International student enrolment in the United States is plummeting. As reported by the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Project, new international student enrolments have been dropping for three years straight.
With the release of the latest report this week, commentators have noted that new international enrolments are down more than 10% from their highest mark.
There’s an easy culprit for this: the Trump Effect. Commentators have argued that Donald Trump’s election has soured the image of the United States as a desirable destination for international students.
Or has it?
To conflate decreasing numbers of international students with the 2016 presidential election presumes that the United States is central to international student mobility fluctuations. But what is sorely missing from this conversation is an examination of what is happening in Asia, where nearly three-quarters of the 1.1 million international students in the United States originate.
All over the world, universities seek to participate in the global competition reshaping the international higher education landscape. Universities in Asia are no exception. Over the past two decades, these universities have been expanding their research capabilities and infrastructure with substantial support and resources from their own governments.
This is certainly happening in China, the largest sending country of international students. China’s Double First Class University Plan seeks to transform a handful of Chinese universities into world-class institutions.
The plan targets specific disciplines in order to enhance the research output of designated universities through special funding schemes. And the results are palpable, with more Chinese universities breaking into the top 200 within university rankings in the past few years.
Not just senders of international students, Asian universities have also sought to capitalise on international student mobility trends by restructuring their curricula to follow a more global orientation.
In many institutions across South Korea, for example, the curriculum caters to the growing number of international students on Korean campuses by offering more courses in English. Today, top universities in South Korea conduct up to a third of all their classes in English.
Rethinking international student mobility
What is clear from higher education activities in Asia is that they bring another dimension to our understanding of international student mobility. The common understanding of international students is that they come from countries in Asia and study in the United States and other English-speaking destinations.
As such, universities within these countries must compete with each other for this mobile and affluent population. But what is often overlooked in contrast to this general trend of why international students go abroad is why potential international students do not go overseas in the first place.
And indeed, many Asian students are finding more compelling reasons not to go overseas exactly because Asian universities are internationalising.
With rapidly improving positions in university rankings, opportunities for high impact research and globally oriented curricula, Asian universities have become desirable destinations for internationally minded students within their own borders.
In my years of research on international student mobility, this is what I have coined as reverse student mobility, the idea that internationalisation efforts in a sending country’s higher education sector actually lead to the reversal of domestic student outflow.
Asian students are not just looking to destinations like the United States for international education; they now have a myriad of opportunities at home.
Decentring the United States
Growing nativism in the United States and ratcheted-up tensions with China, fuelled by the Trump administration, are certainly a pressing challenge in international higher education today, something that Jenny J Lee and Simon Marginson lament. But perhaps the bigger challenge is how often the United States has become central to our understanding of international higher education trends. While acknowledging the dangers of growing nativism in the United States, we must also broaden our perspective.
By re-evaluating international student mobility flows from Asia to the United States not just from the perspective of what is happening in the United States but also equally weighing what is happening in Asia, we are forced to look beyond obvious considerations, such as the Trump Effect, in order to gain a fuller picture.
This requires commentators to reconsider who and what are prioritised in international higher education discourse. It requires higher education leaders to exercise an understanding of the higher education landscape beyond their own borders. And it requires scholars of Asia to effectively share expertise on these matters with a wider community.
While criticising an America First policy, we must also shed our America First myopia.