Optimism trumps ethics in student recruitment ‘comeback’

Are international student numbers rebounding to their pre-pandemic numbers? Is the current ‘bump’ the ‘new normal’? And what are the challenges and ethical issues involved?

One might have hoped that the COVID-19 crisis, not to mention the continuing challenges of climate and geopolitical tensions, would have stimulated some rethinking by the international education community. This seems not to be the case. Current international student numbers are close to the old, pre-pandemic normal of 2019.

Germany has announced record numbers, the Netherlands has seen further growth and the latest Open Doors report of the Institute of International Education shows an increase of 4% in 2021-22 and even of 9% in the autumn of 2022.

Mirka Martel of the Institute of International Education speaks of a strong comeback. “These findings highlight the continued resilience of international educational exchange and the commitment of US colleges and universities to host international students,” she told Inside Higher Education.

In the same article, Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA (Association of International Educators), welcomed the news as “we’ve been increasingly out-manoeuvred by competitors who have moved aggressively to define their own national strategies”.

And in a recent survey by Times Higher Education among international education leaders who were asked whether they thought their institution would increase international student recruitment over the next 10 years, only 1% of respondents disagreed, while 2% were unsure. More than half (52%) strongly agreed. In other words, we are back to pre-pandemic optimism.

Challenges to optimism

There are major challenges to this optimistic view and, more importantly, there are ethical concerns that need serious consideration. Numbers might seem to be booming, but as Martel acknowledges, their increase might be strongly influenced by deferrals resulting from the pandemic. This is a temporary bump.

Second, the leading sending country, China, shows declining numbers of outgoing international students. Although some argue that this might be temporary, geopolitical tensions and the increased availability of quality higher education opportunities in China itself might indicate that this decline is permanent.

Third, high inflation and reduced funding for higher education in leading Western host countries, resulting in higher tuition fees, might have a negative impact on student mobility. Fluctuating currency exchange rates, and particularly the strength of the US dollar, also infuse instability into the international student equation, especially for rapidly expanding sending countries such as India and Nigeria.

And the fact that, for the first time, there are more international graduate than undergraduate students in the United States, is also an indication of decline – or at least of a significant change in the nature of mobility.

The expansion of international student numbers elsewhere also indicates significant shifts. With more than half a million international students enrolled before the COVID-19 crisis, China was moving up to a leading position among recipients of international students.

But as a result of its severe handling of the pandemic, numbers have almost come to a halt. Russia, another major player attracting international students (originating mainly from former Soviet countries, but also increasingly from elsewhere), is facing a decline as a result of its invasion of Ukraine and international sanctions.

In continental Europe, there is increased concern about the number of international students. In Norway, the government is planning to install differential tuition fees for international students, which might result in an 80% drop.

In Sweden and Denmark, as in the United Kingdom, the issue of international students is part of the debate on immigration policy. In the Netherlands, there is strong pressure to reduce the number of international students due to the decline in the quality of teaching and learning and in the availability of adequate services, accommodation in particular.

Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom consider international students mainly in commercial terms, as ‘cash cows’ – but show growing concerns about immigration.

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