International student numbers hit record highs in Canada, UK and US

International students are heading to Canada, the UK and the US in record numbers despite the pandemic, new research by the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University shows. But Australia and New Zealand continue to experience a dramatic drop in new international students.

Our reportStudent, interrupted: international education and the pandemic, examined five major destinations for international students: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

We found the first waves of the pandemic caused a large fall in new international students. But countries that have opened to international students have rebounded strongly.

The research reveals a complex situation where the pandemic affected international students from around the world differently.

The numbers of new students from China are still below what they were pre-pandemic. But for some source countries, such as India and Nigeria, numbers are at record levels.

International education is an important part of how many countries manage investment in their education sector. The report highlights the renewed emphasis countries are placing on attracting international students.

A fall for all and a rebound for some

Our report examined student visa data to understand the impact of the pandemic on prospective international students. Student visa data are a leading indicator, as most students normally need a visa before they can enrol.

The chart below shows the total numbers of new student visas each country granted in the 12 months to September in each year from 2018 to 2021. The pandemic resulted in new student numbers falling in all countries. But some have been more affected than others.

The UK has recovered the strongest. Its number of new international students is at record levels – 38% higher than pre-COVID.

Annual data can obscure the disruption caused by the pandemic. This is because countries applied different levels of restrictions throughout 2020 and 2021, altering normal enrolment patterns.

The chart below uses quarterly data to explore changes throughout 2020 and 2021. The September 2019 quarter is equal to 100 on the index used for the chart. Using seasonally adjusted data makes it possible to explore changes while controlling for peaks and troughs that usually occur throughout the year.

This chart shows the depth of falls in new student visas issued in 2020 after the pandemic began. Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US experienced falls greater than 80%. By the September 2021 quarter, Canada, the UK and the US had rebounded to record levels for the available data on student visas.

This could be good news for countries like Australia and New Zealand, which have lost students to other countries. The quick return to an upwards trend in Canada, the UK and the US suggests there is pent-up demand from students waiting for borders to open. If so, new international students should enrol in larger numbers when travel to Australia and New Zealand becomes more possible.

What has been the impact by source country?

Events in students’ home countries will also influence decisions during a pandemic.

Our research looked at the impact of the pandemic on new international students by their country of origin.

The table below shows the changes in the number of new student visas for the largest source countries.

Nigeria has rebounded the strongest, driven largely by an increase in Nigerian students studying in the UK.

New international students from India have also increased by about 27% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Behind this increase lie shifts in student choice.

The number of Indian international students going to Australia fell by 62% in the 12 months to September 2021 compared to 2019. In contrast, new Indian international students to the UK more than doubled, jumping by 174%.

India has overtaken China as the largest source country of international students.

What are the policy implications?

Analysis of international education can be a numbers game with discussion focusing on shifts in enrolments and the economic contribution of international students. But there are important policy implications.

For instance, there has been much debate about the influence of geopolitical tensions on international student choice. Our research suggests the reduction in Chinese international students is more likely due to administrative obstacles and travel restrictions.

International students also contribute greatly to total investment in the education sector. In Australia, fees from international students provide about 27% of total university revenue. Losing international students can have a big impact on education institutions, especially universities.

In a post-pandemic environment, governments are seeking to grow and foster their international education sectors.

In the US, the Biden administration announced a “renewed commitment to international education” in July 2021. The UK government is aiming for a 75% increase in the value of international education by 2030.

While the pandemic has had a massive impact on international education, the scene is set for a return to a highly competitive global market.

Peter Hurley, Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and Melinda Hildebrandt, Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University




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