Are migration fears driving curbs on international education? Pent-up demand will create new student markets

Apart from the substantial loss in revenue, international students, especially from India who are aspiring to study abroad, are seeking out alternative destinations that are more welcoming, such as Germany, Japan, Ireland, Israel and Russia

Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) May 22, 2024
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International students (Representational Photo)

Recent announcements and measures by certain Western governments to curtail the inflow of international students have raised eyebrows about its rationale and whether a rethink on education as soft power is underway. Over decades, international education has been a significant soft power influencer and used effectively by several developed countries. Indeed, the inclusion of international education in soft power measurement reflected its increasing recognition as a soft power resource and how it can be used to win long-term friends among international audiences.

Western countries, especially the US, gained significantly from international education. As a soft power resource, it was used to tell America’s story to the world. But several other benefits accrued, such as revenue and human capital. For Indian students, the US has been the preferred destination of choice for higher education for over seven decades and with good reason. Many saw it as a land of opportunity and made their fortunes becoming US citizens. Several did extremely well in their professional life and became household names, such as Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Jayshree Ullal, Leena Nair, to name a few, and made a significant contribution to innovation and the global economy.

In 2022-23, the US earned $40 billion from international students. Taking a leaf out of the US experience, several other Western countries saw the potential of tapping into the international student market, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, to name a few. In 2021-22, the UK is estimated to have earned Pounds Sterling 41.9 billion, Canada earned CA$ 22.3 billion in 2023, and Australia A$37.6 billion. According to a study, in 2020, there were 6.3 million international students who together contributed $370 billion to the global economy.

Additionally, the role of international students has been repeatedly acknowledged in enhancing the quality of education by contributing to a genuinely global learning experience and the introduction of cultural diversity on campus, which is critical in the contemporary workplace. The revenue from international students has, furthermore, contributed towards the creation of state-of-the-art laboratories and infrastructure, and investments in research that are central to a university’s global rankings. Additionally, according to The Conversation, in Australia alone international education funded the creation of around a quarter of a million jobs. These are all significant dividends.

Reasons not persuasive

Despite this, several Western governments are proposing to curtail the numbers of international students because enrolments by domestic students have fallen and need to be corrected, that international students have caused a housing crisis. and,  in the guise of pursuing an education degree, many have misused it to become migrants. There appears to be a coordinated approach among a few Western countries that have been primary destinations for international students. Canada, for instance, has already announced curbs on numbers, the UK has restricted visas to accompanying family members, the US has revised work rights downwards, and Australia recently announced that they intend to introduce legislation that would restrict international student inflow.

The compulsions behind the stated rationale for such a dramatic decision are not persuasive. To say that efforts need to be made to boost domestic student intake is certainly a laudable objective but how exactly does the curtailment of international student numbers achieve this? Indeed, with curbs, revenue for educational institutions would drastically fall and result in extensive cutbacks in expenditure. Faculty and critical staff would lose their jobs, as has recently happened in several UK universities. Research funding would also be severely affected.

The housing argument is again deeply flawed. It is of course true that in the two years immediately after the pandemic, there was an exponential rise in the number of international students across the globe. Universities wanted to make up for the revenue loss they incurred during the pandemic years and aggressively campaigned in promising markets. This was aided by the pent-up demand among students and saw a surge in student enrolments. However, this was an aberration and is now expected to taper off and stabilize.

The argument that it is necessary to crack down on dodgy students, education providers and unscrupulous agents would not be disputed by anyone, Strong legislation, tougher visa policies, and their implementation should resolve this. Cutting back on student numbers is a knee-jerk reaction at best.

Enormous implications

The implications behind the decision are enormous. Apart from the substantial loss in revenue, international students, especially from India who are aspiring to study abroad, are seeking out alternative destinations that are more welcoming, such as Germany, Japan, Ireland, Israel and Russia, to name a few, which have liberalized policies to encourage the inflow of international students. Language could be an initial hurdle, but students adapt. Second, if countries opt out of the table, getting back in would be increasingly difficult. Trust, predictability, and perceptions are crucial factors in decision-making. Markets once lost to a competitor are difficult to regain. Third – and this could be a major positive development – countries like India would be forced to accelerate improvements in the quality of education they deliver to domestic students so that students don’t see the need to study abroad. 

A fourth possibility is that international universities might open study possibilities abroad and address the temporary migration of international students. This model rarely works. Price point becomes an issue, as does the repatriation of profits, getting quality faculty, and the complete denial of the deeply enriching global learning experience that studying while living abroad offers.

The officially stated reasons behind the motivation do not stand the test of scrutiny. It is doubtful if the actual reasons would ever be publicly stated. However, it may be inferred that the measures are aimed at curbing migration. Strangely, they are being introduced by Western countries that are built by migrant populations.

(The author is a former Indian diplomat and a consultant on international education Views are personal.)

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Indra Halder
Wed, 05/22/2024 - 17:16
As an ex Indian international student to Australia in 1994, I have been lucky to observe many positive contributions by international students to the local Australian economy, society and international relations. It is time the Australian government must deliver a legislation for a cohesive existence of both international students as well the locals.
Carla Hindon
Fri, 05/24/2024 - 08:19
University education in Australia is falsely overrated and needlessly expensive for international students. Medical education is good but not offered to international students. Overseas students come to Australia for immigration because it offers a good life style here. Some blue collar skills are good - carpentry, metal fabrication, electricians, etc. Universities are generally useless.