While the US economy struggles to revive, it may be time for America to redouble its efforts to attract international students. There are three main reasons why.
First, the tightening of visa requirements by Australia and the UK is making them less attractive destinations for students as they see lower prospects for future jobs and immigration. Second, budget cuts in US public institutions are prompting them to recruit international students more actively as an additional source of revenue.
Finally, even the US government is getting more serious about attracting international students, as seen by the latest website launched by the Department of Homeland Security to provide information to international students.
Some of the early reports for autumn 2011 show a significant increase in international student enrollment at US universities.
For example, at the University of Iowa first-time freshmen international student enrolment reached record levels of 484 this year, compared to 388 last year. Likewise, at Arkansas State University international student enrollment for autumn 2011 passed 1,000 students for the first time. Last year 780 international students enrolled.
The number of internationally mobile students grew by 1.6 million between 2000 and 2009, according to the OECD.
This trend will continue to be driven by the increasing ability of prospective students in countries like China and India to afford foreign higher education. At the same time, their local higher education systems are expanding at a fast rate, but at the expense of quality. This will result in a large number of quality-hungry students who have an ability to pay for their higher education.
However, a complex interplay of variables will make it difficult to predict where this growth will go.
As we have seen, the influence of unpredictable events like 9/11 and the recession on student mobility is far-reaching and global. In addition, government policies related to visa requirements, specifically those concerning financial requirements and post-education work opportunities, will have a big influence on student mobility.
Competitive pressures will also help alternative models of student recruitment like agents and pathways programmes to grow.
However, the adoption of these models will not be without risks, pitfalls and conflict. For example, the agent model continues to raise questions about the integrity of admissions processes, especially with relation to document fraud.
It is ironic that the agency model, which facilitated numerous visa frauds in Australia and the UK and prompted their governments to act to restrict student mobility, is now being viewed positively in the US. These models will certainly help to increase student mobility, but they will bring greater risk for institutions and nations.
International student mobility is a source of enrichment and advancement for institutions, students and nations. The future outlook looks positive for increased numbers of international students, but competition will also become fierce, which will make the picture less predictable.
Institutions and nations that can adapt to the changing environment will be best placed to make the most of the opportunities and uncertainties involved.
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