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20 Jul, 2009

Foreign Students Set to Hit 7 Million by 2020

With the number of students studying outside their home countries projected to rise from 2.5 million to an estimated 7 million by 2020, a report by UNESCO warns that it may only “further skew” the distribution of the world’s wealth and talent unless steps are taken to make education opportunities more equitable.

One of the most visible aspects of globalization is student mobility,” says the report released at the World Education Conference earlier this month. “The flow of international students has been a reflection of national and institutional strategies but also the decisions of individual students worldwide.”

Education travel is becoming an increasingly important part of the global travel industry, not just because of the volume of students themselves but the corollary growth in VFR travel that accompanies it.

Says the report, “ The mobility of international students involves two main trends. One consists of students from Asia entering the major academic systems of North America, Western Europe, and Australia. Countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have adjusted visa and immigration requirements to attract foreign students, motivated to a significant degree by the desire to maintain economic competitiveness and realize financial gains by enrolling large numbers of full fee-paying internationals.

The other is within the European Union as part of its various programs to encourage student mobility. Globally, international student mobility largely reflects a South-North phenomenon.”

The report notes that universities have developed many strategies to benefit from the new global environment and attract nonresident students. Some universities in non-English-speaking countries have established degree programs in English to attract foreign students.

Universities have established partnerships with academic institutions in other countries in order to offer degree and different academic programs, develop research projects, and collaborate in a variety of ways. Branch campuses, off-shore academic programs, and franchising arrangements for academic degrees represent only a few manifestations of such internationalization strategies.”

But, says the report, “The enormous challenge confronting higher education is how to make international opportunities available to all equitably. The students and scholars most likely to take advantage of the range of new opportunities in a globalised higher education environment are typically the wealthiest or otherwise socially privileged. If current trends of internationalisation continue, the distribution of the world’s wealth and talent will be further skewed.”

The report says that the revolution now taking place in higher education, “marked by transformations unprecedented in scope and diversity” is as dramatic as that “which took place in the 19th century when the research university evolved, first in Germany and then elsewhere, and fundamentally redesigned the nature of the university worldwide.

The academic changes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are more extensive due to their global nature and the number of institutions and people they affect.”

It adds, “The ‘logic’ of ‘massification’ is inevitable and includes greater social mobility for a growing segment of the population, new patterns of funding higher education, increasingly diversified higher education systems in most countries, generally an overall lowering of academic standards, and other tendencies.”

Today, higher education has become a competitive enterprise, the report says.

In many countries students must compete for scarce places in universities and in all countries admission to the top institutions has become more difficult. Universities compete for status and ranking, and generally for funding from governmental or private sources. While competition has always been a force in academe and can help produce excellence, it can also contribute to a decline in a sense of academic community, mission and traditional values.”

The report also discussed the profound influence of g lobalization on education trends.

The rise of English as the dominant language of scientific communication is unprecedented since Latin dominated the academy in medieval Europe. Information and communications technologies have created a universal means of instantaneous contact and simplified scientific communication.

At the same time, these changes have helped to concentrate ownership of publishers, databases, and other key resources in the hands of the strongest universities and some multinational companies, located almost exclusively in the developed world.”

For some the impact of globalization on higher education offers exciting new opportunities for study and research no longer limited by national boundaries. For others the trend represents an assault on national culture and autonomy. It is undoubtedly both. At the very least, with 2.5 million students, countless scholars, degrees and universities moving about the globe freely there is a pressing need for international cooperation and agreements.”

The report noted that even as countries like Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates have recruited prestigious foreign universities to establish local campuses, in order to expand access for local students and serve as higher education “hubs”, “for the world’s poorest countries and most resource-deprived institutions, the opportunities to engage internationally can be extremely limited.

Inequality among national higher education systems as well as within countries has increased in the past several decades….African universities for example, have found it extremely challenging and complex to find their footing on the global higher education stage – they barely register on world institutional rankings and league tables and produce a tiny percentage of the world’s research output.”

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