There have been optimistic reports of international students rebounding post-COVID19. But we cannot ignore the possible impacts of the current geopolitical reality and instability on the mobility and internationalization of higher education, as illustrated by the electoral victory this week in the Netherlands of a party of far right anti-immigration.
2023 is nearly a record year for the number of international students in the United States – the most impressive growth rate in four decades, almost back to pre-pandemic levels. The European figures are also on the rise.
But behind these optimistic numbers and, unsurprisingly, the positive spin from U.S. international education leaders, lie some realities worth considering that could have a significant impact on the future number of students. international students and, consequently, on the mobility of teachers.
And in Europe, international student mobility has become central to the debate on (skilled) immigration, with opinions divided between and within countries, as illustrated by the recent elections in the Netherlands and the Volte decision. -face regarding international students in Denmark.
The fact is that the world in 2023 will be a very unstable place.
The war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight. The war between Israel and Hamas, at the end of 2023, continues. Even if the armed conflict ends soon, there is no doubt that Middle East politics will remain volatile for a considerable period, with unforeseen implications for the region and for academia.
Economic and political tensions between China and Europe, but also between the United States, Canada and Australia, persist, even if they are less for the moment.
India and Canada are in conflict with each other and, as the presidential elections in Argentina and the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands illustrate, nationalism and populism continue to grow. International mobility of students and faculty may not be a major issue in these conflicts, but it certainly has a significant impact.
Focus on American instability
Much media discussion has focused on the impressive growth in the number of international students in the United States – up 12% from the previous year – while the only marginal recovery in study abroad by American students since the pandemic has received less attention. All comments from U.S. international leaders have been entirely positive.
And a new alliance of 11 educational organizations, with the remarkably national title “US for Success,” announced this month, is advocating for recruiting more international students and helping them contribute to the economy.
But the underlying realities are deeply problematic and deserve attention. Without a doubt, the biggest potential challenge is the possibility of a second Donald Trump presidential term. Indeed, a number of respected national and regional polls in the United States show that Trump would win if the election were held now.
Of course, the election is a year away and a lot could change. But the respected British magazine, The Economistfeatures Trump on the November 16 cover of its “The World 2024” issue.
Many American political experts are deeply concerned. For the international education community, ignoring a possible “Trump effect” is the height of unreality. Trump himself has made clear that his second term will be tougher than his first, no doubt with implications for visas, government policy and, just as importantly, messaging.
Figures from the Institute of International Education (IIE) for 2023 show greater diversity in where students are coming from. Figures from China continue a slow but steady decline, while figures from India have increased by 35%. The figures for Brazil, Japan, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Nepal and Canada also increased significantly.
But some of these countries, notably India, Nepal, Brazil and Nigeria, are highly dependent on local economic conditions, the strength of their local currencies, political instability and related factors and may well be very unstable . Even though these countries have a growing middle class, they remain vulnerable. This is particularly relevant since 82% of undergraduate students fund their own education and only 10% receive financial aid.
There are also concerns about the living conditions of American society. Searching for Xiaofeng Wan shows that prospective Chinese students and their families are deeply concerned about gun violence, anti-Asian racism and other safety issues in the United States.
The unpredictable state of relations between the United States and China is also worrying. These factors may apply to other countries. We have already observed in recent years a shift in student mobility from Asia and Africa to countries such as China, Malaysia, Singapore and India.
Finally, a perhaps telling statistic is that when IIE asked administrators what they needed to meet their international enrollment goals, only 24 percent said they needed to hire more faculty. One wonders who will teach the growing number of international undergraduate students if they come?
European complexities and realities
In Europe, the debate on international mobility is intense but diverse and complex.
It takes place against the backdrop of the immigration debate, in which questions of mobility of incoming students and staff mix with debates about asylum seekers, unskilled immigrants (mostly from the European Union) and skilled immigrants (mostly from outside the European Union).
In Germany, the government and the CDU-CSU opposition favor attracting international students and teachers to meet the country’s need for skilled immigrants. A few years ago, Denmark decided to put an end to the recruitment of international students. But recently, the government has made an about-face and now wants to attract international students, in the hope of increasing their stay rate and thus filling vacant positions with qualified labor.
In the UK, a debate continues within the Conservative government regarding international student recruitment versus immigration and how a shutdown would affect university funding. In France, on the contrary, there are calls to increase enrollment and diversify the incoming student population.
In the Netherlands, international students and staff have become a key issue in the November 2 parliamentary elections, amid a call from right-wing parties to end, or at least significantly reduce, all immigration.
The lack of accommodation for Dutch people in general and for local students is one of the main arguments, the second being English teaching, which they say attracts an overload of international students (40% of new incoming students are international ). ), many of which originate from the European Union and are therefore also eligible for subsidies. This means that there is a cost factor for the Netherlands.
The victory of the far-right Party for Freedom (whose main program was “Dutch First” and zero immigration) and a likely coalition, including a new party – the New Social Contract – will have an impact serious about the higher education sector. , not to mention the need for skilled labor in the economy.
The New Social Contract aims to end English-medium teaching in higher education and reduce the number of immigrants, including international students, from the current 220,000 per year to an absolute maximum of 50,000 per year .
In summary, Europeans are still struggling to find a compromise between the need to increase skilled immigration for long-term economic and social sustainability and short-term calls to reduce overall immigration.
The European Commission’s initiative, published on 16 November, for a skills and talent mobility package, including an EU talent pool to connect EU employers with job seekers employment in third countries, as well as measures to promote the recognition of qualifications and mobility of learners, puts the region on one side. Nationalist-populist movements in some countries are pushing on the opposite side. The result is a lack of decision and direction.
When examining internationalization and mobility models, it does not make sense to ignore realities and trends that do not necessarily fit into a practical discourse.
One thing is clear: the impact of COVID-19 on mobility patterns has not been as severe as some predicted, but there are enough uncertainties and negative trends that require careful analysis. Indeed, even a cursory review of current global political realities and developments presents deeply problematic prospects for higher education mobility and internationalization more generally.
Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit are both professors emeritus and distinguished members of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States.