Three waves of international student mobility (1999-2020)
Rahul Choudaha, PhD
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Studies
in Higher Education on 02 March, 2017, available online:
Choudaha, R. (2017). Three waves of international student mobility (1999-2020).
Studies in Higher Education.
Three waves of international student mobility (1999-2020)
This article analyses the changes in international student mobility from the lens
of three overlapping Waves spread over seven years between 1999-2020. Here a
Wave is defined by the key events and trends impacting international student
mobility within temporal periods. Wave I was shaped by the terrorist attacks of
2001 and enrolment of international students at institutions seeking to build
research excellence. Wave II was shaped by the global financial recession which
triggered financial motivations for recruiting international students. Wave III is
being shaped by the slowdown in the Chinese economy, UK’s referendum to
leave the European Union and American Presidential elections. The trends for
Wave III show increasing competition among new and traditional destinations to
attract international students. The underlying drivers and characteristics of three
Waves suggest that institutions are under increasing financial and competitive
pressure to attract and retain international students. Going forward, institutions
must innovate not only to grow international student enrolment but also balance it
with corresponding support services that advance student success including
expectations of career and employability outcomes.
Keywords: international student; student mobility; international enrolment;
global talent; skilled migration
The number of globally mobile international students doubled to reach 4 million
students between the period 2000 to 2013. In this period, two major events which had
its origins in the USA influenced the mobility patterns of international students. First,
the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) in New York City and second the
global financial recession of 2007/08 triggered by the housing crisis in the USA. While
these two events did not deter international students from going abroad, it shifted the
mobility directions and drivers of mobility for international students (Choudaha and de
In this article, I analyse the changes in international student mobility from the
lens of three overlapping Waves each spanning seven years between 1999-2020. Here a
Wave is defined by the key events and trends impacting international student mobility
within temporal periods. In this commentary, I intend to provide a high-level overview
of the mobility trends and not capture the entire scholarly complexity and depth of the
research topic. The three Waves are a conceptual classification based on my analysis of
mobility data and underlying major events. The Waves do not necessarily indicate a
The first two Waves coincided with 9/11 and the global financial recession. The
Third Wave is being shaped by a combination of three events—the slowdown of the
Chinese economy, the 2016 UK referendum to leave the European Union, and the 2016
American presidential election. In the Third Wave, I provide a projection of the future
directions of international student mobility. While mobility is shaped by a complex
interplay of many variables, this analysis and forecast focuses on some of the key
themes to illustrate the trends and differences.
Figure 1. Three waves of international student mobility
[Figure 1 near here].
Wave I (1999-2006)
International mobility of highly skilled talent has existed for decades, however, the
growth of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the 1990’s provided a
strong interest in attracting high skilled workers (OECD 2001). The rise of temporary
migration of ICT workers and researchers rose substantially in OECD countries during
the 1990s (Kuptsch and Pang 2006; OECD 2001). Wave I of international students has
its origin in this increasing demand for high skilled talent for economic and
technological development. This Wave witnessed an increase in enrolment of
international students in fields related to science, technology, and engineering.
Institutional motivations to attract international students included access to
research funding, pursuit of research excellence and response to a high demand for
labour in ICT fields (OECD 2001). Students were motivated to study abroad as they
were also getting economic rewards from the skills gap they could fill in high demand
technology related jobs. During this time receiving institutions and countries were open
to providing funding to talent in science and technology.
Due to the research base and funding opportunities, the USA was one of the key
destinations of choice, especially in science and technology at master’s and doctoral
education levels (National Research Council 2005). However, the terrorist attacks of
9/11 changed the equation, and the tightened visa requirements made it more difficult
for students to study in the USA (OECD 2005).
Around the same time, Bologna process and European Higher Education Area
(EHEA), started taking shape to create more comparable and coherent systems of higher
education to foster student mobility within Europe. Towards the end of Wave I, five of
the top 10 destination countries including UK, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland
were in Europe
. Specifically, UK gained the most regarding mobility from non-EHEA
and EHEA (European Commission 2015). Beyond Europe, Canada and Australia were
UNESCO Institute of Statistics data for the number of international students in Germany for
2006 is unavailable. In 2004, Germany was the third leading destination with 260,314
students, even more than 247,510 international students France had in 2006. Hence, it would
be safe to say that Germany would have been among top 10 destination countries in 2006.
other destinations attracting some of the international students moving away from the
Table 1. Three waves of international student mobility with top-10 source and
[Table 1 near here].
Regarding leading source countries, while the number of Chinese students going
abroad grew by 231% (see Table 1), many of them stayed within the region to study in
Japan or South Korea. India and South Korea both experienced strong growth in the
number of students going abroad primarily driven by enrolment in science and
engineering fields (OECD 2005; OECD 2001).
A combination of reasons suggests that international students in this Wave were
more likely to be academically prepared and self-directed and dependent on financial
aid and scholarship from institutions. According to OECD (2005, 252), “For
individuals, the returns of studying abroad depend to a large extent on sending
countries’ policies regarding financial aid to students going abroad for study and the
policies of countries of destination on tuition fees and financial support for international
Many international students were headed to research-intensive universities
which required a higher ability to gain admissions and had more experience in enroling,
funding, and supporting international students. Most students were at master’s and
doctoral level which also contributed to their ability to navigate and meet the academic
expectations. These highly motivated students were driven to learn and shape their
career paths in the destination country as many of them were focused in fields where
skills gap existed. For example, in the case of China, many overseas returnees benefited
from supportive government policies and attractive employment opportunities from a
growing economy (Wang 2004).
In sum, Wave I was shaped by the terrorist attacks of 2001 and mobility of
international students who were enroled in institutions seeking to build research
Wave II (2006-2013)
This wave has its origins in the global financial crisis which started in the USA. One of
the biggest outcomes of the recession was severe budget cuts in the higher education
sector in many countries around the world (Eggins and West 2010). According to
OECD (2010, 310), there was a “greater interest in recruiting foreign students as tertiary
institutions increasingly rely on revenues from foreign tuition fees which are often
higher than for national students.”
However, many institutions were unprepared to support the diverse needs and
expectations of international students (Schulte and Choudaha 2014). This time, neither
universities nor governments in destination countries had resources to offer financial
support or scholarships (Choudaha and Li 2012). As recession moved from the USA to
Europe and Australia, many universities faced the challenge of supporting international
students. The narrative of Wave I of “attracting global talent” changed to “recruiting
international students” in Wave II.
At a time when higher education institutions in leading destination countries like
the USA and the UK were facing financial challenges, aspirations of China’s middle-
class were growing, and many could afford to study abroad. Around the same time,
many Saudi students supported by the scholarships from the Saudi Arabian government
started to go abroad.
Another shift in Wave II was regarding the field of study. With the decline in
funding for research programs, most students in this Wave were self-funded and
concentrated in business, especially at undergraduate level, as compared to science and
engineering at master’s and doctoral level in Wave I.
With the increasing interest to expand international enrolment, institutions
started to create additional pathways for attracting students with lesser academic rigor
and/or lesser English language proficiency (Redden 2013). Benzie (2010, 451) argues,
“In a climate where institutions deprived of Government funding rely heavily on
international student fees, recruitment departments may be tempted to allow students to
enter universities with English language test scores that are lower than desirable.”
This resulted in challenges related to measuring and tracking English
proficiency of admitted candidates and providing corresponding support services to
international students (Andrade, Evans and Hartshorn 2014; Matthews 2016).
On the one side, issues related to the academic preparedness of international
students were emerging and on the other side institutional resources and preparedness to
providing support services to international students was lacking (Bista and Foster 2016,
xxii). These additional support services ranged from academic services like language
and writing support to non-academic services like career and counselling. Consider the
case of Chinese students, who are often stereotyped from a deficit perspective. The
reality may be that institutions themselves have not supported them enough by
increasing intercultural understanding and improving practices and policies that address
diverse students’ needs (Heng 2016).
The lure of new sources of revenue from self-funded Chinese students and
government-funded Saudi students, allowed for the dramatic growth of Chinese students
by 75% and Saudi Arabia enters as the sixth largest provider of globally mobile students
(See Table 1). This was also the time when Indian students who were more price-
sensitive and relied on financial assistantships/scholarships from institutions felt the
financial pressure due to decline in funding from institutions (Choudaha 2014). The
global mobility of Indian students in Wave II grew at a much slower pace of 25% as
compared to 163% for Wave I.
In Wave II, countries like Vietnam and Nigeria entered the top-10 sources, and
the majority of mobility was within the region or towards Australia and the UK
respectively. This was also the time when continued economic challenges in Japan
reduced its attractiveness for regional source countries like China and South Korea
which formed 75% of all international students in Japan (Japan Student Services
In sum, Wave II was shaped by the global financial recession which triggered
financial motivations among some institutions in traditional top destinations to
aggressively expand international student enrolment.
Wave III (2013-2020)
In this section, I analyse the future trends with international student mobility (see final
column of Table 1). This analysis is not a statistical forecast, instead, it synthesises
trends to provide a qualitative commentary of how Wave III growth trend is likely to
compare with Wave II.
Wave III is being shaped by a combination of three major events. First, the
economic slowdown in the largest source country—China— is decelerating the growth
of Chinese students going abroad. At the same time, Chinese students are questioning
the value of investing in their education abroad when neither host countries’
immigration policies nor institutional support for career services can provide a pathway
for experiential opportunities (Choudaha and Hu 2016).
The second major event is the referendum in the UK to exit from the European
Union, or “Brexit,” and the third is the election of Donald Trump as the President of the
USA. Both these events in the top-two destination countries had a strong anti-
immigration tone that is negatively affecting the perception of safety, post-graduation
work and immigration opportunities (Najar and Saul 2016). Alternative destinations like
the Canada and Australia with more welcoming immigration policies are likely to gain
from an uncertain and unwelcoming environment. Likewise, international students from
the European Union who currently pay the same tuition fee as British students are
considering alternative destinations within EU like Germany and France where they
would not be expected to pay a higher tuition fee and have more potential pathways for
work opportunities (Redden 2016).
In the context of economic and political turbulence, this Wave is being
influenced by demographics shifts and emergence of new destinations for international
students. Yet, given the size and reputation of American higher education system, it is
expected to continue to be the leading destination. Despite the anti-immigration drivers
of Brexit, demographic factors will compel some of the OECD countries to build
Hawthorne (2010) notes that economic incentives had been a strong motivation
for studying abroad. However, the skills gap created due to demographic factors will
prompt policies that align migration programs with the economic needs of the country
through international students. For example, a recent proposal by the European Union
aims to revise EU-wide policies of attracting and retaining talent to address skills
shortages and demographic challenges with international students as future potential
workforce (European Commission 2016, 7). Demographic changes and economic
priorities are prompting some of the traditional source countries like China, Japan and
Korea to attract international students as future skilled migrants and become key
destination countries (Asian Development Bank Institute 2014).
The aspiration of traditional source countries to become new education
destinations for international students will further accelerate the growth of glocal
students--those who aspire to gain global experiences at local cost (Choudaha 2012).
Already one out of five globally mobile foreign students to OECD countries came from
countries that share land or maritime borders (OECD 2015). This translates into more
than 850,000 regionally mobile international students who are seeking global education
while staying close to their home country.
The institutional driver in this Wave will be to innovate and offer new modes of
programs through partnerships, transnational and online education to attract glocal
students. A recent report by Richardson (2015) asserts that it is critical to find ways to
expand reach of cross-border mobility to as many higher education students as possible
in all Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies and “[f]or cost reasons,
the only feasible way of doing so is to tap into the opportunities provided by online
modes of learning” (67).
In terms of source countries, emerging economies of Vietnam, Nigeria, and
India are expected to meet some of the demand for skills and talent in destination
countries. Saudi Arabia will face a slowdown due to declining oil prices and the
reduction in scholarships which enabled the bulk of the global mobility of Saudi
students. As the mobility of China slows down and is replaced by students from
emerging economies, there will be a higher expectation of recovering the cost of
studying abroad through better career outcomes. For example, the majority of
international students in Australia institutions reported an expectation that their
university would help them find work (Lawson 2014). Likewise, in the USA, lack of
internship and job opportunities was found to be the primary reason for dissatisfaction
among international undergraduate students (Schulte and Choudaha 2014).
In sum, Wave III indicates a trend towards increasing competition among new
and traditional destinations to attract international students, and increasing expectation
of career and employability outcomes among international students.
Supporting Success of International Students
The three Waves of international student mobility show that while interest for gaining
global educational experiences remains strong, the needs and profile of students
continues to change. At the same time, institutional drivers and rationales for recruiting
and retaining international students are evolving. Going forward, institutions must
innovate not only to grow international student enrolment but also balance it with
corresponding support services that advance student success. In specific, increasing
competition among destinations and institutions will amplify the importance of meeting
career and employability expectations of international students in either host or home
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Table 1. Three waves of international student mobility with top-10 source and destination countries
Compared to Wave II*
Total of Top-10
Total of Top-10
Data Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics [extracted 6 June 2016] | * Author's Analysis of Future Trends
Figure 1. Three waves of international student mobility
•Student need: career