International student mobility in the first decade of the 21st century has been transformed by two major external events, 9/11 and the recession of 2008. Today, the rationale for international student recruitment has shifted from attracting talent to making the student body more diverse, to seeking an additional source of revenue.
Recruitment practices have been evolving and responding to this new competitive landscape, as can be seen in the increasing number of commercial entities offering recruitment services ranging from agents to websites.
How is this transformation going to shape the future of student mobility?
The US was an undisputed leader in global higher education until 9/11, which forced it to tighten visa requirements for students. Australia and the UK cashed in on this opportunity and were successful in absorbing most of the growth in international students.
International student enrollment in higher education in Australia and the UK grew by 81% and 47% respectively between 2002 and 2009, as compared to 18% in the US.
The US hit its lowest point in 2005-06 when international student enrollment declined by 21,500 compared to 2002-03 figures.
In contrast, enrollment increased by 85,000 for Australia and the UK. A lot of this growth was attributed to commission-based recruitment models.
Then the recession of 2008 changed things. It exposed two important issues for international student enrollment in the two countries – the high proportion of international students compared to home students and issues of quality raised by the use of aggressive recruitment practices.
In 2009, international students represented 21.5% and 15.3% of higher education enrollment in Australia and the UK, compared to less than 4% in the US, according to the OECD. This clearly shows that Australia and the UK were over-dependent on international students.
This situation of overdependence was the result of aggressive recruitment practices using agents who paid little attention to quality assurance. A Reuters article in 2009 noted that Australia’s international student sector “could be more at risk from within, with education agents and colleges ripping off students, than from recent attacks on Indian students”. Likewise, The Telegraph in 2009 “...exposed a host of scams offered to foreign nationals desperate to come to Britain as bogus students”.
These problems led to a tightening of visa controls by Australia and the UK. Recent visa data from the two countries already shows a steep decline in the numbers of international students. Student visa allocation for the UK declined by 6% in 2010. In Australia, the offshore granting of visas, an indicator of new international student enrollment, declined by 20% in 2010-11.
The author is director of development and innovation at World Education Services in New York, a non-profit organisation. The views expressed by the author in this article are personal. Part II appears next week.