seem to take them time, care and expense to do the measurement.  Easier, I suppose, to rely on correlations and hope no one notices.

It’s a shame really because I think there are some interesting and specifically Canadian stories to tell about study abroad.  More on that tomorrow.

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