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The Great Competition for International Students

Some university professionals doubted international student numbers would ever recover after the shock dealt by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet the opposite has happened. Student mobility has bounced back and competition between countries to attract and retain students from overseas to boost local higher education institutions and talent pools has become more fierce than ever.

Major destinations recorded their highest ever intake of inbound international higher education students in 2023, including the UK, Canada, France and Germany, according to figures from the Institute of International Education (IIE), a US-based non-profit organisation.

While the US remains the top host country with 1,057,000 international students last year, its numbers are lower than the record high set in 2019. Australia, Japan, China and Russia continue to attract considerable international tertiary students but have yet to return to pre-pandemic highs.

While countries have different methodologies for tracking inbound tertiary international students, such as counting student visas or numbers of full-time overseas students, IIE figures are the most up to date and show the rising trend of student mobility worldwide.

“It’s been quite remarkable that we have seen robust growth and rebound in numbers just two years after the pandemic,” says Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation, and learning at IIE. This increase has been driven by factors like rising populations of tertiary education students and interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields.

“International students have more opportunities than ever,” adds Ms Martel, who says that demand for graduate programmes has grown and that international students are “casting a wide net” by applying to study in more destinations and institutions.

Many countries have actively courted international students with national recruitment strategies, including Canada and the UK. This is viewed as a means to bolster funding for higher education institutions, but also to attract top talent to fuel industries. However, concerns have mounted about capacity for more recruitment in countries like Canada and the UK, says Ms Martel, given that international students respectively made up 30% and 22% of total higher education students in the countries last year.

Demand for international study is leading many education support service providers to expand their international footprint. An all-time high of 68 FDI projects were announced by such companies in 2023, up from 63 a year earlier, according to fDi Markets.

Uniabroad, a UK-based international education advisory, expanded its physical presence in New York, Lyon, Warsaw, Dublin and Singapore in 2023. Vikas Murulidhara, the founder and CEO of Uniabroad, says there has been a notable increase in demand for studying abroad in emerging markets.

“Countries like India, China, Brazil and Nigeria have seen significant growth in outbound student mobility, driven by factors such as rising middle-class incomes, increasing aspirations for international education, and a desire for global exposure and networking opportunities,” he says. This also reflects the diversification of countries of origin from which international students are being recruited by institutions in developed countries.

Competition between locations has intensified for these students with economic development organisations playing a more active role in supporting these efforts. Baden-Württemberg International (BWI), the promotional agency for the southern German state, is now actively recruiting international graduate students to its 70 universities.

“We need talent,” says Christan Herzog, CEO of BWI. “It makes sense that international students experience their first steps in business in Baden-Württemberg.” 

This trend of rising international student numbers is countered by weakening cross-border collaborations between universities from different countries. Rising geopolitical tensions have prompted universities from the US and Europe to scale back their overseas activities in China and the Middle East. If international students are still sought after, international academic collaboration is less so.


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