What is the future of international student mobility? A view from 30,000 feet.

In 2017, I published International Student Mobility and the New World Order. The basic premise of the book was simple: international student mobility will be determined, in part, by worldwide political, economic, societal, and technological trends. Four years later that premise is still valid.

It would be superficial to share current country-by-country enrollment statistics as a measure of future international student mobility. Current measurements are only part of the true state of future and continued international student mobility. We should not use now statistics as a barometer for the future. The situation is too fluid.

Better to include the political, economic, societal, and technological realities of the post- COVID world as part of a roadmap to the future of where international students will enroll and why.

We cannot underestimate how the political tensions with China and the U.S., Australia, Canada and Germany will impact where future Chinese students enroll and we cannot underestimate the impact new geopolitical alignments will have on future international student mobility.

Political and economic tensions with China will result in new political and economic re-alignments between the U.S.  and several European and Asian countries. Jeffrey Lehman, vice-chancellor of NYU Shanghai at a recent webinar on U.S. higher education in China said:

US-China tensions over the past five years have probably put a hold on the creation of new ventures… we’ve had a pause.

For example, India recently announced an outreach to several schools in the United States, including Arizona State University, Howard University, the University of North Carolina and the University of South Florida for collaboration, building knowledge partnerships, joint research projects, online access, dual degree programs, academic collaboration and faculty exchange are all part of the initiative. This is a different type of international recruitment that has the potential to enroll a large cohort of Indian students.

It will be interesting to learn which of the universities in this collaboration will open up branch campuses in India now that the National Education Policy 2020 allows foreign universities to set up campuses in India.

I have often written that COVID-19 accelerated international student mobility trends that were already taking place. For years the numbers of internationally mobile students have been shifting from the west to the east. The value, prestige, and cost of a degree from a western college or university has lost some of its luster. Since 2016, China has become the world’s third largest study abroad destination, enrolling nearly 500,000 international students in 2018.

The virus accelerated Asian international students investigating intra-regional universities, especially schools in Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore. In April 2020, Study portals reported that 40% of potential international students were changing their study plans for 2021.


Western colleges and universities would do well to put prior international strategic plans on the shelf and begin to write a vision plan for enrolling international students in the future.

Before writing new plans international deans and recruiters should study the political, economic, technological and societal changes in each country under consideration for future outreach.

Future international recruitment vision committees should include a researcher, a faculty member with expertise in geopolitics as well as a member of the economics department.

Future international vision plans should also include input from the president, vice-chancellor, or provost. These executives have the contacts and the authority to execute broad-based collaborative agreements that has the potential to enroll large numbers of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students. This is cohort marketing at its best.

I realize what I am suggesting may seem iconoclastic to some international recruiters and deans. But I also realize that the pandemic accelerated necessary changes to current recruitment practices because trends in the way students select schools for study abroad had changed prior to the pandemic.

International students have options. They can study closer to home in a college or university that is safe and cheaper. Prior to the pandemic an increasing number of international students enrolled in schools that treated them not as cash cows but as valued customers. They selected schools with robust career counseling services and a proven track record of employability. They researched schools that took a long view of their relationship with international students.

The world is changing fast, including the world of higher education and international student mobility. When you write your international vision plans, I suggest you do so in pencil.