International student mobility is shaped by a complex interplay of national contexts, external factors, institutional characteristics and individual preferences. The enormous impact of external factors has shaped the recent patterns of global talent mobility.
The framework of ‘three waves of international student mobility’ analyses how external events have influenced the choices and preferences of globally mobile students.
Wave I was shaped by the terrorist attacks of 2001, resulting in the United States losing its attractiveness as a country for international students to alternative destinations such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Wave II was triggered by the global financial recession in 2008 and prompted many US universities to become proactive in recruiting international students.
A new political order defined wave III in 2016 in the wake of Brexit and the American presidential election. In particular, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in the US created many perceptual and real barriers for higher education institutions in attracting global talent.
Now, COVID-19 is impacting global higher education systems around the world and erecting new barriers for student mobility. At the same time, the future of the US and the UK visa and immigration policies may become more welcoming compared to the previous four years. This confluence of COVID-19 uncertainty and political reset suggests we are at the beginning of the fourth wave of international mobility.
The confluence of factors shaping the fourth wave
The pandemic-induced economic uncertainty is reshaping prospective students’ journeys and prompting the consideration of alternatives.
According to the Graduate Management Admission Council survey of prospective international students considering enrolling in a graduate management programme in 2021, two out of three (71%) were not changing their original plans.
However, 17% were willing to consider a business school closer to home and 14% were willing to adopt online learning. This data suggests a potential rise in regional mobility and the adoption of online or even blended learning models for a segment of prospective international students.
In addition, the political landscape in the US is likely to shift perceptions and hence the considerations of prospective international students. A pre-election poll of prospective international students (non-US citizens) suggests that Joe Biden’s election as US president could create a segment of prospective candidates to consider the US more favourably.
A quarter of respondents (24%) in the poll indicated that they are more likely to pursue graduate management education in the US if Biden is elected president.
In the UK, European Union students who start a new course after August 2021 will no longer be eligible for home fee status. In its efforts to continue to attract global talent, the UK government is creating pathways for education and work with a points-based immigration system. The new system will treat EU and non-EU citizens equally.
Specifically, the Graduate Route will allow international students to remain in the UK and work at any skill level for two years after completing their studies. By contrast, in 2012, the UK had eliminated post-study work rights, which hurt its competitiveness as a destination for a segment of international students seeking career opportunities as a part of their motivation to study abroad.
New directions for international student mobility
The visa and immigration policy changes in the US and the UK are likely to become more welcoming over time. This shift is a reversal from what triggered the third wave in 2016.
Prospective international students may consider these destinations more favourably and, as a result, this may have a ripple effect, intensifying the competition for international student recruitment.
In sum, COVID-19 uncertainty, coupled with political changes in the US and the UK, suggest the beginning of the fourth wave of international mobility. While COVID-19 is decelerating student mobility, new visa and immigration policies in the top two international student destinations may accelerate mobility towards the US and the UK.
From prospective students’ perspective, this changing context could influence their preferences and journeys. In this context, it is even more critical for higher education institutions to monitor and track the shifting landscape and double-down on attracting and retaining global talent.