International students pursuing tertiary education had an estimated global economic impact of $300 billion in 2016, new figures from StudyPortals have revealed. However, the confluence of higher costs and lower prospects of work threatens the sustainability of international student mobility.
The first of its kind to look at the economic impact of international students globally rather than at a national level, the ‘Beyond $300 Billion’ analysis also used UNESCO data on the 5.1 million globally mobile degree-seeking students in 2016 to analyse trends and patterns of mobility.
The analysis presented two estimates: the direct economic impact of international students on a destination country and the combined direct, indirect and induced impacts such as the “ripple effect” of expenditure on jobs, tax revenues, and household income.
Speaking with The PIE News, EVP of Global Engagement and Research at Studyportals and author of the analysis Rahul Choudaha said that it is very important to factor in indirect and induced impacts because of their economic knock-on effects.
“A lot of times in research I have reviewed that is sometimes not factored in fully,” he said.
“So it is very important to recognise how the trickle-down effect adds to international students’ contribution beyond what they are contributing directly to their universities.”
Of the 5.1m total, the analysis revealed that 19.1% of students were in the US, with an estimated economic impact of US$57.3 billion. China, India and South Korea were estimated to have contributed $18.3bn, $8bn and $3.6bn respectively.
In the UK, which had an 8.5% share of the world’s internationally mobile students that year, the estimated economic impact came in at US$25.5bn, with China ($5.3bn) and Malaysia ($1bn) contributing the largest amounts.
The economic impact on Australia was estimated at $19.8bn, France at $6.7bn, Germany $6.7bn and the Netherlands $5.3bn.
And although Canada had just 3.7% of the total globally mobile students in 2016, the analysis estimated international students had an economic impact of US$11.2bn.
But while the financial impact is “enormous”, the analysis explained that it does not capture the intangible positive impact of international students in terms of their contribution to societies in both source and destination countries.
“These include academic, research, experiential, and cultural dimensions contributing towards an inclusive, innovative, and interconnected global society,” read the analysis.
However, it warned, the future mobility of international students faces “serious threats” in sustaining the growth momentum due to lower prospects of finding work opportunities in destination countries and the overall increase in the cost of overseas education.
“For the last couple of decades, international student mobility has been on a growth trajectory, [but the] bulk of the mobility is driven by students moving from lower-income countries towards higher-income countries in search of better prospects of life and career,” it noted.
The analysis also looked at student mobility trends from the lens of “three waves of mobility” and highlighted that one of the defining characteristics of the “third wave” (from 2016 onwards) is anti-immigrant overtones in high-income countries.
“This is creating new barriers to mobility for students in not only securing study visas but also post-study work visas,” it explained.
“On the institutional front, the challenge of declining enrolment is compelling some universities to increase tuition fees to meet the budget gaps.
“The interplay of the challenges of higher cost and lower prospects of finding jobs is making it more difficult for students to recover their investment and hence they are becoming even more conscious about the importance of value for money.”
The analysis urged higher education institutions to reinvest in strategies that grow the international student body while “balancing goals of diversity and quality”, and featured the perspectives of university vice-chancellors, rectors and presidents globally on how their countries can best attract and retain international students.
“One of the big takeaways from speaking with university leaders is that international students are a priority,” Choudaha told The PIE.
“Of course, there are universities which are not engaged in internationalisation and that’s a different issue. But for universities which want to be global and internationally engaged, university leaders are taking a stance and are becoming more proactive in doing more to support and engage international students.
“We need to remember that international student mobility on the demand side remains quite robust, but the sustainability hinges on the ability to make sure that there is affordability and access – otherwise we will be in a scenario where demand will not be able to meet real opportunity,” he added.