Trendspotting 2020: Perspectives of Leaders in the Field

Fourteen international education veterans from around the world anticipate the trends facing—and shaping—the field in 2020 and identify related challenges and opportunities.
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Watching and interpreting future trends can help international educators define priorities and improve impact. But as Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

International Educator asked 14 international education leaders from diverse geographical and institutional settings for their perspective on what’s next for the field in the new year by posing two questions: 

  • What is one key trend you think is shaping the field of international education in 2020, and why is it significant?
  • What is one opportunity and one challenge facing international educators in responding to this trend?

The answers, from leaders with a variety of experience and expertise, present a picture of where the field is likely to go in 2020, and beyond, and what opportunities international educators should anticipate.

While it is well established that many universities, especially in high-income countries, face headwinds at the intersection of demographics, budgets, and geopolitical tensions, the answers below focus on some of the trends that institutions can manage.

Roger Brindley

USF System Vice President, USF World
University of South Florida

headshot of Roger Brindley
Roger Brindley

Trend: Digital technology

“International education is going to use digital technology to get closer to the academic and research client. There are numerous ways institutions may address this trend. These may include more bilateral and multilateral academic articulations; more online, distance-based learning; and more collaboration among university researchers around the world.”

Opportunity: Overcome distance and foster connection

“As digital technologies decrease the friction of distance, universities [can] redefine how they set goals, plan for, and resource international education. Historically, partnership has been predominantly bilateral, but the opportunity to create academic and research consortia will increase. This is particularly relevant given the emergence of young, world-class universities, notably in Asia, together with the increasing need, stated goals, and emphasis on graduating globally competent citizens. 

We can expect universities to find new and novel digital mechanisms to connect their faculty and their students and to construct academic experiences that intentionally provide students with workforce and employment development through certificates, badges, and ‘stackable’ academic experiences that can be aligned to fulfill degree requirements.”

Challenge: Global digital inequities

“Global classrooms and synchronous teaching hardware are relatively expensive. As we move into the fourth industrial revolution and 5G technologies, the more affluent societies will establish the capacity to use these opportunities, but infrastructure and resourcing in some parts of the world will delay implementation. Concerted longitudinal investment will be necessary in order to avoid a new digital divide. 

In addition, faculty are going to have to reconceptualize who owns the knowledge, how best to negotiate and transfer knowledge, the most effective ways to share data and investigate research phenomena on a global scale, and the most effective mechanisms for handling intellectual property in an era of increasingly open domain platforms.”

Eduardo Contreras

Assistant Provost for International Education, Diversity, and Inclusion
University of Portland
NAFSA Education Abroad Knowledge Community Chair 2020

Headshot of Eduardo Contreras
Eduardo Contreras

Trend: Meet the complex and intersectional needs of today’s students

“As student demographics continue to change and U.S. institutions of higher education become more diverse, international educators will need to address issues of equity by developing authentic practices of inclusion for students at every stage of the study abroad cycle. Access and numerical representation remain important, [but] from recruitment to reentry, practitioners will need to incorporate research on power, privilege, and identity formation into existing literature on intercultural learning. 

By employing inclusive pedagogies in a high-impact practice like education abroad, educators in our field can promote a sense of belonging while also supporting retention of student populations who have heretofore existed on the margins.”

Opportunity: Collaboration on campus

“Today, there is extraordinary opportunity for collaboration between faculty and staff members. [Senior international officers] SIOs and [chief diversity officers] CDOs will also benefit from cross-campus strategic planning to align international education and inclusive excellence in ways that will meet the needs of our increasingly diverse student body and signal to parents that education abroad and equity are prioritized.”

Challenge: Overcome historical practices

“The promise and peril of this work lies in demolishing the academic silos between education abroad and diversity/equity/inclusion offices. Diversity offices emerged from the student movements in the 1960s and focused on finding voice and visibility for the underrepresented groups. On the other hand, education abroad offices developed in the 1920s and solidified their place in higher education in the 1960s by, in part, upholding highly selective and elitist recruitment practices.” 

Winnie Eley

Vice President, International
University of Southampton     

Headshot of Winnie Eley
Winne Eley

Trend: India’s emergence

“India is going to be the focus in the field of international education in 2020 and beyond. With over 17 percent of the world’s population, its sizable middle class, and young, educated population, [India] is going to shape the future of international education. India is the most populous democracy in the world with over 10 Nobel Laureates who are either citizens of India or originated or have linkages with India.”

Opportunity: Learn from the past

“One opportunity is how the international education sector would innovate responsibly and respectfully by cocreating the future of international education with India—rather than simply taking an education colonial approach, whether unconsciously or subconsciously, as it has been doing comfortably in the past decades. The global academy has an opportunity to show that it is on a learning-and-effectiveness paradigm, [as] espoused by Thomas and Ely (1996).”

Challenge: Diversity within international student populations

“How do host universities manage diversity of student populations on campus when longitudinal data since 1999 show that Chinese and Indian students often outnumber students from other nationalities on their campuses?”

Richard Follett

Associate Vice President (International)
University of Sussex

Headshot of Richard Follett
Richard Follett

Trend: Incorporate sustainability, interdisciplinarity, and internationalization 

“Across the globe, and at my university included, educationalists are addressing the future role of liberal arts and the importance of cocreated student learning. Added to this, we must support internationalization at every stage of the students’ learning journey. That includes introducing virtual mobility opportunities as well as programs of domestic internationalization where all students, mobile or not, gain culturally enriching experiences via webinars, language cafes. We need to place sustainability, interdisciplinarity, and internationalization at the heart of our education agenda and support school and university partnerships to deliver those priorities over the next decade.”

Opportunity: Interdisciplinary skills

“As we look forward to 2030, we need to calibrate our educational offer to the next-generation skills agenda. Whether it be fostering cognitive flexibility, critical thinking, creative know-how, or so-called ‘way-finding,’ interdisciplinary skills are increasingly favored by students and graduate employers. India is at the forefront of this agenda, with the new Government Education Policy stressing the need to support interdisciplinarity and a renewed liberal arts agenda. India is not alone in this work.” 

Challenge: United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

“With our students and faculty engaged in climate activism, I think the most pressing challenge for international educators is to incorporate the SDG agenda within the fabric of our universities. As a group of higher education leaders made clear at the 2019 United Nations’s High-Level Political Forum, we need to use the SDGs as a framework to encourage interdisciplinary research and transformative education. Making our universities living laboratories for change, we need to stimulate SDG education on our campuses and retool our curricula so that our graduates are empowered to contribute to the goals, no matter their subject specialism or the profession they go into.”

Cen Huang

Vice Provost and Associate Vice President (International)
University of Alberta

Headshot of Cen Huang
Cen Huang

Trend: Demonstrate impact

“How do we, as universities, address global challenges and provide solutions? We are preparing the leaders of tomorrow to function successfully in a globally interconnected world. We need to look at how universities can use teaching and research to develop and initiate major solutions to the global problems we are facing. We cannot work alone on this effort—we need to be outward facing and look to other institutions and organizations to seek meaningful opportunities for collaboration that can guide the way.” 

Opportunity: United Nations’s SDGs

“No matter where you are, from local to global, you can take steps every day to work toward these global goals. As universities, there is so much potential to unlock through teaching, research, services, and learning...and inspiring our students to look to these goals as their futures take shape. If we can incorporate the United Nations’s SDGs into our campus communities, then we will be on the right track.” 

Challenge: Discover the best means for collaboration

“What does that look like locally and globally? How do we seek out the best partners for our pursuits and find new and interdisciplinary ways to work together? Although this is a challenge, I still think there lies great opportunity within that scope.”

Kelechi Kalu

Vice Provost of International Affairs
University of California-Riverside

Headshot of Kelechi Kalu
Kelechi Kalu

Trend: Populism and xenophobia

“Globalization intensified opportunities for increased movement of students and scholars, albeit, mostly from less advanced countries to advanced Western and North American higher education institutions. However, many institutions failed to use the opportunities of the presence of international students and scholars on their campuses to learn and teach about other cultures and integrate ideas from those international communities of scholars into local communities. 

This failure is manifested in a key challenge to international education in 2020, which is exemplified by populist sentiments in the home countries of higher education research institutions that have become the bedrock of xenophobia and anti-evidence-based research and perspectives. Should this trend continue, the long-term consequence for most of the sending countries will be a reduction in the pace of advanced knowledge acquisition needed for transformative economic, political, and social change in various parts of the world.”

Opportunity: True engagement with globalization

“International educators [can] think of how best to embed globalization across the curriculum so that teachers and students are truly engaged in understanding how people, ideas, processes, and communities encounter and are impacted by the forces of globalization. Finding ways to bring students and scholars across disciplines, cultures, and geographies together will help higher education institutions and the communities have a better sense of common challenges facing all people.”  

Challenge: ‘Checking the box’

“The current trend has provided us with a preponderant tendency for checking the box of internationalization versus inviting us to set the stage for the future of international education through deeper engagement with ideas, peoples, and perspectives.” 

Kathleen Massey

Associate Vice President (Students)
University of Lethbridge

Headshot of Kathleen Massey
Kathleen Massey

Trend: Portable credentials

“The emergence of trusted networks and technology [will] support the digital portability of authentic educational credentials among people and institutions worldwide. The vision of this global movement, catalyzed by the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN), has the potential, in its words, to ensure that people will be ‘able to consult and share their authentic educational data with whomever they want, whenever they want, wherever they are.’”

Opportunity: Increased mobility

“In addition to making it easier to migrate for work and education, the trend of maintaining and exchanging digital official academic records has the potential to more effectively support the needs of people in vulnerable circumstances, such as refugees or those whose printed academic records have become inaccessible as a result of natural disaster, conflict, and other catastrophes.” 

Challenge: Secure networks

“At its core, [this vision] is meant to support the economic sustainability and mobility of people worldwide, and the systems and standards that are used to support these networks [must be] secure and trusted. The GDN annual conference convenes international technology and policy experts, educational institutions, governments, and other agencies from the public and private sectors to tackle these challenges and advance this vision together.”

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Neal R. McCrillis

Vice Provost for Global Engagement
University of Illinois at Chicago

Headshot of Neal R. McCrillis
Neal R. McCrillis

Trend: Connect higher education with career prospects 

“International educators must find ways to connect with millennial students who expect their increasingly expensive college education to be meaningful and engaging while also leading toward a productive professional career. For these students, global learning opportunities like international research or internships offer greater professional benefits than traditional international education.”

Opportunity: Include diverse study abroad offerings into a comprehensive internationalization strategy

“Institutions are finding ways to address this by developing a more diverse set of study abroad offerings that include research, internships, and service-learning. In addition, the most successful strategies integrate and infuse study abroad and other global learning opportunities into degree programs. 

Every international initiative should be developed intentionally as part of an integrated and broad internationalization strategy. Far too often, internationalization has been seen as ‘a numbers game’ particularly focused on incoming or outgoing student mobility. The real question is how universities infuse global learning into every student’s university experience.   

At the heart of any sustainable internationalization strategy should be a comprehensive vision for global engagement that encapsulates research, academic programs, student mobility, and cocurricular or campus experiences. A thoughtfully developed and implemented strategy [also] mitigates risks inherent in the evolving higher education world, including shifting U.S. demographics, competing higher education systems, and general international volatility.” 

Challenge: Barriers to comprehensive internationalization

“[This includes] the often decentralized structure of large universities, the compartmental nature of degree programs, and the lack of faculty incentives within most promotion and tenure guidelines.”   

John McLoughlin

Former Senior Director of Enrollment
Concordia College New York

Headshot of John McLoughlin
John McLoughlin

Trend: New opportunities in-country

“A U.S. education and a degree from an American college or university remain in high demand by international students. However, the paradigm is shifting from recruiting international students to the United States to developing transnational education opportunities for students in their home countries. This is a significant change to the business model and value proposition for most higher education institutions. 

By bringing a full or partial U.S. degree to the student, international educators will need to embrace a new level of personalization and customization. College administrators will be tasked with designing programs that meet the needs of students in specific countries, taking into consideration tuition cost, modality, aligning academic programs to workforce development, and partnering with in-country educational institutions and/or industry leaders.”

Opportunity: Expanded recruitment 

“U.S. colleges and universities [will be able] to expand their enrollment footprint into countries where they may not have previously been successful at recruiting students. Delivering an in-country degree or allowing a significant portion of the degree to be completed in-country—hence shortening the amount of time a student would need to study in the United States—has the potential to redefine international enrollment management over the next decade.”

Challenge: Program customization

“Customization of the program to ensure its competitiveness in the overseas markets will require significant investment in acquiring knowledge about international education systems and structures, dedicating personnel to identify market opportunities and build partnerships, resources to operationalize the program, and ensuring quality control.”

Nick Miles

Provost and Pro-Vice Chancellor
University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Headshot of Nick Miles
Nick Miles

Trend: International universities, especially in Asia

“The emergence of international universities has run parallel to the worldwide trend toward globalization. China and the ASEAN region have been, and will continue to be, two of the biggest drivers of global demand for higher education, and these countries are investing significantly in research and innovation, with fresh insights from which we can learn.”  

Opportunity: Soft power

“Often overlooked is the enormous boost that global universities provide to the efficacy of a country’s ‘soft power’ and international influence. Cross-cultural student friendships, as well as the thousands of academic and research partnerships forged at global universities, undoubtedly bring benefits for our respective partners and nations for decades into the future.”

Challenge: Manage partnerships

“Cross-national or cross-continental educational partnerships are not simple to establish or manage successfully. A global university can only ever be as effective as the partnership with its host country, city, or education-group partner allows it to be. Joint ventures by their nature mean that partners are answerable to both the partnership and their separately constituted boards, and so both governance and management can be quite complex.”  

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Tina Rousselot de Saint Céran

Director of International Student and Scholar Services
Georgia Institute of Technology
NAFSA International Student and Scholar Services Knowledge Community Chair 2020

headshot of Tina Rousselot de Saint Ceran
Tina Rousselot de Saint Céran

Trend: International student retention and engagement

“Institutions will focus resources on shoring up international student retention strategies and supporting enrolled student engagement efforts in 2020 in order to respond to declining international student enrollment. Institutions will highlight enrolled international student and international alumni success stories to advocate for immigration policies that attract the world’s best and brightest to study in the United States. Career placement and preparation for practical training opportunities will continue to be a priority for international students. U.S. colleges and universities will invest in promoting experiential learning and career development for international students.”  

Opportunity: Leverage faculty involvement

“Faculty are the best allies in any institution’s efforts to attract and retain international students. Investments in faculty development programs to encourage inclusive classroom discussions and promote global learning outcomes will yield positive international student success outcomes and growth in overall student global learning outcomes. Faculty involvement in the development of experiential learning opportunities within the academic program curriculum will aid in ensuring that practical training opportunities continue to serve as an integral part of the U.S. American education experience.”

Challenge: Threats to international students’ ability to study and work in the United States

“The WashTech case threatens the continuation of Optional Practical Training [OPT] and the 24-month STEM Extension of Optional Practical Training. Challenges with H-1B denials and OPT delays are discouraging talented students from pursuing career opportunities and study in the United States.

SIOs and other senior-level administrators should consider a holistic approach to attracting and retaining international students. International students are interested in earning a degree from an institution that not only invests in their academic and professional development, but also cares about their holistic student experience.”

Karen Vahey

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
New York Institute of Technology

Headshot of Karen Vahey
Karen Vahey

Trend: Increased competition

“Coupled with an economy that has been slow to recover from the Great Recession, higher education institutions in many parts of the United States have been forced to look elsewhere to fill seats. International students aid in this effort. Unfortunately, this is a difficult time for institutions to begin to dip a toe in the international pool. Many of us have been swimming in the deep end for quite some time. Just as U.S. colleges and universities are seeking to increase their international student enrollment, so too are institutions abroad.” 

Opportunity: Create a diverse campus environment

“U.S. institutions have an opportunity—I would say an obligation—to go beyond enrolling international students as seat fillers. International students help to create a diverse environment both in and outside of the classroom, especially when faculty and staff incorporate international student experiences into the course work and campus activities.” 

Challenge: Make international students feel welcome

“Translating recruitment materials and other important documents into their native language, providing a native language speaker at orientation and other important campus events, and ensuring international students have access to the kinds of food they are accustomed to eating are just some of the steps. U.S. international student recruitment should reflect the mission of the institution, not simply [exist] to meet enrollment and revenue goals.”

Molly J. Watkins

Assistant Provost for International Affairs
Case Western Reserve University

Headshot of Molly Watkins
Molly J. Watkins

Trend: Global rankings

“The number of global rankings has grown to over 20 ranking systems since the first global ranking (the Academic Ranking of World Universities) in 2003—with more than one new ranking system with unique indicators every year. Universities are looking to international offices to help guide their global rankings strategies by providing detailed data on international students, faculty, collaborators, partners, etc.” 

Opportunity: Capitalize on data

“The attention given to global rankings can present an opportunity for international educators to utilize data and global measures to encourage more international partnerships, to measure faculty collaborations in research and publications, and to develop deep global relationships to help construct and maintain the university brand. Savvy international educators will begin to employ data to advocate for increasing internationalization activities, with global rankings as a measurable and meaningful tool.” 

Challenge: Move up in rankings

“The challenge, however, is the number of global ranking systems and the difficulty in making meaningful positive movements in the rankings. Also, international educators need to be well versed in data analytics in order to take advantage of the growing rankings attention.” 

Cheryl D. Young

Assistant Provost for Global Initiatives
Miami University

Headshot of Cheryl D. Young
Cheryl D. Young

Trend: Technology and technological mediated learning

“The impacts are seen in the realms of [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] STEM curriculum, artificial intelligence, and the technological literacies our students need now and into the future. We need to ensure we are continuing to focus on cultivating cultural agility in students who will go out into the world and solve problems across geographic and cultural borders.”

Opportunity: Internationalization at home

“Possibilities [include] virtual exchange beyond borders, curriculum and cocurriculum that immerses students in the complexities of culture and social contexts, and contextualizing the global significance of data and technological literacies. Collaborations—people-to-people connections that are alive and growing on our campuses—can be as important to international education as what takes place across geopolitical borders. We can leverage technology to develop global competence.”

Challenge: Limited resources

“The ripple effects of diminished resources in higher education include inequity and inequality in access, and the need to not only keep the transactional side of international education moving forward (in a volatile political climate), but supporting risk taking that leads to innovative and creative problem-solving—not only now, but into the future as we consider issues like environmental responsibility and food and water security. 

Cultural agility requires some risk taking, and that is not easy when resources are limited. As international educators, we need to be aware of the strategic possibilities for ways to be more persistent in using technology in our work, and that may be limited by a lack of resources.”  •


Rahul Choudaha, Phd, is a scholar-practitioner specializing in data-informed internationalization of higher education.

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