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The Battle for International Students is Now Facing Competition from Home Countries

It’s easy to understand the appeal of an overseas education for foreign students. Young high school grads from emerging countries can experience both culture and curriculum in ways that aren’t attainable in their local colleges and universities. After all, many North American and European schools are globally recognized for their stellar reputations and high post-graduation employment rates.

Many North American and European schools are globally recognized for their stellar reputations and high post-graduation employment rates.
Many North American and European schools are globally recognized for their stellar reputations and high post-graduation employment rates.

The benefit for the hosting countries is also abundantly clear. Aside from boosting their status on the world stage, the economic impact is significant - one small East Coast institution welcomed over 3,000 foreign students in 2018. 

The continued growth of this partnership is integral to top schools, who have long competed amongst each other to attract talent. While Canada, Europe, Australia and the United States traditionally dominate the industry, their hold isn’t unshakeable. Politics, visa delays and disappearing scholarships all contributed to the recent decline in enrollment in once-booming US schools. Though limited to the country, the decrease should serve as a wake-up call to all institutions that growth isn’t a guarantee.

Privy to the economic advantages brought by international students, more markets are entering the game – including the students’ home countries. Though popular universities are some of the oldest in the world, new schools are constantly popping up and governments are now pumping money into their own institutions in a bid to quell the yearly exodus. China is now the third biggest destination for international students.

One immediate advantage these local schools have is cost. Overseas education comes with a steep price including housing, food and of course, tuition. Skyrocketing costs make places like India, where tuition rarely exceeds $1,300 per year, all the more attractive.

Of course, as the US decline demonstrates, some enrollment factors are well outside the school’s control. North America is a popular hub for students, but few stay on as residents. Canada, whose national population is dwarfed by that of many of the students’ home countries, has a small job market, especially compared to their neighbor to the south. Yet in the US, graduating students can face complex employment laws and language barriers.

Recognizing the value of post-graduate work experience, the UK recently announced an extension for students, who are now able to stay in the country for up to a year in some cases, following the completion of their studies. The announcement also aims to attract new applicants in the uncertain Brexit environment.

While much of the focus has historically been on major Western schools, China has quietly amassed a massive student population. With just 3.4 million attendees two decades ago, over 26 million now fill the academic halls. And they’re not just attracting their own residents. A strong emphasis on English is in part fueling the value of a Chinese education. Students could very well complete their degrees without learning a word of Mandarin.

A growing number of scholars hailing from Asia and Africa are increasingly choosing China over the US. In fact, over 60 nations recently sent more students to China than North America, including Laos, Mongolia and Zambia. One major lure? Foreigners are being offered full scholarships to schools like the prestigious universities of Beijing, two of whom recently cracked the top 30 in a ranking of best global schools.

At the same time, some once-popular schools are struggling. Since the 2008 financial crisis, government funding for US institutions has decreased by almost $9 billion. While institutions scramble to make up the difference, the drop has still led to fewer faculty members, less courses and closed campuses.

Across the ocean, Japan was busy investing in their student growth – more of a necessity for the nation whose rapidly aging population is set to cause major economic shifts. Keen to attract youngsters, some Japanese universities modeled their application process on Western ones and tossed language requirements out the window. After graduation, swapping a student visa for a work permit is considerably easier than in other parts of the world. Additionally, major Japanese businesses are scattered across the globe making a Japanese degree valuable to grads of all nationalities. Unsurprisingly, nearly 3 out of 4 international undergrads choose to stay in Japan after graduation.

Of course, while some aspects of an education in Asia may be substantially cheaper than their Western counterparts, the cost of living in cities like Beijing and Tokyo can be unaffordable to even those with seasoned careers. To boost income, international students in these cities have considerable leniency in gaining part-time employment during their studies. Foreigners in Japan can work near-full time hours during the school year and more when on breaks. They can also earn sizable paychecks privately teaching English.

Western institutions wishing to regain their stronghold should prepare for a long-term battle and like their Asian counterparts, focus on the overall experience – before even more students ship away.

For more insight, connect with specialists who work with 8 out of the top 10 globally ranked universities on Twitter @WUBusiness or business.westernunion.com.