A Quarter Century That Changed the Landscape of International Education

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: International Educator magazine published its first issue in 1990; the cover story was about the evolving role of the global economy and its impact on higher education around the world. To commemorate the magazine’s 25th anniversary, this issue’s cover story is about how the global economy has shaped the field of international education since that first issue a quarter century ago and predicts how the global economy will continue to shape the field into the future.

Nineteen-ninety was the year the Berlin Wall was demolished, Nelson Mandela walked out of a Robben Island prison, and Tim Berners-Lee created the first page for what he had earlier called the World Wide Web. Mikhail Gorbachev, first and last president of the Soviet Union, received the Nobel Peace Prize, longtime United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vacated 10 Downing Street, and Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq’s neighbor, Kuwait. Futurists John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, in an update to their bestseller Megatrends, predicted the economies of the Pacific Rim would rise in the 1990s at the fastest rate in history.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators also began publishing that year a periodical called International Educator. In the lead article in the first issue, political scientist, educator and Washington hand Sven Groennings served notice of the “profound implications” that this emerging global economy posed for the U.S. higher education system. Globalization—a term a Harvard Business Review editor had popularized in a 1983 article—had fundamentally altered commerce as capital flowed across borders and corporations marketed themselves and operated worldwide. The United States would face powerful economic adversaries and its colleges and universities, “purveyors of the knowledge that is the base of our fiscal well-being,” would be put to the test to “prepare our scientists, engineers, and managers—and our general citizenry—for the new economic order,” he wrote.

Groenning’s thesis more than stood the test of time. Colleges and universities were swept by the same wave that had engulfed the business world, retooling curricula and harnessing technology to launch new ventures, facilitate collaborations, and make their brands better known in other parts of the world. Institutions of all sizes began wooing international students. Recruiters by the dozens flocked to college fairs in Asia where they knew they would find newly prosperous families eager to secure a Western education to prepare their children to compete in this high-tech world where billion-dollar companies seemed to spring up overnight. The United States, long a beacon for the world’s brightest minds, attracted more of this new wave of international students than any other place—the number is fast approaching 1 million—but its share shrank as more countries entered this race for talent. From West to East, countries began doubling and in some cases tripling the proportion of young people advancing to postsecondary education. Although still only a tiny fraction of the entire tertiary population, the ranks of globally mobile students have swelled from 1.3 million in 1990 to roughly 5 million today, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) forecast there will be 7 million by 2020. The competition comes not only from the United Kingdom, Australia, and other Anglophone countries, but Germany, France, the Netherlands, China, and others that have ramped up degree programs taught in English, especially at the graduate level.

What does the future hold? Will economic downturns, disasters, terror, or other unforeseen events deter or disrupt the flow of students and scholars across borders? Will building sprees allow China and India, the two biggest exporters of students, to meet more of their growing demand for higher education domestically, and can more than a handful of their institutions join the ranks of the world’s top universities? Will technology and massive open online courses (MOOCs) obviate the need for students to travel afar to acquire knowledge? Will branch campuses, now mostly boutiques, take root and mature into comprehensive, revenue-producing institutions? Will joint degrees become more than the province of just the special few? Will truly multinational universities arise?

International Educator asked nine international educators—all deeply involved in the enterprise for decades—to identify what they regard as the most significant trends of the past 25 years on how the global economy has reshaped international education. It also asked these experts, drawn to the field from eight countries and four continents, to forecast what they see on or over the horizon. Offering their views and vision were: Mariam Assefa, Fanta Aw, Rajika Bhandari, Stephen Dunnett, John Hudzik, Jason Lane, Alan Ruby, Hanneke Teekens, and Dirk Van Damme.

While their emphases differed, there was broad consensus on the biggest trends in international higher education over the past 25 years.

The Extraordinary Rise of the Middle Class

Rising global prosperity has created an enormous and still not fully met demand for higher education, spurred not only by China and its supercharged economy, but India, South Korea, Brazil and other countries in Asia and Latin America. The South Koreans now send nearly two-thirds of young people to postsecondary education, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world and considerably more than the United States (about 40 percent). China’s economy has been on a rocket ship ride since the 1980s. Its gross domestic product in 1990 stood at $340 per capita and nearly a third of its 1.1 billion people lived in poverty. Today its GDP is $12,900 per capita and the poverty rate has plunged to 6.1 percent according to the CIA’s World Factbook. In 2014 the world’s middle classes exceeded those living in poverty for the first time. “Some Latin American countries have burgeoning middle classes and even countries in Africa where there is some money. The world is being lifted up,” said Assefa. “A lot of people are wealthy enough to send their children to study in the U.S. and they’re footing the whole bill.” Ruby said that even if the global economy sputters, many families in China and India have already put aside the renminbi and rupees needed to send their children overseas for college. “Families have been saving since the birth of their child and even before for educational expenditures,” agreed Van Damme. And in downturns, he added, demand for international education goes up, not down, as job seekers search for “the best possible avenue to improve their situation and have a competitive advantage.” Most of the international students in the United States are self-supporting. Bhandari pointed out that middle class families in India now can borrow at low interest rates for education abroad, something unheard of a generation ago. “You have increasing personal wealth and self-driven, self-motivated mobility,” she said. Hudzik said the world is moving fast down the same path the United States followed, moving “from elite models where few got in to broad-based access where at least a majority has access to postsecondary opportunities.” While international educators still view their purpose and calling in idealistic terms, “There’s a pragmatism now that has become very much part of the field,” said Aw. “The whole economic dimension of international education has been amplified. Whether people want to recognize it or not, it is a business.”

The Market and Competition for International Students Has Expanded and Diversified

The United States remains the preferred choice for many international students, and enrollments have more than doubled from 387,000 in 1989–1990 to 886,000 in 2013–2014, according to Open Doors. But the U.S. share has shrunk from more than a quarter to less than 20 percent. Asian countries export the most students and the United States and Europe combined still receive nearly two-thirds of them. But “increasingly there is a shift to non-Western destinations. The growth of China, Malaysia, and even Vietnam and South Africa has been quite substantial. The market share is shifting,” said Teekens. Barely 4 percent of the 21 million students attending U.S. colleges and universities is international. Twenty-five percent of Australia’s 1.3 million students come from other countries, a 1,200-percent increase since a 1990 university headcount that turned up 24,998. Nearly 20 percent of the 2.3 million students in the United Kingdom are international. Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand, and Switzerland all have more than 10 percent international enrollments and, like Australia and the United Kingdom, more than 30 percent in advanced research programs, OECD reported. “We are not the only players in this market. Everybody wants them. It’s like the gold rush,” said Assefa. Technology has made it easier and cheaper for universities to recruit international students, said Ruby. “The cost of disseminating information about your product, about your brand, is nowhere near where it was. Before it cost real money to send that young woman in India a brochure. The costs were prohibitive.” Now, with web pages and Skype, they can even take prospective students inside classrooms “to show them what it looks like,” he said. Aw said, “The global economy has accelerated the pace of international mobility and affected the direction of mobility as well. We have many new players in the field, and sending countries that are now receiving countries—China, Singapore, Malaysia, and in the Middle East.”

Countries Compete for Economic Advantages, Not for Diplomatic Ends

Traditionally nations mounted international education initiatives as a lever to promote their political philosophies as well as language and cultures. More than 120 years before Hanban created its first Confucius Institute, the inaugural Alliance Française opened in Paris. During the Cold War, the U.S. Agency for International Development made multi-million-dollar grants to build campuses from the ground up in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, while the Soviet Union opened Peoples’ Friendship University—also called Patrice Lumumba University—to educate future leaders from developing countries. “It was a bipolar world—the ‘free nations’ versus the Soviet Union and its allies—and that’s certainly how it was with educational exchanges and collaborations,” said Dunnett. The Fulbright Program and Australia’s Colombo Plan after World War II both aimed to preserve peace and contain communism. That rationale changed after the superpowers made up, and now countries jockey instead for economic advantages, said Lane. The money that international students bring in is counted as part of a country’s service exports. Australia boasts that higher education is its fourth largest export after iron ore, coal, and natural gas, worth $12 billion annually. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Commerce Department tallied nearly $31 billion in education-related trade exports in 2014, more than telecommunications and computer services combined. Higher education “is seen as a commodity and countries treat it as such,” said Teekens. “We see countries like Brazil and Ireland organize the promotion of their higher education systems as part of national trade boards.” Aw observed, “There is a different, dominant discourse about international education around this notion of competitiveness and employability. There’s much more conversation about the relationship between international education and ‘soft power’ public diplomacy.”

The Dominance of English

The British Council says a quarter of the world’s population speaks English “at a useful level” and Van Damme estimates that 90 percent of the world’s 5 million international students are pursuing their studies in English. While a majority take those classes in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other Anglophone countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands, China, and others have ramped up degree programs taught in English, especially at the graduate level. As Latin was once the language of scholarship for the Western world, today “English is definitely the lingua franca of international education,” said Bhandari. Hudzik said, “Folks will say Chinese is on the upswing and, yes, it is, but it’s very difficult to learn and for the foreseeable future the use of English will continue as a common language across borders.” English, conversely, is “a relatively easy language to learn, easier than French or Spanish or Chinese,” said Teekens. The British Council says a quarter of the world’s population speaks English “at a useful level.” Van Damme said English instruction prevails in graduate programs in the Netherlands “and the same is true more or less for Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and the other Nordic countries.” France is an exception, but even there programs aimed at international students “are taught mainly in English,” he said. Assefa, who studied French literature at the University of Montpelier, said in her day, “Nobody would have dreamt of such a thing. Now it’s common.” Asia is the primary market that universities are trying to tap and those students—many aspiring to international business careers—regard learning English as much a key to their future as mastering economics. “Those that think they can offer interesting programs for international students in other languages are not very successful,” Van Damme said. Japan is another exception, sticking largely with its own language, and drawing 94 percent of its foreign students from Asia.

The Technology Revolution

Technology has propelled the internationalization of higher education in a myriad of ways, slashing the cost of global communications, altering the isolation of studying in another country, and opening new vistas for research collaborations. Free MOOCs—massive, open, online courses—offered by top universities have added a new dimension to distance education although few complete the courses they sign up for and fewer still receive any formal credit or recognition for their work. The jury is still out “on whether these MOOCs will become a real force in higher education. What’s the financial model that sustains them in the long run?” asked Hudzik. Most first-generation MOOCs were designed by science and technology types who had “incredibly simplistic notions of how students learn. They don’t learn just by sitting in front of a computer and watching a video of a famous professor,” said Van Damme. But blended learning—online and in-person classes—is gaining ground and facilitating classroom instruction and collaborations across borders. Technology and the Internet have also altered the education experience for all students, domestic and international, but in particular they have made education a less isolating experience than was once the case. “The whole notion of mobility is different when people are online all day. The idea of being away from home is only a partial truth these days,” said Teekens. Technology has made worldwide communication “a routine thing and this in turn facilitates global networks and partnerships,” said Dunnett, who makes videoconference calls twice a week to colleagues who oversee several UB degree programs at the Singapore Institute of Management.

What Does the Future Hold?

The experts also hazarded some predictions on what lies ahead for international higher education. Like the Megatrends authors a generation ago, all see China and other Asian economies rising and demand for international education rising. The particulars of their predictions:

The Global Talent Wars Will Intensify
With hundreds of millions more people poised to move into the middle classes in the next decade, the pool of globally mobile students will keep growing and the competition to enroll them will heat up. There is ample room for growth because “the actual of percentage of mobile students in the world is still very, very small,” said Teekens. (According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, there are 199 million students worldwide in all levels of tertiary education, so the global mobility rate is barely above 2 percent.) Declining birth rates in developed countries from Asia to Europe to the United States and Canada will also drive the global search for talent, as well as the lure of revenues that international students bring in at a time of reduced public support for colleges. While the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan may remain the biggest importers, countries such as South Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and South Korea are playing “an important and increasingly large destination role at (the) regional level,” the British Council says.

While immigration reform is at a standstill in the United States and the United Kingdom has tightened work and immigration rules, other countries are opening the door wider for students, especially in STEM fields. “Canada’s international student and immigration policies are synchronized. They are trying to bring in skilled immigrants,” said Assefa. Dunnett sees that up close. “We’re on the border. We lose a lot of good graduates. They just cross over and within six months they have landed immigrant status and full work rights.”

Fears of brain drain have receded—except for African nations that still suffer a steady erosion of talent—and “we’re actually seeing much higher return rates, particularly from Asian countries, than ever before,” said Bhandari. Van Damme predicts “a gradual diversification of the destinies of international students,” with the United States continuing to lose market share and the United Kingdom and Australia losing their status as top destinations. “ Alternative options will be Germany, France, Sweden, Netherlands, and Switzerland, but also Russia and China itself.”

The Road May Get Rockier for Branch Campuses
The Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) has identified 229 branch campuses in 32 countries, with 50 U.S. colleges and universities sponsoring 81 of them. There are 36 branches of U.K. universities, 20 from Russia institutions, 16 from France, and 15 from Australia. Twenty-two branches are on the drawing boards, and 27 have failed, according to C-BERT. The largest importers, all in the Middle East and Asia, are: United Arab Emirates (32), China (28), Singapore (13), Qatar (11), and Malaysia (9). Many branches are small-scale operations, offering a few select degrees, with MBAs and other business degrees by far the most common, Lane says. ”It’s what people want.” There are clusters of prestigious institutions with branches in Qatar’s Education City and Singapore. Some confer the same credits and diplomas as back home, as Duke is doing in its collaboration with Wuhan University. But Duke Kunshan University so far offers only master’s degrees in science, public health, and management and hosts classes for undergraduates studying abroad. Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, supported by the government there and the African Development Bank, in three years has awarded 43 master’s degrees in IT and engineering and currently enrolls 60 students. Yale University does not consider Yale-NUS College, its venture with the National University of Singapore, a branch but an independent, liberal arts college and students there will not receive Yale degrees. But in Qatar, Texas A&M has awarded nearly 600 of its engineering degrees since 2003, and Weill Cornell Medical College has produced 120 medical doctors. The University of Nottingham awards more engineering degrees at its campuses in Malaysia and China than it does in England, said Lane. But there have been spectacular failures, most notably Australia’s University of New South Wales’ pulling the plug on its Singapore campus after one semester in 2007 at a reported loss of $12 million. U.S. universities have shuttered some Persian Gulf satellites and controversies have attended others. “Very few make money on this. The vast majority are lucky to break even,” said Lane. “It’s fraught with risk. You’ve got to negotiate a whole new set of norms and cultural expectations, legal rules and policies, and taxes. It’s very, very difficult to start up and sustain these endeavors.” Hudzik said, “They have to be self-supporting, whether public or private. If you can’t make the revenue model work, somebody is going to be screaming at you, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Van Damme sees “a bit of a wave of disillusion with branch campuses. Many had to close their branches in emerging economies.”

Many branches rely on adjuncts, reflecting the expense and difficulty of convincing U.S. faculty to go overseas for more than short stints. “A lot of these smaller programs will come into trouble in the next five years because of this. Your bench usually is not very deep,” said Lane. “It tends to be junior people looking for a foot in or something different or very senior people looking for their last great adventure.” Ruby said parent institutions need to better understand “what a branch campus can and cannot do. These are not demand-absorbing institutions. They are never going to educate large numbers of people, or at least not in the short term. The relatively successful ones have been heavily subsidized by the host country.” Japan provides a cautionary tale. More than two dozen U.S. institutions opened programs or campuses there in the go-go years of the 1980s. Only Temple University Japan survived.

Branches are not the only way for countries to export their higher education services. The British Council says more than 590,000 students gain a U.K. qualification each year through courses that its universities, colleges, and schools teach or award overseas. International education now “can be the program travelling, meeting people where they are,” said Assefa. Aw believes that “the way we look at and engage in our work will have to change. We will see many more public-private partnerships happening around international education. The private sector will become a much bigger player within the work that we do.”

The Definition and Parameters for International Student Mobility Are Being Stretched
International students, like their U.S. counterparts, want more opportunities to gain experience outside the classroom in other countries, including internships and noncredit experiences. OECD and UNESCO’s 5 million mobility figure only counts those enrolled in another country’s universities for an academic year or longer. That means it excludes the 270,000 European students who studied or trained on Erasmus exchanges in 2012–2013 and all but a few thousand of the record 289,000 Americans who studied abroad that same year. “Five million is a significant undercount. The real number is much higher,” said Bhandari. “Careers are definitely becoming more global. (This) is no longer viewed as a nice experience to have, but something integral to an overall academic and professional pathway.” Teekens, who coached some of the first Dutch students to get Erasmus grants after the program started in 1987, said, “In the coming years we will see more diversification in international activity. Students now want more diverse experiences than simply going somewhere for a year or two or even four years for a full undergraduate program. Increasingly we will see programs where there are shorter possibilities for mobility. It is no longer one model.” Hudzik said, “Students will put on their résumé, ‘I’ve got a degree from x university,’ but it may be more important that a student had an internship in country y in organization z.”

Universities Will Face Increased Pressures to Internationalize and Prove the Worth of the Education They Deliver
The Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Times Higher Education rankings of the world’s top universities, both begun in the past 12 years, have ratcheted up pressure on institutions to raise their stature, although their criteria have also evoked criticism and skepticism as did the grades that U.S. News and World Report began trumpeting for U.S. colleges and universities in the 1980s. Van Damme is among the critics, although some of the measures employ OECD’s data. “I think they are necessary and will not go away. They are heavily dominated by research and reputation surveys which tend to reward the existing academic order,” he said. “They are not providing any incentives for students to choose well nor rewarding innovative universities that are doing a lot—in my view, more than the Harvards, Yales, and Stanfords—to improve their teaching and learning environment.” But Van Damme believes universities will face rising scrutiny and consumer demands to prove the value of their credentials. Hudzik thinks global completion among universities will intensify in terms of price and quality, just as it did relentlessly in the auto industry. “If we really want to be competitive, we must further internationalize our institutions,” he added. In his paper, Hudzik wrote that with further technological advances and increased mobility, “the global market place of higher education may come to look like a system of credentialed parts suppliers rather than … places offering (only) completed degrees.” It is not just the rising middle class in emerging economies who need more access to higher education. With income disparities widening in wealthy countries, “the role of the university is to create knowledge, educate people well and reach greater portions of the population,” said Ruby. They need to be more broadly based.” U.S. institutions vary widely in their ability to deliver quality education and services to international students, said Aw. With more campuses than ever seeking to boost enrollments, “that has the potential down the road to affect the U.S. brand in terms of perception of quality and return on investment.”

Back to the Future

The great universities of the world from their earliest days have beckoned and nurtured students and scholars from far and wide. Thomas Beckett journeyed to Italy to study canon law at the University of Bologna before returning to England to become archbishop of Canterbury and a martyr. Bologna is the world’s oldest university, established in 1088. Other illustrious alumni include the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Durer, and the peripatetic Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, namesake of the European exchange program. Bologna itself was the setting and namesake for the Bologna Accords that European ministers of education and university leaders struck in 1999 to increase the flow of students across borders by knitting degree and academic qualifications more closely together. The joint ventures, joint degrees, and research collaborations that U.S. universities increasingly undertake with international partners move in the same direction.

Downturns, disasters, and conflicts may cause interruptions, but over time international enrollments and international education will keep growing, driven by intellectual curiosity as much as business models. “There’s a fundamental desire on part of students to see and learn something different, to (experience) different cultures,” Bhandari said. “International education is not a new phenomenon. It’s something that’s been taking place for centuries, which is why that quest is never going to go away.”


Christopher Connell is a veteran Washington, D.C. education writer and author of NAFSA’s annual Internationalizing the Campus reports.

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