The latest data from the Chinese Government shows that the number of students choosing to study abroad in 2015/16 increased by a further 5.6% over the previous year, continuing a decade-long trajectory.
Will 2017 be the year when this long period of growth comes to an end? Earlier this week, Chinese President Xi was at Davos arguing for open markets and free trade. Later that week, Prime Minister May confirmed that whatever the final deal post-Brexit, her government had decided to risk tariff barriers with the EU in order to regain control of control of net immigration. And she continues to believe that international students should be included in these net immigration figures, much to the chagrin of the UK higher education sector, and the barely concealed irritation of some of her Cabinet colleagues.
Today, January 20th 2017, marks the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA, Donald J Trump, who clearly thinks that the trading links between the USA and China need rebalancing in America’s favour. And from his Twitter feed, seems prepared to take a hard line in achieving this goal. Thus risking a trade war with China, and a potentially massive reduction in the number of Chinese students who choose to study in the USA.
So the rise in what the establishment chooses to call populism may well have a damaging effect on student recruitment in both the US and UK. This can only benefit those Western countries like Canada and Ireland who are making determined efforts to welcome International students with open arms.
The supreme irony will be that President Trump and Prime Minister May both want to increase the wealth of their countries yet both seem to be espousing policies which will have a damaging effect on international student numbers, especially China. In both countries, higher education income rates as a top five foreign exchange earner, with billions at stake.
This is therefore no time for Western universities to take their foot of the gas, especially in China, which is far and away the world’s largest market for International students.
It’s just more than a little unfortunate that universities in the US and UK will have to work harder to counter the negative impressions created by their new governments.