Why keeping our countries open to international students matters

It’s the season when prospective university students focus on applications for the next academic year. Many will have already decided on a university abroad, perhaps due to the availability of a course that isn’t offered in their home country or the prestige that comes with studying at a specific institution. In turn, thousands of colleges and universities around the world are ramping up their efforts to attract the brightest and best.

The global leaders in education

The growth of international education can be viewed as both a cause and effect of globalisation. Just as the softening of international borders has allowed students to move overseas, their return home has helped to spread cultural understanding. The number of students pursuing academic opportunities outside their home country continues to grow, currently standing at around 4.6 million, up from 2.1 million in 2001. The latest Value of Education report, a study of 8,000 parents across 15 countries for HSBC, found that parents are often the driving force behind this trend. More than two-fifths (42%) would consider sending their child to university abroad, compared with 35% in 2016.

As the world’s largest economy and long-time favourite among international students, the USA continues to be the most popular destination and is estimated to have over one million international students enrolled. In second place, the UK attracts half a million international students and is the leading destination for US citizens studying abroad.

Following the direction of the global economy, the Institute of International Education (IIE) has identified China as a fast growing destination for international students. While it was not even among the top 10 in 2001, it has become the third destination in the world. The country attracted an estimated 440,000 in 2017 up 11% on the previous year. The benefits of a Chinese education are attracting people from near and far with students travelling from South Korea, Thailand and India, but also from the USA. Meanwhile, students from China are the biggest single grouping by country of origin in the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand, and this year sent an estimated 800,000) students overseas.

The financial benefits

The precise economic benefits brought by international students to their host countries can be difficult to pin down and are hotly debated. The UK government, for example, has recently commissioned a report into the economic benefits of foreign students in the context of a wider discussion about immigration. There is evidence, however, that higher education can be a significant export industry in countries with large international student populations. The IIE estimates that international students in the USA contribute USD 39.4 billion to the economy, making it the country’s fifth largest service sector export. The scale of opportunity is huge, considering that only 5% of the current student population in the USA is international in origin. In the UK, where international students make up 21% of all students, education service exports are forecast to rise to almost £27 billion by 2025.

At the grassroots level, it’s important to remember that parents provide the financial support to make this all possible. The majority of parents (73%) expect to make a significant financial contribution to an average overall estimated cost of USD158,000 for a full university education abroad (USD72,000 for an undergraduate and USD86,000 for a postgraduate). Many (45%) would also consider buying a property in the overseas country where their child is studying.

Given the economic potential, many countries are taking deliberate steps to make themselves more attractive to international university students. Countries such as China, Japan, Malaysia, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia are all investing heavily in expanding or enhancing academic programmes, scholarship initiatives, or marketing campaigns to attract more international students to their campuses. Canada, too, has implemented policies to make it easier for international students to join the skilled workforce, and taken steps towards offering a path to citizenship for highly educated, skill-based immigrants that come through the Canadian university system. Perhaps as a consequence, Canada rose to sixth place this year in the global rankings for the number of inbound students welcoming 312,000 in 2017 (up 18% year on year), with the highest numbers coming from China, India, and South Korea. Indeed Canada’s education system is now attracting students from far beyond its traditional sphere of influence. French students, who were the third largest cohort in 2016, have now lost ground to South Korean students.

Broadening horizons

Aside from the obvious economic benefits, there are broader and more difficult to measure ‘soft’ benefits for countries attracting international students. Global leaders in education have a subtle but significant advantage in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world due to the influence of international educational exchanges. With more advanced research programmes, countries can accrue far-reaching reputational and socio-economic gains.

Indeed, we have found that parents also value an international education because of the soft skills they provide to their children. The most widely recognised benefits of a university education abroad are gaining international work experience (49%), developing foreign language skills (49%), and exposure to new experiences, ideas and cultures (48%).  Many parents also expect their child to return home to search for full time employment after studying at university overseas, thus bringing back cross-cultural insights and creating a common framework of understanding that stretches across borders.

Countries such as the USA have been particularly successful in providing these benefits. In addition to providing a high quality of education, the USA excels at offering work experience programmes to international students which ultimately improve their employability. Some institutions allow international graduates to extend their stays for up to 29 months to gain critical skills and work experience in their fields of study. There is also extensive support on offer, for example through the EducationUSA network, which offers information and help to prospective students to help them choose the most suitable place for them to study.

Overcoming barriers

International study programmes benefit students, the economy and wider society, but it is the “Bank of Mum and Dad” that often bears the financial burden. Over a third of parents (34%) are unsure of the cost of supporting their child’s overseas university education. Emotional factors can also be a barrier: lack of safety and security is the second biggest concern for parents (33%) internationally, and the top concern among parents in China (42%). Those institutions which are able to build a welcoming environment, provide study opportunities in multiple countries and offer work placements that provide real-life experiences will become increasingly attractive to parents looking for a safe investment.

With globalisation under closer scrutiny than ever before, we owe a great deal to the ambition of parents. With their help, international education can create a generation of children who appreciate the value of learning from diverse cultures.

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