Starting A New Era for International Students – An International Perspective

February 2, 2021 by Dr. Senthil Nathan and Dean Hoke.

From 1998 to 2018 there was a steady 4.8% annual increase of international students worldwide. The total number of international students was 5.6 million in 2018, more than twice the number in 2005. Factors driving global student mobility include

  • aspirations for better employment
  • lack of top-ranked universities or limited seats in institutions at home
  • differences in economic return for education between origin and destination countries
  • rising middle-class aspirations in emerging economies to send their children to developed countries for higher education
  • better economic performance in the host country
  • favorable immigration policies and political stability
  • cultural and religious similarities between origin and destination countries.

This growth has not been without hiccups. Increasingly, universities offer online degrees and branch campuses in the students’ own countries. How do these recent developments impact student preferences to study abroad?

In this article, we seek to triangulate recent trends and data with results from a survey of education experts working in 43 countries. We wanted to identify the five top reasons why international students should study outside their home country as undergraduate or graduate students. We also wanted to determine which five countries the experts would recommend other than the country where they currently work and why.


According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the number of higher education students worldwide will rise 235% in the next two decades from 251 million in 2020 to 594 million in 2040. Additionally, there were 5.3 million international students enrolled in higher education outside their own home country in the Fall of 2019.  By 2030, this number is projected to increase to 6.9 million.

Projections for international student mobility include considerations such as:

  • Higher education capacity constraints in countries such as Nigeria and India. This trend will undoubtedly increase international student mobility.
  • Language of the host country. About 40% of international students study in four English-speaking countries: the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. About 30% of these students are from China and India. Interestingly, while China is the largest sending country (with over 1m Chinese students studying abroad), China is also the third-largest host country for about 0.5m international students.
  • Global economic center of gravity. As the economic center shifts eastward, informed projections indicate that international student destination preferences will gradually move eastward as well. In particular, China and Japan are strategically engaging in soft-power advantages of hosting international students.
  • Niche trends. Aside from raw numbers, interesting niche trends are worth noting. The United Arab Emirates attracts international students by hosting branch campuses from American, Australian, British and other universities. Hungary, Poland, Romania, Georgia, are attracting medical students from India, Nigeria, and others.
  • Digital disruption. Beyond the pandemic period, international student mobility could decrease. Students will demand lower fees for online education; increasing online enrollment would cut into student mobility. How employers treat fresh graduates with online degrees from top universities may eventually decide the sustainability of this new trend.

The Survey and the Results

From December 28, 2020, to January 25, 2021, we surveyed 168 education leaders from 43 countries residing outside the United States to determine why international students should consider studying outside their home country.

Question: What are reasons why a student should study outside their home country

Cultural Diversity 73%

“Learning by immersion in another culture and often another language. For greatest benefit, this should not be a random choice, but one aligned with one’s career interest, past heritage, or access to specialized sources”. Professor David Keyes, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Home country United States. Works in Saudi Arabia.

“Providing a global perspective by studying internationally, allows students to learn with students from different countries and cultures and gives them the edge when it comes to collaboration and perspective.” Stephen Harrison-Mirfield COO Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland. Home country the United Kingdom. Works in Bahrain. 

Living Abroad Gives you New Ideas 56%

“Building confidence on an international platform.” Dr. Rudolph Young, educational consultant. Home country and works in South Africa.

“Creating an opportunity to re-brand oneself / remove constraints.” Dr. Mark Russell, Quality Enhancement, ADEK. Home Country United Kingdom. Works in the United Arab Emirates.  

Academic Excellence and Reputation 56%

“Foreign qualification to build a reputation in the society whereas some are keen on exploring.” Arun Thekkedath, Client Relations QS I-Gauge. Home country and works in India.

“You will realize how many more career options you have,” Hilary McCormack, Member of the Board Irish Business Network in Saudi Arabia. Home Country Ireland. Works in Saudi Arabia.

Independence and Responsibility 53%

“It is undoubtedly preparation for life. The skillset acquired is quite incredible and is, of course, a very valuable experience”. Dr. Sigamoney Naicker, Chief Director of Inclusive Education, Western Cape Education Department. Home Country and works in South Africa.

“Enhances self-confidence.” Dr. Omar Shubailat, Director of Training Center, German Jordan University. Home Country and works in Jordan. 

Student Interaction and Network 46%

“Opportunity to establish valuable international network” Ricky Tam Education Consultant, Home Country Malaysia and works in Singapore.

“Creation of a lifelong network of relationships that will provide enrichment that never stops.” Thomas Hochstettler, Provost Abu Dhabi University. Home Country United States. Works in the United Arab Emirates. 

Enhanced Employability 43%

“Students in India choose undergrad and post-grad outside our country, and as a result of today you see them heading global heavyweights like Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Accenture, Pepsi, Novatis, IBM, etc.” Sai Krishna, Cybersecurity Expert. Born and works in India.

“Opportunities to work in world-renowned firms.” Dr. Muhammad Nasser Akhtar, Professor, and Editor in Chief NUST Business Review. Home country and works in Pakistan.

Question: Should a student study outside their home country

A significant number of educators believe students should consider studying outside their home country. However, there is a belief undergraduate students should stay at home due to cost and wanting their children close to home.

Question: Select up to 5 countries you would recommend for studies; however, you cannot pick the country you currently live in.


United States: The US has 1 million international students but is declining. The most represented countries in the US are China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

  • Adeniyi Olatunbosun, Nigeria “United States, because of the diversity in terms of available universities.”
  • Ifrah Mehak Imran, Pakistan “USA because of its most prestigious universities.”

Canada: Canada is experiencing the highest percentage of growth. 56% of Canada’s international students come from India and China. Canada’s population of Indian students nearly quadrupled over the past five years.

  • Bonnie Lynch, United Kingdom “Canada – They are consistently innovating in my discipline. The latest news was about innovations in assessment under COVID restrictions.”
  • JFR, Bulgaria “Canada for the opportunities to stay there for a good work.”

Australia: The most represented countries are China (28%), India (17%), and Nepal (8%). A recent study by Mitchell Institute predicts around 300,000 international students will be living in Australia by mid-2021, a drop of 50% unless borders are reopened. Rajamanickam Swaminathan, Singapore “Australia. Given the stability and vicinity, Australia is being considered by the Asians now.”

  • Slade, United Kingdom “Australia. Growing academic presence in my research field. Aware of a multicultural society. Opportunities to settle after study.”

United Kingdom: Due to the recent BREXIT agreement, whether the UK will continue to maintain its lead in the international community is questionable. The most represented countries in the UK are China, India, the USA, Hong Kong.

  • Mohammed Ramadan Hassan Abdou, Egypt “England because it one of the oldest higher education systems in the world.”
  • Frank, China: “The UK because of their robust higher education system.”

Germany: Higher growth is expected due to the recent BREXIT deal and overall improved world ranking of their universities. The Germans are also outstanding in the STEM field.

  • Jos Eussen, The Netherlands “Germany, excellent system of dovetailing study and work.”
  • Jayasankar Seshadri, Mauritius “Germany. They have an excellent education system, and many graduate programs are taught in English.”

Other Results of Interest: Nations such as New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), China, and Japan received double-digit responses. Respondents in the Middle East and Asia increasingly believe nations such as China, Japan, and the UAE have quality universities and desirable locations.

Survey Conclusion

It is clear from the survey results that there is high value in the international student experience. The challenge then, especially among destination countries, is to enable and enhance the experience to the benefit of the students and host countries alike. The following are national policies and issues to be addressed in order to develop and maintain a successful international student program.

Examples of National Policies and Strategies to attract International Students

A strategic mistake of countries seeking to attract international students is to let the initiatives be driven primarily by interested universities. While universities are interested in recruiting international students, the longer-term socio-economic impact is best supported by national governments.

Australia: International students have been used as a political football in the past decade by new governments to please specific voter blocs. Australia has vacillated in its visa and work policies, a recent example being the federal government’s exclusion of international students and graduates from its JobKeeper subsidy scheme during the pandemic.

Canada:  Their International Education Strategy (2019-2024) strongly supports international students. James Gordon Carr, Canada’s Minister of International Trade Diversification, notes “International education is an essential pillar of Canada’s long-term competitiveness. Canadians who study abroad gain exposure to new cultures and ideas, stimulating innovation and developing important cross-cultural competencies. Students from abroad who study in Canada bring those same benefits to our shores. If they choose to immigrate to Canada, they contribute to Canada’s economic success. Those who choose to return to their countries become life-long ambassadors for Canada and for Canadian values…. Competitor countries in this sector recognize the long-term benefits of international education. They have upped their game, and to remain competitive, we upped our game too.” Source:

China: China increasingly emphasizes the importance of inward international students, and relevant strategies are comprehensive. The National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development 2010-2020 stated China’s commitment to strengthening international exchanges and cooperation and to improving the internationalization of higher education in China. China put forward a working policy of “expanding scale, optimizing structure, improving management, and ensuring quality.” It aims to promote the sustainable development of international education in China and to build a global brand of higher education – with a target for the country to become the largest destination country for study in Asia in 2020. Moreover, in recent years, in the context of the “Belt and Road” initiative, international students in China are seen to play a central role in improving diplomatic relations and as human resources for Chinese enterprises overseas.                                                          Source:

India: India is making a national effort to attract international students. Study in India, a joint initiative between Educational Consultants India Limited under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, was launched with the goal to increase the number of foreign students to 200,000 over the next 5 years. The government has approved an expenditure of ₹1.5 billion for the program over 2018-20 for brand promotion activities. India will target students from countries in Asia and Africa. The scheme foresees reputed Indian institutes’ participation by offering 15,000 seats to international students at affordable rates.  Source:

United Kingdom: To reverse a decade long decline in non-EU international enrollment, the UK announced in September 2019 a reintroduction of their two-year post-study work visa. The Prime Minister linked that decision to the launch of a £200 million whole genome sequencing project, saying scientific breakthroughs “wouldn’t be possible without being open to the brightest and the best from across the globe to study and work in the UK.” That was why they were unveiling a “new route for international students to unlock their potential and start their careers in the UK.” The announcement had an immediate effect: data search results increased by 47% to the UK and decreased by 15% to Australia. Some universities in the UK reached their 2020 international enrolment caps as early as November 2019, while there was a drop of about 13.5% for Australian universities during the same period.

Like every global consumer, international students have choices. As seen in these examples, policymakers’ risk long term adverse impact on national interests by making unwise comments and quick policy revisions. Fair and just treatment of foreign students by the host nation on visas and humane treatment issues during crises such as a pandemic are not only diplomatic niceties but also business necessities.

Supporting the International Student Experience

Importance of international graduate students in research and innovation

The positive impact of international graduate students has been well researched and understood in the United States for several decades. A committee of the National Research Council (US) offered several findings to US policymakers:

  • International graduate students are integral to US science and engineering (S&E), as evidenced by quantitative data, including numbers of patents, publications, and Nobel prizes.
  • To maintain excellence in S&E research and technologic innovation, the US must continue to recruit international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.
  • Many of these students stay in the US after their studies are completed.
  • Even those who return home often maintain collaboration with their peers in the United States and take with them a better understanding of US culture, research, and the political system.

These findings emphasize the importance of supporting a positive international student experience by any host country. The flow of international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars is affected by national policies regarding visas and immigration. Some policies contribute to anxiety among international students and a perception that the United States does not welcome them. Those factors discourage international graduate students from applying to US universities. New nonimmigrant-visa categories should be created for doctoral-level graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Other countries are expanding their capacities and creating more opportunities for participation by international students. The natural expansion of education in the rest of the world increases competition for the best graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

Source: “Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States,” National Research Council (US.) Committee on Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States, Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005

Cost to benefit issues for international students

Return on investment. The average tuition and fees at private U.S. Universities have jumped 144% from $17,000 in 2001 to $41,400 in 2021. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 165% from $10,100 to $26,800 in the same period. Most international students pay full fees without recourse to scholarships or financial aid. Many come from developing nations with a significant decline in return on their education investment after they return home to pursue a career. The pandemic-driven recession and global unemployment problems reduce international student capacity to pay high tuition fees or to find jobs.

Challenges to securing support. International students are increasingly seeking scholarships and discounts. There is  additional pressure on universities to reduce tuition fees for online options. Universities have focused on reducing the cost burden on international students and providing economic alternatives, including part-time work during their studies and post-study work opportunities. But international students who graduate over the next few years may face challenges to finding jobs that provide an acceptable return for their education investment. Governments in destination countries such as the US, UK, Australia, China, and Canada may naturally focus on enhancing employment opportunities for their own citizens, leaving international students in the lurch.

Value of online education. As more and more international students are forced to continue their studies online during these 18+ pandemic months, they have concerns about the value of their “authentic” international education. Significant fee reductions could go a long way in addressing some of these concerns.

Reducing socio-cultural tensions for international students

Destination countries such as the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia have been cultural melting pots with a long history of immigration. This makes it easier for international students to find their comfort levels in retaining their cultural identities and in learning from their host countries. Aspirants such as China, Japan, Germany, France, Russia, Central Asia, and India are culturally more monolithic. They have further to go in providing a tension-free environment for international students. Universities in these countries should take steps to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for international students. Universities and local communities should also be proactive in educating domestic students to be more tolerant and welcoming. New destinations such as the United Arab Emirates offer excellent positive alternatives in this regard, as these countries are already home to a diverse array of cultures and nationalities.


Hundreds of millions of youth will enter higher education over the next decade. Many are students from countries with serious capacity challenges. There will be increasing opportunities for strong destination countries to enhance the number and quality of international students. However, even these countries must make significant adjustments to students’ demands and to international competition. Here are four recommendations.

  1. National policies regarding international students must be transparent and consistent over a long period. New governments must resist the temptation to modify visa, immigration, and employment policies to appease domestic constituents. These national policies must provide a welcoming visa and immigration environment to international students who enroll in their top universities. For doctoral students and graduates from top universities, the government must provide effective employment or post-study work visa pathways.
  2. Universities that reside in a primary destination nation should form strong associations to focus on international students: first to work with their own governments, and then with foreign governments and inter-government agencies. Governments must consider funding such associations to promote their destinations and to provide scholarships to attract top international students. Additionally, they should create generous research funds to recruit graduate students and scholars in national priority areas such as STEM or public health or medical technologies.
  3. Public-private partnerships between governments, universities, and the corporate sector should provide pathways for international students to obtain work opportunities and visas upon completing their studies. The Institute of International Education (IIE) provides an excellent model in this regard.
  4. Universities must work with their local communities to welcome international students to their community in meaningful ways. They can arrange host families and activities to help international students assimilate into the local culture more easily. As seen during the early months of the pandemic, international students’ fates were often left to the whims of local governments. An international agency similar to the International Labor Organization for worker rights may be created under UNESCO’s auspices as an advocacy NGO to defend the rights and privileges of these students.


Many advantages of studying abroad are well understood across the world, as evidenced by the increasing number of international students. Our survey results attest to these advantages. We have addressed many of the challenges to providing a successful international student program and have provided recommendations that may promote a robust international student opportunity world-wide.

Acknowledgment: Edu Alliance thanks Dr. Dorothy Byers and Nancy K. Hoke for serving as editors. 

Edu Alliance Group, Inc. (EAG) is an education consulting firm co-founded by Dr. Senthil Nathan and Dean Hoke. It is located in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, and Bloomington, Indiana, USA. We assist higher education institutions worldwide on a variety of mission-critical projects. Our consultants are accomplished university/college leaders who share the benefit of their experience to diagnose and solve challenges.

EAG has provided consulting and successful solutions for higher education institutions in Australia, Egypt, Georgia, India, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Edu Alliance offers higher education institutions consulting services worldwide. Our US office specializes in assisting universities on international projects and partnerships.  



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