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.