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Olesya Friedman and Stefan Trines, Research Editor, WENR

The City of Lviv, Ukraine

Ukraine is a post-Soviet Eastern European country of 42 million people bordering Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Russia. Ukraine remains deeply torn by the ongoing conflict between its government and pro-Russian separatists in its eastern regions. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the declaration of Ukraine’s independence in August 1991, Ukraine has struggled amid high levels of corruption and political instability to maintain social cohesion and establish better public institutions. Conflicts over the future direction of the country spilled over into the Ukrainian revolutions of 2004 (the Orange Revolution) and 2013–2014 (the Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Euromaidan Revolution). Popular dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs was also on display in the recent 2019 presidential elections. Ukrainian voters elected an independent political novice as their president, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, by a landslide—a margin that was widely interpreted as a rebuke of the country’s political establishment.

The Ukrainian education system has a long tradition, but its reputation has suffered lately from increased quality problems, many of which are the result of former Soviet rule and the rapid social transformation that took place after the collapse of Communism. As international educator Svetlana Filiatreau described it, “Ukraine’s economic crisis of the 1990’s led to a decline in the financing of education, including research and development…. [It] has had a tremendous negative impact on the educational system of Ukraine leading to the mass immigration of educated people …  and the marketization of higher education. These factors, combined with the increasing levels of corruption in Ukrainian society, Soviet-style higher education, and lack of transparency mechanisms in Ukrainian higher education at all levels, have led to skyrocketing corruption in higher education, [and] declining quality ….”.

In response to such problems, Ukrainian authorities have in recent years adopted a series of ambitious reforms to increase transparency, accountability, and integrity, including a new law on higher education in July 2014 that seeks to increase the autonomy of universities. However, the reforms have proven mostly unpopular and have failed to convince many Ukrainians that education policies are heading in the right direction. Merely 20 percent of Ukrainians surveyed in 2019 supported the reforms. Other opinion polls also revealed great dissatisfaction with the quality of education among the Ukrainian populace.[1] This dissatisfaction and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine have contributed to growing outbound student flows in recent years.

Challenges and Problems in Education

Several serious problems hinder Ukraine’s education sector. They include academic corruption, population loss, the lack of university autonomy, dated facilities, and armed conflict.

Academic Corruption

Even though rampant government corruption was one of the main causes of the Euromaidan Revolution, the level of and tolerance for corruption in Ukraine remains high, according to the anti-corruption watchdog organization Transparency International, which considers corruption a systemic problem in Ukraine, ranking the country 120th out of 180 countries on its 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. Of the Ukrainians surveyed by Transparency International shortly after the Euromaidan Revolution, about one-third viewed bribery as an acceptable way of resolving problems with government agencies. Likewise, 44 percent of respondents in a 2017 survey by the I. Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Ukrainian Sociology Service believed that corruption had increased since 2014, while only 4 percent believed it had decreased. Forty-four percent of respondents thought corruption was the biggest problem in the country, while an additional 35 percent considered it one of the most serious problems. A sizable share of respondents—39 percent—were doubtful that it was possible to overcome corruption in Ukraine at all.  In 2015 the Guardian newspaper called Ukraine “the most corrupt nation in Europe.”

As in several other post-Communist countries, Ukraine’s education system is among the sectors most affected by corruption. Its manifestations range from bribery in admissions to examinations fraud, the misallocation of funds, extortion, ghost teachers, and dissertation plagiarism. While corruption is believed to be most rampant and quickly spreading in tertiary education, particularly in the competitive medical universities, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently detailed similarly endemic problems in the Ukrainian school system, from preschool to upper-secondary levels. The effects are a loss of educational quality, the “leakage” of critical resources, and low public trust in the system. Externally, corruption and quality problems affect the international reputation of Ukrainian education. Alarmed by frequent reports  of corruption in Ukrainian medical schools, Saudi Arabia, for example, no longer automatically recognizes Ukrainian medical degrees.

Demographic Decline and a Shrinking Education System  

 Alongside other Eastern European nations, Ukraine has one of the fastest shrinking populations in the world. Measuring the size of Ukraine’s population is complicated because of the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimea and the loss of control over the eastern Donbas region’s oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, but even before these developments the number of people in the country declined by 6.7 million between 1993 and 2013. Low birth rates, high mortality rates, large-scale outmigration, and other causes contributed to the decline. The UN projects that Ukraine’s population will decrease by another unprecedented 18 percent until 2050, from 44.2 million in 2017 to merely 36.4 million.

The effect on the education system has been huge. According to UNESCO statistics, the number of tertiary students in the country dropped from about 2.85 million in 2008 to 1.67 million in 2017—a decrease of more than 41 percent that has led to the closure of hundreds of higher education institutions (HEIs). The total number, including universities and other types of HEIs, declined from more than 1,000 in 1996 to 661 in the 2017/18 academic year, per government data. Given the current demographic trends, more closures are likely. In the school system, population decline and outmigration from villages and small cities recently caused the government to create community “hub schools” to pool resources and combine pupils from different schools.

Dated Curricula, Lack of University Autonomy, and Other Problems

 Ukraine is among the most educated societies in the world with a tertiary gross enrollment ratio (GER) of 83 percent (2014, UNESCO). Yet, many view the country’s academic institutions as inflexible and out of touch with labor market demands and societal needs. In this view, Ukrainian society has an unhealthy obsession with theoretical university education at the expense of more employment-geared education and training. Youth unemployment is high (19.6 percent among 15- to 24-year-olds in 2018) and far above unemployment rates of the general working-age population.

Other problems stem from the legacy of the highly centralized, rigid system of the former Soviet Union. For example, Ukrainian universities generally lack autonomy and initiative. While there have been heightened attempts to increase flexibility, widen autonomy, internationalize education, and make curricula more employment-relevant in recent years, the implementation of the 2014 higher education law, which is designed to increase university autonomy, has thus far been sluggish. Prominent critics like Sergiy Kvit, Ukraine’s former education minister and current director of its National Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, have lamented that the reforms have failed to produce adequate changes, most notably in terms of financial autonomy of public universities. State universities remain dependent on the government in a variety of crucial areas, including salaries for university staff, funding of research, and infrastructure development.

External observers have noted that parts of the infrastructure at Ukrainian schools is inadequate and that teacher morale is low. Satu Kahkonen, the World Bank Country Director for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, noted in a recent article that “While visiting schools in Ukraine, especially village schools, it is hard to believe that the state spends 6 percent of GDP on education—one of the highest rates of public spending on education in the world. Ukrainian schools often lack adequate facilities, modern equipment or quality textbooks.” One of the problems, according to Kahkonen, is that the number of students has declined much faster than the number of schools and teachers. As a result, Ukraine has very low student-to-teacher ratios but a system that is very expensive to maintain and ultimately unsustainable.

Overall, the international competitiveness of Ukraine’s education system appears to have declined in recent years. While the country ranked in the 2012 ranking of national higher education systems by the Universitas 21 network of research universities, it dropped to position 38 in the same ranking in 2019.

The Impact of War

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s eastern territories have had a devastating impact on economic and political life in Ukraine, as well as its education system. According to UNICEF, 10,000 people had been killed and 1.5 million displaced by 2017. About 700 educational facilities had been damaged or shuttered, and some 220,000 children were in urgent need of safe schools. There were 143 HEIs located in the annexed or occupied territories (36 in Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, and 107 in rebel-controlled parts of the Donbas region in the east). These territories were also home to 140 research institutions, representing more than 12 percent of all Ukrainian research institutions and accounting for 31 percent of all tertiary enrollments. As of 2015, only 16 universities and 10 research institutions had successfully moved out of the conflict zones. Ukraine has thus lost a significant part of its educational and scientific resources and has yet to fully resolve the problem of migrants, including students, teachers, and administrative staff, from the annexed and occupied territories.

The first university to set up operations in exile was the Donetsk National University, but only a tiny fraction of its 18,000 students are continuing their education on the new campus in central Ukraine. Ukraine’s Ministry of Education does not recognize diplomas issued by universities that remain in the disputed areas, but students often have the option of attending the exiled universities in online distance education mode. In fact, another exiled university, the prestigious Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National University, has become the leading online learning institution in Ukraine.

Outbound Student Mobility 

The war also had an apparent impact on student mobility patterns in Ukraine. While outbound student mobility has grown strongly in the country in general in recent years, it has accelerated even further since the conflict began in 2014. After doubling from 25,432 to 49,966 between 2007 and 2014, the number of degree-seeking Ukrainian students abroad has since spiked by another 54 percent to 77,219 in 2017, as per UNESCO. According to estimates by the Ukrainian think tank CEDOS, the number of outbound students further peaked to 83,000 in the 2017/18 academic year. The outbound mobility ratio, that is, the percentage of students enrolled abroad amongst all Ukrainian students, tripled since 2012 and stood at 4.6 percent in 2017 (UNESCO).

The swelling student outflows primarily go to neighboring countries. The number of Ukrainian degree students in Poland more than quadrupled between 2012 and 2016, from 6,110 to 29,253 students, making Poland the top destination for mobile students from Ukraine. Enrollments in Russia have also surged drastically and more than doubled within just a few years, from 10,702 in 2012 to 22,440 in 2016.

The Czech Republic, Italy, and the United States are the next most popular destination countries for degree-seeking students, according to UNESCO, although the total number of Ukrainian students in these countries is comparatively small—less than 7,000 students combined. Data gathered by CEDOS paint a slightly different picture in that Germany and Canada were the third- and fourth-largest destination countries with 9,638 and 3,245 students, respectively, in the 2016/17 academic year.[2]

It is remarkable the extent to which Ukrainian students have shaped and come to dominate the international student population in key destination countries. More than half of all the international students in Poland, for instance, now come from Ukraine. In Bulgaria, Ukrainian students make up more than 30 percent of the international student body, language barriers notwithstanding.

Poland is an attractive destination for Ukrainian students not only because of its geographic proximity. The country affords Ukrainians an opportunity to pursue high-quality education, often at lower costs of study and living than in Ukraine—an important criterion since the majority of Ukrainian international students are self-funded. Poland also faces a shortage of skilled workers and seeks to retain Ukrainian students in the country after they graduate. Furthermore, Poland suffers from a similar demographic decline as Ukraine, which means that many Polish universities are assertively recruiting in Ukraine to compensate for the loss of domestic students. Study programs in Poland are increasingly offered in English, especially at the graduate level. Finally, the chance to earn a European qualification in an EU member state is a considerable lure for Ukrainian students, since it widens potential employment opportunities within the larger EU. It is highly common for Ukrainian international students to not return home after graduation—a trend that worsens Ukraine’s brain drain.

Trends in the U.S. and Canada  

The number of Ukrainian students in the U.S. has grown in recent years but remains small by comparison. According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors data, 1,928 Ukrainian students studied in the U.S. in 2017/18 compared with 1,490 in 2012/13 (an increase of 29 percent). A plurality of Ukrainian students (49 percent) are enrolled in undergraduate programs, while 33 percent study in graduate programs, 12 percent undertake Optional Practical Training, and 6 percent attend non-degree programs. In Canada, the number of Ukrainian students has been rising sharply amid the country’s surging popularity as an international study destination in recent years. The total number of Ukrainian students in the country, as reported by the Canadian government, spiked by 420 percent over the past decade, from 525 in 2008 to 2,730 in 2018.

Inbound Student Mobility

Despite the fact that Ukraine is a relatively small country without world-renowned universities featured in the top positions of international university rankings, it is an international study destination of considerable importance. According to the Ukrainian State Center for International Education, there were 75,605 students from 154 countries studying in Ukraine in 2018. That’s an increase of 41 percent over 2011 when there were just 53,664 international students enrolled at Ukrainian HEIs. This increase reflects the growing popularity of Ukraine as a study destination for students from Asia and Africa, particularly among medical students. While the share of student enrollments from most other post-Soviet countries has recently leveled off, the number of students from countries like India or Morocco has surged over the past years, so that India is currently by far the largest sending country with nearly 15,000 students.

Eight out of ten of the most popular universities among international students are medical institutions, reflecting the fact that the inflow of Asian and African students is to a large extent driven by students pursuing medical studies. Medical education in India, for instance, is very expensive and admission into medical schools is highly competitive, so that Indian students are increasingly branching out to less expensive countries like China or Ukraine. Interest in a comparatively high-quality yet low-cost medical education has also made Ukraine a popular destination in English-speaking African countries like Nigeria and Ghana, where Ukraine is currently the third most popular study destination worldwide. Visa requirements and costs of living in Ukraine are often lower for African students than in most Western destinations, although there have been reports of

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Dr. Omolabake Fakunle, Educational Researcher, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh

Over the past two decades, international higher education has expanded rapidly, bringing tremendous benefits to institutions, scholars, and communities around the world. The main benefits to institutions are: recruiting talented students from a global pool and significant financial gains from fee-paying international students. International higher education also enable scholars to develop a wider scope for research and knowledge exchange opportunities. However, the current global political climate, marked by strident nationalist rhetoric, is affecting mobility trends and making receiving countries compete more closely for international students. To attract and retain qualified students, institutions will need to focus on those students’ needs and commit to improving student experiences and outcomes.

Internationalization in Higher Education

Internationalization as an organized system is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon, facilitated as it is by globalization and technological advancement. It is also an emerging area of strategic development.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) assert they are ‘international’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they started developing internationalization strategies within the last decade. These strategies are now so important, it would be strange to find an institution that does not include them in its policies—at least in the Western Hemisphere. These strategies remain a topic of discussion among scholars and other stakeholders for many reasons, one being that “misconceptions of internationalization still prevail.”

Internationalization frameworks developed over the last four decades are largely planned from institutional and national viewpoints. However, within the last decade, scholarly discourse has noted the exclusion of academic and administrative staff and students from internationalization frameworks. Despite this growing awareness that there are gaps in existing frameworks, there is scant evidence that institutional strategies have taken into account a need to address those gaps – exposing the crucial role of institutional policy and its direct impact on students and their overall experience.

This article briefly explores internationalization policies at the institutional level. The focus is on five institutions in the United Kingdom, a top destination country (second to the United States) for expatriate students and home to the most international universities in the world in terms of students and staff. These universities—University College London, the University of Manchester, the University of Edinburgh, Coventry University, Kings College London—identified here but anonymized in the discussion of their data, recruited more international students than any other HEIs in the UK in the 2016/17 academic year. Representing only around 3 percent of the UK’s HEIs, they collectively recruited 14 percent (n=61,425) of the country’s international students that year, according to the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) 2018 data. They also represent a range of institutions: They are both old and modern, and are located in different parts of the country—England and Scotland.

These HEIs were selected for two reasons: first, to examine the internationalization focus of such top recruiting institutions; and second, to critically explore whether student voices—that is, the expressed needs of students—are included in their policy documents. Key points across these HEIs are below.

Student Voices in Institutional Discourse

The strategic approach outlined in the policy documents shows that student recruitment remains an overall priority in institutional internationalization discourse. In view of the higher education funding structure in the UK, international student recruitment will likely continue to matter to institutions. One HEI states that around two-thirds of its £263m (USD$334) tuition fee income came from international students in 2013/14.

However, international student voices were deafeningly silent in all the policy documents. Success was measured quantitatively—by increasing the numbers of international students or the diversity of source countries. The similarity in goals and scope of operation suggests that the omission of student voices is the norm. HEIs could draw on student’s experience and viewpoints to develop effective strategies that could enhance the delivery higher education to its beneficiaries.

As mentioned earlier, internationalization strategies at HEIs are a relatively new development, yet omitting student voices from these policies is already problematic. The omission could mean that the strategies don’t address the needs of international students, some authors have argued, and that the economic benefit of recruiting international students is the real goal of such strategies.

Furthermore, even the broad, innovative policy mentioned earlier fails to acknowledge the need to support what is arguably a diverse pool of international candidates—those who might be talented but unable to afford an international education. This support should be in addition to facilitating the overseas experiences of students and staff.

In essence, there is a need to understand the rationale for a study abroad experience. The rationale would provide a framework for assessing the extent to which the study abroad experience matches or aligns with student expectations. However, such qualitative interrogation of rationales is largely missing from the current discourse. For example, the broad, innovative policy does not take into account the distinctions between domestic and international students’ rationales for studying at the institution. Instead, what abounds in the literature are quantitative data in the form of student mobility (to pursue a full degree or credit towards one). From the perspective of the institution, which seeks to increase international student enrollment, quantitative data are measures of successful internationalization.

How Should We Measure Success?

However, the question remains—do quantitative measures (such as the number of international students in an institution) indicate successful internationalization from a student’s perspective? To help answer this question, my doctoral research (completed in 2019) provides an empirically based framework, divided into four “frames,” for understanding student rationales for studying abroad: educational, experiential, aspirational, and economic. Institutions can use this model to form a holistic internationalization strategy that recognizes different stakeholder perspectives, expectations, and roles.

Some aspects of existing strategies align with student rationales. For example, the experiential rationale relates to students seeking an educational, cultural, and social experience abroad. A multinational classroom is important to such students, who seek a truly international learning and social experience. This rationale ties in with the institutional aims of facilitating cultural awareness amongst students and staff. Additionally, it agrees with institutional strategies which seek to diversify source recruitment countries. Keep in mind, however, that a study abroad experience does not necessarily foster intercultural skills and competencies, just the way the presence of international students on a campus does not necessarily promote intercultural encounters.

Students tend to view the international environment as a melting pot of multiculturalism where they can share and learn about different cultures and values. At the same time, understanding that international students want to share their knowledge with other students, domestic and expat, could pave the way for institutions to develop enabling structures that would support this exchange, thus enriching the student experience. However, this is an area where student rationales diverge substantially from institutional policy which focuses on delivering an intercultural experience without the inclusion of input from the students – who bring a wealth of multicultural knowledge. Importantly, what empowers students—and staff—is the intentional development of policies that facilitate student and staff intercultural learning.


Current discourse, evidence from HEIs that recruit some of the largest numbers of international students, and recent research all point to the need to reframe the internationalization process so that the expressed needs of students—student “voices”—are included. To this end, HEIs must explore innovative ways to align both student and institutional rationales for pursuing an international experience. There is a need to pull together expertise and resources to tackle this challenge, especially in view of the contributions of multiple stakeholders to internationalization in an increasingly globalized world.

Dr Omolabake Fakunle is an Educational Researcher and Tutor at Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh. Email: omolabake.fakunle@ed.ac.uk, Twitter: @LabakeFakunle, LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/omolabake-fakunle-812b3733

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).

The post Empowering the Student Voice in Internationalization appeared first on WENR.

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Chris Mackie, Research Associate, WES

Previously, in Transnational Education and Globalization: A Look into the Complex Environment of International Branch Campuses, we examined trends and push factors surrounding international branch campuses (IBCs) worldwide. In this article we continue our exploration by looking at two of the more prominent IBC host countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China.

Host Country Motivations and Resulting IBC Type

The choice to establish an international branch campus is largely made by the sending institution in the exporting country. Although the home country government may provide some support, and home country accrediting agencies typically supervise the activities of IBCs established by institutions under their jurisdiction, the choice to establish branches overseas remains almost exclusively in the hands of the home institution’s governing body. Conversely, host country governments are intimately involved in the regulation of foreign education providers, both as multinational commercial ventures subject to regulations on international trade, and as higher education providers subject to some degree of quality assurance.

The policies and regulatory mechanisms adopted by the host government play an important role in shaping the structure and form taken by IBCs. In turn, these policies are shaped by historical circumstances and political, demographic, socioeconomic, geographical, and cultural factors. A close examination of national policies and rationales in both the UAE and China will help illuminate why IBCs in these two countries have flourished in two widely differing configurations.

United Arab Emirates

The UAE has been highly successful in its efforts to attract foreign higher education providers to its soil. Since the early 2000s, the number of IBCs hosted in-country has expanded rapidly, growing from just 4 in 2000, to 31 in 2015 (see Figure 1). Although recently surpassed by China as the top IBC host country, the UAE, with a land mass over 100 times smaller, currently hosts the largest concentration of IBCs in the world. IBCs are spread through three of the nation’s seven emirates, Dubai (24), Abu Dhabi (5), and Ras Al Khaimah (2).

Figure 1 Source: Cross-Border Education Research Team (2017, January 20). C-BERT Branch Campus Listing. [Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane]

Historical Context: Economics and International Relations

The UAE’s recent development—especially in the economic and political spheres since the mid-20th century—profoundly shaped the form of the nation’s IBCs. It also provides a useful context for understanding IBC proliferation in the UAE.

Prior to the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in the mid-20th century, the UAE’s importance in international affairs and the world market was marginal. Although conditions varied between emirates, in general the population was small and semi-nomadic, with exports concentrated in the pearl diving, seafaring, and fishing industries. Individual business enterprises were small, often tribal or familial affairs in which traditional techniques predominated—in some cases to the explicit exclusion of modern technology. Under these business conditions, extensive specialized training and managerial expertise were largely unnecessary.

However, the region’s central location on the oceanic trade routes connecting Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East, and its location on the southern shore of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, increasingly attracted the attention and ambitions of the world’s great powers. In the early 15th century, the Strait of Hormuz drew the famous Ming dynasty navigator Zheng He. But increasingly it was Western European nations, and England in particular, that showed interest; until the UAE’s independence in 1971, the United Kingdom was the dominant colonial power in the region. This relationship was codified in a series of bilateral agreements between the UK and individual emirates, culminating in the 1892 “exclusive agreement.” In exchange for a promise of British naval protection for the coast and military assistance in the event of an attack by land, the emirates agreed to cede to the UK extensive control over their foreign affairs and exclusive rights to any future territorial concessions made by any of the individual emirates. Nearly half a century later, the 1939 Abu Dhabi concession agreement would similarly cede rights to foreign powers. In this case, the then ruler of Abu Dhabi granted oil exploration rights to a consortium of foreign oil companies for a period of 75 years.

The discovery and large-scale export of oil (the UAE holds the world’s seventh-largest proved oil reserves) fundamentally changed the country’s economy and society. Following the first export of crude oil in 1962, economic growth exploded, filling government coffers and funding extensive infrastructure improvements and generous welfare programs. Population growth followed, rising from 112,472 in 1962, to 3,154,925 in 2000, to 9,400,145 in 2017. Even with this rapid increase in population, and despite large fluctuations associated with oil prices and economic recessions, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has remained among the highest in the world.

The economic takeoff also spurred the growth—or importation—of modern, large-scale, international business enterprises, the most prominent of which were the various foreign oil companies and their brokers, specialized merchants, shippers, financiers, and insurers. The massive size and highly technical nature of the industry required extensive technical expertise and managerial skills of a kind not necessary for the small-scale personal businesses that had long predominated in the region. This demand for specialized skills was reflected in the country’s rapidly rising tertiary enrollment numbers, which grew from just 519 in 1978 to 159,553 in 2016.

However, the UAE’s small, low-skilled domestic population could not meet the labor demands of the rapidly growing economy. The country began importing foreign labor, both low- and high-skilled. In fact, as recently as 2013, immigrants held more than 90 percent of the jobs in the country’s private sector. In the same year, immigrants made up over 80 percent of the population, or 7.8 million out of a total population of 9.2 million.[1]

Economic dependence on the export of a single, nonrenewable commodity carries obvious risks. Long-standing policy planning at the federal and emirate level has aimed at reducing those risks through the encouragement of economic diversification in order to “reduce reliance on oil and transform its economy from a conventional, labor-intensive economy to one based on knowledge, technology and skilled labor.” These policies have helped to establish the UAE as one of the most open economies in the world, designed to attract the international investment capital and sophisticated firms necessary to keep the economy rolling. This openness to international trade and the outside world also conforms to the UAE’s—and to Dubai’s in particular—historical understanding of itself as a trading nation and people.

The federal structure of governance in the UAE affords the individual emirates wide discretion in setting policies and regulations. This leeway extends to the higher education sector—making generalization at the federal level difficult. For this reason, the following discussion will focus on Dubai, the leading host emirate for IBCs.

Free Zones (FZs) and Education Hubs

Dubai’s establishment of Free Zones (FZs) is a key component of its economic policy. FZs are special economic zones which seek to attract foreign investment and commerce through the offer of financial incentives and tax and customs exemptions. In order to facilitate business opportunities, FZs are delimited geographically, each catering to a specific industry. Among the industries served by FZs is the education sector—the largest of which is the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). To attract foreign higher education providers, DIAC offers an extremely generous incentive package and a light regulatory touch, including the allowance of full foreign ownership, full repatriation of profits, and total exemption from taxes and customs duties.

DIAC is managed by TECOM Group, a unit of Dubai Holding, the emirate’s sovereign investment vehicle; the majority shareholder is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the current ruler of Dubai. Dubai Holding aims at creating “an innovation driven knowledge-based economy.” The establishment of DIAC is therefore a direct result of the policy objectives of Dubai’s leadership. It is both an investment promising rent revenues driven by a growing education tourism industry (IBCs in DIAC rent their campus space), as well as an investment intended to train and develop a skilled foreign and domestic workforce.

While FZs are used to attract foreign investment in many sectors of the UAE economy, similar zones specializing in higher education, often referred to as education hubs, are found throughout the world. C-BERT defines an education hub as “a designated region intended to attract foreign investment, retain local students, build a regional reputation by providing access to high-quality education and training for both international and domestic students, and create a knowledge-based economy.” Ideally, education hubs provide opportunities for inter-institutional collaborations and synergistic partnerships. Education hubs, in their specialized seclusion and critical mass of students, may facilitate the reproduction of a part of the institutional ethos and campus feel of the home institution, as examples from other countries illustrate.

Characteristics of the United Arab Emirates’ IBCs

The majority of education providers established in Dubai’s FZs are offshore institutions. In DIAC, 21 out of the 27 higher education institutions (HEIs) are from outside the UAE. Furthermore, foreign providers in Dubai rarely operate outside of FZs; as of 2011 only two providers were established outside of FZs.

International Focus

Not only are the institutions international, but the students themselves are predominantly citizens of other countries. In 2015/16, 37,692 of the 60,310 students (63 percent) enrolled in Dubai’s HEIs were expatriates. One year later, Dubai’s HEIs enrolled students from 167 countries around the world. The preponderance of foreign institutions and students reflects the composition of the country’s private workforce and population. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the UAE possesses a highly segmented education market, a situation which largely mirrors the composition of its labor force. Most UAE citizens work in the public sector and study at state or federal institutions, while foreign workers and students fill the vast majority of positions in the private sector and seats in private HEIs.

Importantly, the UAE hosts IBCs from India and Pakistan, two countries exporting very few IBCs worldwide—five of the total of seven Indian IBCs, and also the only Pakistani IBC in the world (see Figure 2). The presence of Indian and Pakistani IBCs in the UAE reflects the large proportion of citizens from these two countries in the nation’s total private workforce and population. In fact, in 2015, Indians made up 35 percent and Pakistanis nearly 10 percent of the UAE’s total population.

Figure 2 Source: Cross-Border Education Research Team (2017, January 20). C-BERT Branch Campus Listing. [Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane]

Market Focus

High enrollment numbers in market-oriented specializations indicate the extent to which the focus and proliferation of IBCs reflect the demands of the private labor market. Dr. Warren Fox, Chief of Higher Education at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), a government agency established in 2006 to supervise the development of Dubai’s private higher education, ties IBCs explicitly to market needs. He is quoted as saying, “We need more branch campuses and we need more variety.… The UAE has had a record of importing educated talent, but Dubai is diversifying its economy. It’s building a knowledge-driven economy. There are areas, such as trade, logistics and construction, where large numbers of graduates are needed.”

According to KHDA data, in the 2017/18 school year, business was the most popular specialization at all academic levels. Students enrolled in business specializations made up more than half of all enrolled students. Other market-oriented specializations, such as engineering, information technology, media and design, and architecture and construction, are also popular. These fields are critical to a region largely dependent on oil extraction and marketing. They also support the emirate’s goal of developing a workforce capable of managing modern, large-scale enterprises.

Figure 3 Source: KHDA Higher Education Open Data, Census 2017/2018

Quality Assurance and Accreditation

Policies and procedures designed to regulate and guarantee the quality of IBCs vary between the different emirates. In Dubai, IBCs located within the FZs fall under the authority of the KHDA, which requires that all institutions receive academic authorization prior to opening, and that each of the institution’s academic programs be registered with the KHDA. To facilitate these operations, the KHDA established an internal quality assurance body, the University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB).

In line with the UAE’s open approach to foreign education providers, UQAIB itself relies heavily on the quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms of each institution, stating in its Quality Assurance Manual that,

“In order not to burden foreign HEPs [Higher Education Providers] unduly and duplicate QA processes to which such HEPs have already been subjected, UQAIB will, in the first instance, take account of existing QA reports on the quality of provision of foreign HEPs as well as the effectiveness of the QA systems and procedures in place at those institutions, as long as such reports are fairly recent.”

This model of quality assurance, known as a validation model, seeks to guarantee, with minimal intervention, that the IBC offers programs of a quality equivalent to that offered by the home institution. Among its requirements is that the IBC provide “the same accredited program taught at the institution’s home campus.”[2] The stipulation that IBCs exactly replicate the programs of the home campus, removes a great deal of curricular flexibility from the hands of the IBC. But it also signals to prospective students that the programs offered at IBCs throughout the emirate are identical in both quality and content to those taught at the oftentimes prestigious foreign institutions—and thereby helps to protect the quality and reputation of Dubai’s higher education export sector.

Conclusion—Dubai, United Arab Emirates

All of these trends are in line with what a recent report of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education identifies as Dubai’s “main rationale for importing TNE provision,” namely “to allow students—primarily expats and other international students—to access undiluted quality foreign provision.” This rationale is aligned with the UAE’s strategic goals of economic diversification—through the development of its educational export sector—and the training of a high-skilled workforce for an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Recent changes made in the UAE’s visa policies are also evidence of the significance of these goals as motivating factors. In early 2019, the UAE introduced generous post-graduation work visas for international students and scholars, awarding five-year residency visas to high-performing students and 10-year visas to top specialists and researchers.

The nation’s strategic objectives have also directly shaped the form taken by its IBCs. They have promoted a market-oriented TNE or transnational education sector with educational provision taking place within internationally owned and operated IBCs—to the exclusion of nearly all other common TNE models. The UAE’s laissez-faire approach to foreign institutions, combined with its natural resources and central location in a..

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Chris Mackie, Research Associate, WES

International branch campuses (IBCs) are among the most visible and resource intensive examples of transnational education (TNE)—which provides education to students “located in a country different from the one where the awarding institution is based.” In a context of increasing international competition and interconnectedness, IBCs are proliferating throughout the world. Countries and institutions that export IBCs see opportunities for student recruitment, revenue generation, and strategic institutional and research ties. Countries importing IBCs see a potential avenue to quickly boost higher education capacity, meet labor market needs, and prevent the loss of human capital.

However, IBCs are not all the same. They differ in their academic objectives, material resources, and organizational structures. The relationships between individuals and entities responsible for IBCs in both the exporting and importing countries also vary widely. These variations often have a significant influence on IBC regulations and practices. They also determine to a large extent the success or failure of any IBC venture.

To delineate the developmental trajectory of IBCs, this article will offer a detailed exploration of IBC trends and the motivations of home and host countries. Understanding how and why different types of IBCs flourish may shed light on their future and their role in the broader TNE context.

Defining IBCs

The definition of an IBC is a matter of some dispute—a reflection of the variety of forms these offshore campuses have taken throughout the world. However, recent research on IBCs has largely been guided by the definition developed by the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) and the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), two institutions at the forefront of this research. Their most recent joint report, International Branch Campuses – Trends and Developments 2016, defines an IBC as “an entity that is owned, at least in part, by a foreign higher education provider; operated in the name of the foreign education provider; and provides an entire academic program, substantially on site, leading to a degree awarded by the foreign education provider.”

This broad definition serves to distinguish IBCs from other common and closely related TNE models, such as study abroad centers, joint degree programs, twinning (or articulation) programs, and franchising arrangements. In contrast to these models, enterprises classified as IBCs under the above definition tend to possess a set of common characteristics. They tend to occupy and teach out of a physical, brick-and-mortar plant in the host country. They are owned—in whole or in part—by an offshore higher education provider. Their operations—such as educational delivery, marketing, and contracting—are conducted in the name of that foreign provider. The curricula and pedagogical approaches used at the IBC are of a quality comparable to that of the home campus. Admission requirements and standards for students are the same as, or comparable to, those for students entering a similar program at the home campus. The faculty includes professors from the home campus or similarly qualified individuals from the host country or a third country. And students are usually citizens of the host country or international students from a third country.

Despite these general characteristics, IBCs are in many ways more accurately characterized by their variety. Because of disagreement over the exact definition of IBCs, the available data on these institutions vary. This article adheres to C-BERT and OBHE’s IBC definition (above), and references the IBC data publicly available on C-BERT’s website.[1]

Worldwide Trends

IBCs have proliferated rapidly since the early 2000s. According to C-BERT data, there were 67 functioning IBCs[2] in 2000. By 2015, the last year for which IBC foundation dates are indicated in the online database, that number had more than tripled, to 248 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Source: Cross-Border Education Research Team (2017, January 20). C-BERT Branch Campus Listing. [Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane][3]

Geographic Dispersion

By 2015, IBCs had spread throughout the world, operating in six continents and 75 countries. The majority (61 percent) are located in Asia.[4] China and the United Arab Emirates host by far the most IBCs, with 32 and 31 operating within their borders respectively (see Figure 2). These top two countries import nearly three times as many IBCs as the country with the next highest number, Malaysia, which hosts 12. Qatar and Singapore follow, both hosting 11 IBCs.

Figure 2 Source: Cross-Border Education Research Team (2017, January 20). C-BERT Branch Campus Listing. [Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane]

The home campuses of IBCs are concentrated in a much smaller number of countries. As of 2015, institutions operating branch campuses abroad were headquartered in only 31 different nations, well under half of the total number of host countries. The geographical distribution of exporting countries also differs from that of importing countries. While IBCs are mainly hosted in Asian countries, the home campuses themselves are situated predominantly in the West.[5] Of the 248 IBCs operating in 2015, 211 (approximately 85 percent) were administered from institutions based in Western countries.[6] English- speaking countries predominate.

The top two exporting countries—the United States and the United Kingdom—are the source of 77 and 39 IBCs respectively and account for nearly 47 percent of the world’s total IBCs. France, Russia, and Australia round out the top five, exporting 28, 21, and 15 branch campuses respectively (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 Source: Cross-Border Education Research Team (2017, January 20). C-BERT Branch Campus Listing. [Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane]

Economic and Developmental Indicators

While the flow of branch campuses is to a certain extent multidirectional, with many countries (22 of 83 total receiving/sending countries) both hosting foreign campuses and sending their own abroad, trends in direction and movement can be identified. In particular, branch campuses are far more likely to be established in countries that are less developed economically and educationally than the sending country.

Developed countries[7] export the overwhelming majority of IBCs. Around 80 percent (199 of 248) are headquartered in high-income countries, whereas importing countries evince a wider economic range. Developed countries import slightly more than half (54 percent) of the world’s IBCs (134 of 248), including 48 (19 percent) hosted in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, while developing countries import the remainder (114 of 248, or 46 percent).

Other economic and development indicators reveal similar patterns. The Human Development Index (HDI)—a composite index measuring a country’s average achievement in life expectancy, education, and standard of living—reveals that just over 75 percent (187 of 248) of IBCs were established in nations that have a lower HDI than the exporting country. On the other hand, considering per capita income alone—a common criterion for evaluating a nation’s economic development—paints a more nuanced picture. IBCs exported from developed to developing countries accounted for 33 percent (83) of branch campuses; those exported from one developed country to another accounted for 47 percent (116); those exported from one developing country to another accounted for 13 percent (31); while the flow from developing countries to developed countries accounted for just 7 percent (18; see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Source: Cross-Border Education Research Team (2017, January 20). C-BERT Branch Campus Listing. [Data originally collected by Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane]

The relative strength of a nation’s higher education system is an important indicator of which countries import and which countries export IBCs. Institutions located in industrialized countries that have advanced higher education systems are far more likely to export branch campuses to nations where the higher education systems are weak. Using Universitas 21’s 2018 ranking of national higher education systems as a measure of relative quality reveals that 87 percent (216 of 248) of IBCs were exported from countries that have a stronger higher education system than the receiving country.

Finally, the use of English as one of the principal languages of instruction in 89 percent (221 of 248) of IBCs worldwide strongly hints at the power dynamics behind these patterns. Institutions at the center of the international knowledge system—a system dominated by industrialized, English-speaking institutions in the West—seek to expand to nations on the periphery, while these nations often aim at integrating their higher education systems more fully into the global education community.

Drivers and Objectives

Underlying the worldwide proliferation of IBCs are a number of interconnected drivers and conditions. These conditions are largely the result of increasing globalization—the growing interconnectedness of the world’s economies, peoples, and, significantly, higher education systems. In the education services sector, globalization has weakened barriers to TNE, driven demand for greater access to higher education, and increased the perceived labor market advantage of Western qualifications.

Advancements in transportation and communications technology—spurred in part by the development and spread of global commodity chains—have made the operation of IBCs logistically possible and commercially viable. Postwar technological developments in the commercial aviation industry laid the foundations that today allow international faculty and staff to fly in and out of host countries to provide in-person teaching—a large part of IBCs’ appeal. More recently, the growing sophistication and reach of information and communications technology have facilitated the rapid and reliable administration and quality assurance of IBCs from the home campus and country, as well as the weightless exporting of learning materials and resources.

These new transportation and communication channels have spread more than just goods and passengers—among its most consequential cargo have been cultural norms and ideas. The spread of policies of economic liberalization—increasingly adopted by countries throughout the world—has weakened barriers to cross-border education. These policies seek to encourage domestic and international trade and capital flows through the introduction of pro-market tax and regulatory regimes. They have driven the growth of IBCs both by boosting supply—by the easing of restrictions to market entry by foreign entities—and by increasing student demand for foreign higher education qualifications. Among other means, the liberalization of international trade has increased demand among export-oriented corporations—encouraged to establish operations in newly liberalizing countries—for internationally recognized and portable qualifications. These corporations are willing to pay a premium for skills considered valuable in the international marketplace—including English-language proficiency and the general competence signified by internationally portable academic qualifications.

A compounding factor is the “massification” of higher education systems around the world. As national economies have developed, the number of students seeking (and able to pay for) higher education has grown. These rapidly rising enrollments have strained the resources of higher education systems in many countries. The supply of public university seats has lagged well behind demand for a variety of reasons, including the stagnation of public funding, implicit or explicit restrictions on the introduction of tuition fees at public universities, and institutional inertia in the face of student demand for more market-oriented programs and languages. These issues have led many countries to weaken restrictions on market entry for private higher education institutions, and led governments and public institutions to privatize operations and processes. For the growing numbers of students unable to find seats at domestic universities, overseas study is an increasingly attractive option.

These factors, which both push students away from domestic institutions and pull them toward high status foreign institutions, have contributed to the explosion of international student mobility and TNE programs.

Home Institution Motivations

The development of IBCs can best be understood as a strategic response to the pressures of increasing globalization. Studies on the motivations of home institutions to establish offshore branch campuses have converged on a handful of drivers. Among the most important are the desire to increase revenue, to enhance institutional prestige, and to improve overall academic quality.

Revenue Generation

Policies of economic liberalization are relevant to the regulation not only of international trade, but also of domestic trade. Government support for higher education has been drastically reduced in many countries. The consequent need of HEIs to fill funding gaps has led to increasing competition for private funds and attempts to diversify revenue streams. Among the strategies adopted are the annual raising of student tuition and fees, permanent fundraising campaigns, corporate partnerships, flexible labor contracts, and the development of flashy—and marketable—campus amenities. Institutions are also increasingly marketing their education to international students who can pay full price both in-country and overseas, using a variety of TNE programs to reach international students in their own backyard.

Branch campuses are often intended to be self-sufficient and not subsidized by the home campus. In the case of public universities receiving government funding, spending  outside of the state or country may even be legally prohibited. Such restrictions leave tuition fees, investment from a private partner, and host government funding as the main revenue drivers for branch campuses.

IBCs offer a number of pathways to increase revenue for home institutions. They indirectly help funnel additional international students to the home campus. Structured academic programs, which give students the option of completing part of their program at the IBC and part at the home campus—similar to 2+2 or 3+1 articulation programs—serve as an effective recruitment channel for home institutions. The total number of students attracted from IBCs to home campuses is not reported in the aggregate. However, a 2014 Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) report on transnational pathways to English higher education disclosed that the number of foreign students transferring from a UK TNE program overseas to the home institution increased from 1,960 to 3,200 at high-average tariff institutions in the years 2009/10 and 2012/13. The report attributed this growth to “entrants transferring from overseas branch campuses to the respective HEI in England.”

These schemes can be effective drivers of revenue because home campuses typically charge fees that are significantly higher than those at their respective branch campuses. That said, the tuition fees of IBCs are ordinarily higher than those of their host country competitors. IBCs often market their education as a valuable career investment in order to justify their relatively higher costs. To this end, IBCs often offer programs in fields which prepare students to enter highly remunerative positions after graduation, especially those programs that do not cost much to run.

However, as lucrative as IBCs may appear on the surface, they are not always profitable. There are many documented IBC closures; for example, of the more than 30 U.S. IBCs established in Japan in the 1980s, only one, Temple University, Japan Campus, remains today. In light of such closures, IBCs can hardly be viewed as cash cows. The startup capital required to establish a foreign campus far exceeds that required for any other TNE venture,  raising the stakes significantly higher. Furthermore, IBC expenses are likely to far exceed those of their host country counterparts. Among other reasons, the foreign faculty hired to staff IBCs typically command higher wages than host country nationals.

The high financial risk and uncertainty involved in establishing IBCs explain their concentration in small but wealthy countries. Countries of greater financial means—such as Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait—are able to provide generous public support to IBCs—by way of tax breaks, the provision of facilities, or cash transfers—as disclosures of financial arrangements have made clear.

Looking Ahead

As measured by the total number of IBCs, the UAE and China[8] are among the most prominent host countries. As a consequence of their widely differing positions in global politics and economics, as well as the resulting differences in their strategic objectives, the forms..

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Carlos Monroy, Advanced Evaluation Specialist, WES, and Stefan Trines, Research Editor, WENR


Mexico’s new president, the former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—nicknamed “AMLO”—took office in December 2018. The election of a leftist populist in the nation of about 129 million people adds an interesting twist to Mexico’s already strained relations with the United States during the Trump presidency. If AMLO’s campaign promises become reality, they could bring about major changes for poor and marginalized social groups in Mexico, a country marred by wealth disparities where some 7 percent of the population still lives on less than USD$2 per day. AMLO has pledged to alleviate poverty and end corruption. His ambitious promises include massive railway construction projects, free internet throughout the country, a freeze in gasoline prices, and the doubling of pension payments for the elderly. Six months into the new administration, the record on these promises is mixed, and many observers doubt whether they can be paid for.

AMLO has vowed to accommodate the surging demand for education by building 100 new universities, eliminating university entrance examinations, and allowing “every person access to higher education.” According to UNESCO statistics, tertiary enrollments in Mexico have more than doubled, going from 1.9 million to 4.4 million between 2000 and 2017,[1] placing tremendous stress on Mexico’s education system. Despite that growth and recent leaps in educational participation, the country’s tertiary enrollment rate still trails far behind those of other major Latin American countries. For example, the tertiary gross enrollment ratio (GER) stood at 38 percent in Mexico in 2017, while it ranged from 50 percent in Brazil to 59 percent in Colombia and 89 percent in Argentina, per UNESCO.

Two reasons for these relatively low participation rates are capacity shortages and disparities between the more industrialized central and northern parts of Mexico and the less developed southern states like Chiapas, Oaxaca, Yucatan, and Tabasco. Mexico is a geographically, ethnically, and linguistically diverse country that comprises 32 states. Its more than 60 languages are spoken mostly by indigenous ethnic groups in the south, a region historically neglected by the central government. It is within these underfunded rural regions that educational participation and attainment rates are extremely low. Literacy rates in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, home to the largest percentages of indigenous peoples in Mexico, are more than 10 times lower than in Mexico City or the northern state of Nuevo León.

In an attempt to raise education participation rates across the nation, the Mexican government in 2012 made upper-secondary education compulsory for all children by 2020. However, inadequate funding and administrative obstacles have thus far prevented universal implementation of this goal, particularly in marginalized rural regions. The new AMLO administration has also vowed to provide financial assistance to upper-secondary students to reduce high school dropout rates.

Despite the still comparatively low enrollment ratios, Mexico is expected to be one of the world’s top 20 countries in terms of the highest number of tertiary students by 2035. It will be a key challenge for the Mexican government to ensure quality of education amid this rapid massification. The problems Mexico faces in this regard are manifold. The country ranks at the bottom of the OECD PISA study[2] and ranked only 46th among 50 countries in the 2018 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems by the Universitas 21 network of research universities.

Attempts by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto (in office from 2012 to 2018) to improve teaching standards are currently in limbo. Nieto had sought to raise standards for the hiring, evaluation, and promotion of teachers, but the reforms were met with fierce resistance from Mexico’s powerful National Teacher’s Union (SNTE)—the largest teacher’s union in the Americas with about 1.5 million members that has been repeatedly charged with corruption. In the presidential elections, the SNTE supported AMLO, who vowed to end the controversial reforms. Noting that new evaluation mechanisms for teachers had resulted in a 23 percent enrollment decrease at public teacher training colleges and increasing numbers of  teachers requesting retirement, the new administration has promised to reinstate teachers that had been laid off because they had refused to submit to performance exams. Other changes include the dismantling of the National Institute to Evaluate Education (INEE), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education tasked with reducing corruption in teacher-hiring practices, and holding teachers to account by tying their pay, promotions, and tenure to performance on standardized exams.

Improving Mexico’s education system is critical for addressing pressing problems like high unemployment rates among Mexican youths, who are unemployed at twice the rate of the overall working age population. There were reportedly 827,324 young people unable to find unemployment in Mexico in 2018 —58 percent of whom held an upper-secondary school diploma or university degree. However, structural problems and severe funding shortages continue to impede progress. As U.S. News and World Report reported in 2018, “… education spending dropped by more than 4 percent compared to the previous year, with the textbook budget cut by a third and funding for … educational reforms … slashed by 72 percent. (…) “Meanwhile, the 2017 budget for teacher training was cut by nearly 40 percent.”

International Student Mobility

Mexico is an important sending country of international students in the Americas, notably to the neighboring United States. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of international degree-seeking Mexican students increased by 114 percent, from 15,816 to 33,854 students, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). Among the drivers behind this growth is the vastly increased number of tertiary students in Mexico, as well as the country’s rising number of middle-income households—factors that enlarge the pool of potential international students able to afford an education abroad. Mexico’s tertiary student population more than doubled since the beginning of the last decade, from 2 million in 2001 to 4.4 million in 2017, as per UIS. The number of middle-income households earning an annual salary of between USD$15,000 and USD$45,000 simultaneously quadrupled and accounted for up to 47 percent of all households in 2015.

Another factor that helps drive growing numbers of students overseas is the surging demand for English language education in Mexico due to the increasing internationalization of Mexico’s economy, its need for skilled human capital, and the growth of Mexico’s tourism industry. It has been estimated that the number of outbound English Language Teaching (ELT) students increased by 35 percent between 2011 and 2013 alone, making Mexico the 18th-largest market for ELT in the world. Many Mexicans view English language acquisition as an investment that is positively correlated with occupational status and household income. In the long term, Mexico has tremendous potential for further increases in outbound student flows underpinned by continued population growth. While birth rates in Mexico have fallen significantly and Mexican society is aging, about 46 percent of the country’s population is still under the age of 25. The total population is expected to grow to 164 million by 2050 (UN medium variant projection). It should be noted, however, that there’s been a shift away from the U.S. and a greater diversification in destination countries in recent years.

Downturn in Student Flows to the U.S.

According to UNESCO, the U.S. is by far the most popular study destination of Mexican students. The organization’s data show that about half of all international Mexican degree-seeking students (17,032 in 2017) are enrolled in the U.S., trailed distantly by Spain with 2,447 students, France (2,433 students), the United Kingdom (2,008 students), and Canada (1,587 students). While Mexican immigration to the U.S. has slowed in recent years, Mexicans are still the largest immigrant group in the U.S. with 11.3 million people—a vast transnational network that helps drive student inflows. Geographic proximity also makes the U.S. an obvious choice for many Mexican students. More than 40 percent enroll in states close to the border where they can save on housing and tuition costs by living in Mexico while paying in-state tuition at a number of institutions, such as the University of Texas at El Paso, the largest host university of Mexican students, New Mexico State University, and the University of North Texas.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

Economic integration within the North American Free Trade Agreement has also helped spur student inflows and created an environment that stimulated university partnerships, dual degree programs, and research collaborations, often involving institutions close to the border. Finally, academic exchange between the two countries has been fueled by the establishment of large-scale scholarship programs on both sides of the border in recent years. Mexico, for instance, in early 2014 initiated Proyecta 100,000, a project aimed at boosting Mexican enrollments in the U.S. to 100,000 by 2018 with scholarships and university partnerships, while increasing the number of U.S. students in Mexico to 50,000. According to Open Doors student data of the Institute of International Education (IIE), Mexican enrollments in the U.S. increased by 15.4 percent between 2012/13 and 2014/15 alone. These gains followed an increase in Mexican student enrollments by 50 percent over the previous 14 years, from 9,641 students in 1998/99 to 14,199 students in 2012/13.

However, such increases came to a halt in 2015, and Mexican student enrollments have recently tanked. While there may be additional factors at play, it is likely that the anti-Mexican demagoguery of Donald Trump has had a chilling effect on Mexican students and their parents. A survey of 40,000 international students conducted in March 2016 found that as many as 8 in 10 Mexican students were less likely to study in the U.S. if Trump won the election—far more than the global 6 out of 10. These sentiments are also reflected in other opinion polls. The PEW Research Center reported in 2017 that favorable views of the U.S. in Mexico had dipped by 36 percentage points since Trump took office—the steepest drop in all countries surveyed. Only 30 percent of Mexicans held positive views of the U.S., while confidence in Trump was merely 5 percent—the lowest rating of any U.S. president since Pew began polling in Mexico.

The number of Mexican enrollments declined by 8.1 percent between 2016/17 and 2017/18 (IIE), even though Mexico remains the ninth-largest sending country of international students to the U.S.—and there are currently few signs that this trend will reverse in the near future. Current visa data by the Department of Homeland Security reflect a further decrease of 3.8 percent in active student visas held by Mexican nationals between March 2018 and March 2019.

According to IIE, there are presently 15,468 Mexican students in the U.S., 57 percent of whom study at the undergraduate level. Another 25 percent study at the graduate level and 7 percent in non-degree programs; the latter category has seen a drastic decline of 39 percent between 2016/17 and 2017/18.  Eleven percent pursue Optional Practical Training; business and engineering fields are the most popular majors among Mexican students.

Shifts to Other Destinations

Whereas Mexican enrollments are declining in the U.S., other countries are experiencing gains. The number of Mexican degree students in Germany, for instance, grew by 23 percent between 2013 and 2016, per UIS data. That said, given the surging demand for ELT in Mexico, English-language-speaking destinations like the U.K. or Australia, where Mexican enrollments have lately also grown robustly, may benefit most from shifting Mexican student flows. This shift is reflected, for instance, by a growing interest in Canada. While the number of Mexican degree students in Canada is still small with 1,587 students in 2016 (UIS), the Canadian government reports that the overall number of students, including non-degree students, now stands at 7,835—an increase of 132 percent over the number in 2008.

It is likely that ELT enrollments are a strong driver of this growth. Canada’s government has made increased efforts to attract Mexican ELT students. It expanded air service with Mexico and in 2016 removed visa requirements for Mexicans arriving for short-term study visits of up to six months. Mexico is also a top priority country of Canada’s internationalization strategy. Aside from ELT, governments and universities on both sides have recently taken steps to boost student mobility in academic programs, including new scholarship programs and bilateral research agreements. Overall, Canadian universities anticipate strongly rising student inflows from Mexico in the near future. As one Canadian educator told the PIE News, “Canada has always been popular, but we have always had to compete with the United States; that is now changing due to the ‘Trump effect.’”

Inbound Student Mobility

The number of international students who view Mexico as an education destination is comparatively small, but the country recently witnessed a marked uptick in student inflows despite recurring media reports of kidnappings, violence, and corruption. According to UIS data, the number of international students in the country doubled to 25,125 between 2016 and 2017. It should be noted, however, that actual gains may be smaller: Data provided by Mexican statistical agencies, such as Patlani, differ significantly, and data on Mexican mobile students may be incomplete, including for certain years. That said, the agency data also reflect increases in international student inflows. According to Patlani, there were 20,322 international students in Mexico in 2015/16, compared with 15,608 in 2014/15. Most of them studied at the undergraduate level; slightly more than half enrolled in degree programs while the rest attended short-term courses.

The top three sending countries, according to Patlani, were the U.S., Colombia, and France. Whereas fewer Mexican students are going to the U.S., student flows in the other direction appear to be on the rise. While the total number of U.S. students in Mexico is much lower than it was a decade ago, IIE reports that U.S. student enrollments in Mexican short-term study abroad programs increased by 9.9 percent and 10.8 percent in 2015/16 and 2016/17, respectively. These data indicate that there were 5,736 U.S. short-term students in Mexico in 2016/17, making Mexico the 12th most popular study abroad destination worldwide among U.S. students. And Mexico is not only a popular destination for study abroad programs, but also for degree-seeking students from the United States. Per UIS, 44 percent of all international degree students in Mexico (11,109 students) came from the U.S. in 2017. Data for 2016 and other recent years are unavailable.

In Brief: Mexico’s Education System

Education in Mexico was historically influenced by the Catholic church, which provided education during the colonial era. In 1551 the church established the first university in North America, the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, in Mexico City. But Catholic education was mainly reserved for the aristocracy, clergy, and other ruling elites, while most of the indigenous population learned by way of oral tradition. It was not before independence and the formation of a modern state that Mexico’s government began to slowly establish tighter control over education and form a modern system that would address the needs of the broader segments of society. In the 19th century, compulsory education for children between the ages of 7 and 15 was introduced, and education became increasingly secularized. After the Mexican revolution (1910 to 1920), Mexican authorities focused on eradicating illiteracy and on advancing rural education and the inclusion of indigenous peoples. However, forming a national identity through education has been a challenge. Choosing Spanish as the language of instruction, for instance, resulted in high illiteracy and desertion rates among indigenous peoples—a circumstance that caused the introduction of bilingual programs

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Bryce Loo, Research Manager, WES

Since the current worldwide refugee crisis gained international attention in 2015, there has been increasing coordination among various actors to help displaced students and scholars access higher education. Initial efforts worldwide have largely consisted of discrete initiatives developed by various individual higher education institutions, higher education-serving organizations, governments, private companies, and others.[1] But within and across nations, many of these stakeholders have begun coordinating their efforts to further address general and specific barriers, such as the admissions process, tuition and living costs, and language.

One barrier displaced students encounter with some regularity is the inability to access their academic credentials and have them assessed and ultimately recognized. At World Education Services (WES), we have sought to address this barrier through research and advising on best practices in working with displaced students and highly educated professionals. The WES Gateway Program provides credential assessments to students and professionals in Canada who are from certain countries in crisis and have incomplete or unverifiable documentation. Through the WES Gateway Program, WES Global Talent Bridge assists these students and professionals in achieving their educational and career goals.

WES recently joined a number of other U.S.-based organizations to develop a policy paper titled Inclusive Admissions Policies for Displaced and Vulnerable Students. Coordinated by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), a membership-based organization with more than 2,600 affiliated institutions worldwide, this paper provides insight into the broad issue of access within the United States from the points of view of the academy (professors and scholars), displaced scholars and students, and institutions. It zeros in on the barrier of credential evaluation and recognition that arises when students cannot access verifiable documentation.

This article will briefly review the context surrounding the AACRAO policy paper before discussing the main points of the paper itself.

Coordinating Efforts to Address Barriers for Displaced Students

Since its start in 2011, the Syrian civil war has led to more than five million Syrians leaving the country as refugees, disrupting the education of millions of students and overwhelming the countries to which they have fled. The fleeing of thousands from across the Global South, particularly the Middle East and Africa, led to the migration crisis in Europe that began in 2015. The crisis forced individual countries and the European Union to rethink their policies and procedures, including how to integrate vast numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. Language and admissions requirements, financial need, and the limited capacity of local academic institutions to absorb the increased numbers are only some of the barriers that refugees confront if they wish to resume their education. One barrier in particular—gaining recognition for previous academic study when official documentation is not available—is often insurmountable.

In such a decentralized environment as U.S. higher education, coordination and collaboration to reduce barriers are important, if not essential, to offering opportunities for displaced students. In this regard, Europe and Canada have taken greater strides relative to the U.S. Regarding the barrier of qualifications recognition, the most collaborative effort has been the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR), a joint effort of the ENIC-NARIC Networks, the Council of Europe, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This effort is built on the work of individual European countries, particularly that of Norway. Issuing a passport involves assessing candidates’ educational background by reviewing unofficial documentation that refugees and asylum seekers who have entered Europe still have in their possession, as well as professionally conducted interviews.

In late 2015, the newly elected government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Canada in just a few months, in part through that country’s private refugee sponsorship system. This effort became a uniquely Canadian project. Large scale mobilization of the government, private companies, organizations, and citizens worked to host and integrate more than 25,000 refugees in a seven-month period.

The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC) began coordinating efforts to have refugees’ credentials recognized across Canada. CICIC, a subset of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), led the Assessing the Qualifications of Refugees initiative. The initiative was funded by the Government of Canada’s Foreign Credential Recognition Program (FCRP), which coordinates the evaluation of international credentials across Canada. In November 2016, CICIC kicked off the initiative by hosting a summit that brought together post-secondary institutions, licensing boards, federal and provincial government officials, and all credential evaluation services from across Canada, along with international experts to discuss the challenge and put forward recommendations, which were outlined in a final report. These stakeholders built on the work of many individual institutions and organizations, including WES’ research on best practices and its pilot project for Syrian refugees (now the WES Gateway Program).

Institutions and organizations in the U.S., by contrast, have lagged somewhat behind their European and Canadian counterparts in rethinking credential evaluation and recognition for the displaced. The difficult social and political climate in the U.S. surrounding immigration plays no small part in their inaction. Some organizations, including credential evaluation services, have put forward discrete initiatives that are noteworthy, though generally small in scale. Individual institutions that have encountered significant numbers of displaced students have developed policies and procedures, often on an ad hoc basis, to address these students’ lack of access to full, official credentials. But there have been few attempts to engage in a national conversation and to develop synergy around the issue.

New Initiatives in the U.S.

Recently, however, there have been nascent efforts in the U.S. to start coordinating and collaborating more to facilitate access to higher education:

  • A consortium of scholars, university staff, policy makers, and representatives of nonprofit organizations and NGOs has come together under the umbrella of the University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants (UARRM), now housed at Rutgers University. Its purpose is to mobilize the academic community to address the barriers that displaced students encounter, including in the area of documentation.
  • The Institute of International Education (IIE), long a supporter of displaced scholars and students, ramped up its efforts in the wake of the Syrian civil war. One of its most recent initiatives, the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), is a clearinghouse for educational opportunities for refugees worldwide, including programs, courses, and scholarships. Credential evaluation and recognition are not explicitly part of this initiative, but they are certainly acknowledged barriers to be addressed.
  • AACRAO has partnered with the University of California (UC) Davis and the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs to pilot an initiative known as Article 26 Backpack. Inspired by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all have the right to an education, the program allows displaced and migrant students to safely store academic and professional documents on a cloud-based platform. Students can access this virtual “backpack” and send documentation to admissions officers, employers, credential evaluators, and others as needed. The program is run out of UC Davis.

These initial steps are being taken despite the current political climate in the U.S. The Trump administration has largely demonstrated a range of attitudes from skepticism to antipathy regarding immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers. These attitudes are evident in everything from the travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries (including countries in significant conflict, such as Syria and Yemen); to the ongoing controversies surrounding the southern border with Mexico, where unprecedented numbers of mostly families from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are coming to seek asylum in the U.S. from the turmoil and violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle. The White House has also drastically scaled back the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which now brings in the smallest number of refugees in decades. The U.S. public, however, generally regards immigration as positive for the country, according to the Pew Research Center, though there are sharp differences based on political party affiliation and age.

The AACRAO Policy Paper and the Pledge for Education

As part of the Article 26 Backpack project team, AACRAO convened a Policy Working Group to shine a light on policies at the institutional level that might impede displaced students from gaining admission to a U.S. institution. The AACRAO Policy Working Group included representatives from U.S. universities, community colleges, and organizations that work to reduce such barriers. Small teams drafted sections of the paper over a period of months, capturing their various perspectives. The paper begins with a broad discussion on access to U.S. higher education, and then moves on to the issue of credential evaluation and recognition in the context of college admissions. It also focuses on barriers and providing guidance to those organizations seeking to employ best practices.

The first section represents the voice of the academy, professors and university scholars who have focused on refugees and other displaced migrants in their research or practice. This group argues that higher education has a responsibility to help fulfill Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and describes the barriers refugees encounter at both the public policy level and in universities and colleges in the U.S.

The second section provides the perspective of displaced scholars. It was written by representatives from the two leading organizations working to place displaced and threatened scholars in host universities in other countries, including the U.S.: IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) and the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network. The section provides an overview of current threats to scholars worldwide, as well as some historical context for the resettlement of displaced academics in the U.S. beginning during the First World War and later with the Nazi takeover of Germany. It describes the important role that universities play in helping displaced scholars, including typical challenges and successes, as well as best practices.

Displaced students are the focus of the third section. Its authors represent several organizations that work directly with refugee and displaced students. After a brief overview of general challenges, this section showcases several case studies of individual displaced students studying in the U.S. For example, Warda, a Palestinian student from Syria, was admitted to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) with the help of the Syrian student-serving organization Jusoor, EducationUSA, IIE PEER, and SIPA.

The fourth section focuses on the perspectives of U.S. institutions that host displaced students and scholars. Written by admissions directors and international officers from several universities and colleges that enroll significant refugee student populations, it provides some general thoughts on admitting displaced students. It then follows with case studies from individual institutions, and focuses on particular refugee populations, such as the Lost Boys (and Girls) of Sudan.

The final section, the Toolkit, provides solid, practical recommendations on how to work toward admitting students who cannot access full official or verifiable documentation. The working group for this section consisted of representatives from WES along with colleagues from two other prominent U.S. credential evaluation organizations and AACRAO. To draft these recommendations, we built on our combined research, knowledge, and experience—including WES’ research into international best practices and its work through the WES Gateway Program and preceding pilot project for Syrian refugees in Canada. We also spoke with our colleagues in admissions at U.S. universities and colleges, as well as leaders from the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education (CCCIE).

The Toolkit begins with an overview of students’ challenges obtaining official documentation from conflict zones, or from countries in political turmoil or which have recently experienced a natural disaster. It then examines the importance of proactive institutional policy making in this area, to provide as many opportunities as possible for displaced students to gain admission. This subsection features a checklist of questions for individual institutions and offices to consider when rethinking policies and procedures.

The recommendations then follow a general six-step process very similar to WES recommendations issued in its 2016 report. The steps (shown here verbatim) can be tailored to each institutional context:

Finally, the Toolkit provides tips for those institutions wishing to work with a credential evaluation service on this topic, whether for the first time or with a trusted partner. Its final thoughts are on broader barriers that displaced students confront in U.S. higher education. The Toolkit ends with a list of resources.

 In releasing this paper, AACRAO has called on higher education institutions, government, and organizations that serve higher education to sign its Pledge to Support Vulnerable and Displaced Students, otherwise known as the Pledge for Education. The pledge calls for all to “recognize our responsibility and duty” to assist displaced students and scholars in integrating into and accessing higher education. WES has proudly signed the pledge.

Moving Forward

The world’s refugee crisis is unlikely to abate anytime soon, as war continues in countries like Syria, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. New crises continue to erupt and unfold, as is the case in Venezuela. The U.S. will likely continue to be a top destination for the displaced, despite the political and social opposition from certain corners of U.S. society. Higher education will continue to play an important role in helping displaced individuals integrate into their new host societies and potentially help educate future leaders who will rebuild post-conflict and post-disaster societies.

The collaboration that AACRAO’s policy paper represents will be key to encouraging and assisting U.S. higher education institutions to find ways to help students surmount significant barriers. WES, for its part, has begun testing the WES Gateway Program in the U.S., working with partners in selected communities and academic institutions that request our assistance. The hope is that the higher education community across the U.S., as well as worldwide, will do its part in this crisis, and embrace talented students and scholars who find themselves in vulnerable, unstable situations.

[1] For an overview of initiatives in Europe and North America, see Streitwieser, B., Loo, B., Ohorodnik, M., & Jeong, J. (2018). Access for refugees into higher education: a review of interventions in Europe and North America. Journal of Studies in International Education, online edition. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1028315318813201.

The post Rethinking Institutional Policies to Reduce Barriers Facing Displaced Students in the U.S. appeared first on WENR.

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Stefan Trines, Research Editor, WENR

In case you missed it, China is now the “largest trading partner, foreign job creator, and source of foreign direct investment” in Africa. China routinely bankrolls mega construction projects, such as the new headquarters of the African Union and rail system in Addis Ababa, hydro power plants and oil refineries in Angola and Nigeria, or Zimbabwe’s international airport and new parliament building. It recently also established its first overseas military base in Djibouti and has become a major supplier of arms in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some consider China’s “railway diplomacy” a boon for the continent, since Chinese funding helps close critical infrastructure gaps and creates economic stimuli. Beijing, for one, promises African countries a “new strategic partnership” that—unlike the exploitation by former colonial powers—would be based on political equality, mutual trust, and win-win economic cooperation.

Critics, though, view China’s economic influence as a new form of colonialism that, just like the old system, is premised on the exchange of African raw materials for Chinese goods, while simultaneously shoring up autocratic rulers. In this view, Africa’s growing indebtedness to China will undermine the sovereignty of African countries and curtail their economic development. As Nigerian writer Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu put it, the effect of Africa’s reliance on external assistance “will be the continued political and economic manipulation and domination of the region by the West, and now China, and soon the rest of the non-African world.”

Indeed, China’s economic activities have sparked a “new scramble for Africa.” National Security Advisor John Bolton announced in 2018 that the U.S. “would lavish money and greater attention on the African continent, casting it as a crucial battleground in the global economic contest between the United States and China.”

India, likewise, has made Africa a top foreign policy priority. According to former Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, an “important factor for the current government is clearly China, that it has marched ahead in a continent we thought was ours by tradition. I think it came as a shock for India.” Highlighting the heightened interest in the last frontier of the global economy, the Economist reported that from “2010 to 2016 more than 320 embassies were opened in Africa, probably the biggest embassy-building boom anywhere, ever.”

One area where foreign governments are competing for influence in Africa is education. China, for instance, is increasingly supplementing its loan diplomacy with “cultural exchanges, sending … teachers to work abroad, welcoming students from other nations to study in China, and paying for Chinese-language programs abroad.” Whether it’s pursued for noble motives or out of political self-interest, the advancement of educational causes helps to win over hearts and minds—a form of persuasion that political scientists commonly call “soft power.”

This article reviews the different forms of Chinese and Indian involvement and assistance in African education in recent years. Both countries are rapidly expanding their aid efforts in education and will undoubtedly leave a growing mark on the education systems of African countries. We will describe China’s diplomacy through cultural institutes, the country’s rise as a study destination for African students, and its aid efforts in educational capacity building. Afterwards, we’ll portray India’s interests and initiatives in Africa before concluding with some brief reflections on the benefits of increased “South-South” cooperation with the continent.

China’s Attempt to Reach Hearts and Minds With Confucius Institutes

Compared with the former colonial powers Great Britain and France, or English-speaking countries like the U.S. or India, China has the disadvantage of having languages that are not commonly understood or spoken in Africa. Nor is Chinese culture as well-known as that of the U.S., which is ubiquitously telecast to every corner of the globe in Hollywood movies. However, China’s growing role in Africa has been met with positive views in a majority of African countries. According to opinion surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015 by the research project Afrobarometer, 63 percent of respondents in 36 African nations stated that China had at least a somewhat, if not a strong, positive influence on their countries, and that China’s economic model represented the most viable pathway to economic development after that of the United States.

To even further strengthen its image and to advance the internationalization of the Chinese language, Beijing has over the past decade vastly expanded its network of Confucius Institutes (CIs) in Africa. According to Hanban, the organization that runs the CIs, their number increased from only one in Kenya in 2005 to at least 53 on the continent in 2019.[1] CIs are usually housed at and affiliated with universities in the host nations, such as the University of Nairobi or the University of Cairo, while being largely controlled by the Chinese government. They are designed to foster Chinese language learning and promote the understanding of Chinese culture. Beijing has opened more than 500 of these institutes worldwide and views them as a helpful tool in its global communications strategy, which President Xi Jinping has described as follows: “We will improve our capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s cultural soft power.”

A key difference between CIs on the African continent and those in other regions like North America, Europe, or Asia is that CIs in underresourced African countries are not simply an addendum to existing East Asian studies departments. Rather, they are usually the only tertiary institutions teaching Chinese studies and languages—a fact that gives them an outsize influence on shaping perceptions of China. In this sense, CIs make an academic contribution to the study of Chinese affairs in Africa, but they are often accused of offering a lopsided, ideologically tinted view of China and of issues like the political status of Taiwan or Tibet. Sweden’s Institute for Security and Development Policy has described CIs as “an image management project, the purpose of which is to promote the greatness of Chinese culture while at the same time counterattacking public opinion that maintains the presence of a ‘China threat’ in the international community.”

The use of cultural institutes to advance influence in foreign countries and promote an idealized version of national culture is not unique to China, nor new. France’s Alliance Française operated overseas cultural centers as early as the late 19th century. What is remarkable, however, is the speed with which the Chinese institutions have appeared on the international scene in recent years. Today, France remains the only country that still has more cultural centers in Africa than China. According to Hanban, CIs have been opened in 34 African countries in addition to 25 smaller “Confucius classrooms” housed in elementary and secondary schools throughout the continent.

The size of some of the CIs is considerable as well. The institute at Cameroon’s University of Yaoundé, for instance, has ties with eight local universities and several private language schools—and enrolled 10,000 Cameroonian students in 2017. Notably, the programs offered through CIs are not necessarily confined to short-term courses. For instance, Uganda’s Makerere University has announced that beginning in 2019 it will offer a Bachelor of Chinese and Asian Studies program in collaboration with Hanban. Classrooms and facilities for the program will be paid for by Bejing, and top students will be invited for study visits in China. Uganda’s plans to make Mandarin a compulsory subject of its high school curriculum reflects the rise of Chinese as a language of global importance—as does the recent decision of Kenya and South Africa to introduce Mandarin as an elective language in public elementary and secondary school. It is likely that Mandarin Chinese will become a much more widely spoken language on the African continent in the years ahead.

Promotion of International Student Mobility 

Beyond cultural diplomacy through its institutes, China seeks to strengthen ties to future African elites by acculturating young Africans as international students in China itself, similar to the way the U.S. has for decades used Fulbright scholarships to advance its soft power. Much has been written about international student mobility to China in this publication and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that China has become an increasingly important study destination, notably for students from developing countries. According to government data released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of the few available data sources for international students in China, the number of African students studying in China rose by a whopping 3,335 percent between 2003 and 2016, from 1,793 to 61,594 students—the fastest growth rate among all world regions.

While these numbers include various forms of short-term study visits and are hard to compare with data from sources like UNESCO, they reflect an enormous inflow of African young people, fueled by Chinese scholarship funding, affordable study options in China, and other incentives. Kenya is a case in point: Chinese media reported in 2017 that 1,400 Kenyans were studying in China after Beijing had doubled its scholarship quota in 2011 and provided 1,000 scholarships to Kenyans. Just one year later, Kenya’s ambassador to China announced that the number of Kenyan students in the country had since surged to 2,400. Other countries boasted even larger gains: There were 2,829 Ethiopian students in China in 2016 compared with only 933 in 2012, while the number of students from Ghana, the top African sending country, tripled from 1,753 in 2011 to 5,552 in 2016. Given the scarcity of funds for an expensive overseas education among African youths, scholarships are likely a significant pull factor, but it should be noted that 87 percent of all 492,000 international students in China in 2016 were self-funded, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Aid to Strengthen Domestic Capacities and Skills

What is notable about China’s academic cooperation in Africa is that many of its scholarship programs are devoted to skills training and socioeconomic development. Every year some 10,000 African civil servants receive vocational training in China at universities, government agencies, and companies in areas like agriculture, health care, or poverty reduction. Most of these training courses are short-term programs that last just a few days or weeks, but their number has skyrocketed and now far outstrips the number of similar training programs provided by other countries. Between 2012 and 2015, some 30,000 Africans received scholarships, and Beijing intends to expand these numbers even further. At the latest 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a large summit meeting between China and 53 African states, Beijing announced that it would not only further expand its CIs across the continent, but it would “provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities for seminars and workshops and train more professionals …  and build platforms for … exchanges and cooperation.”

But Chinese development aid in education comes in various shapes and forms. To name just a few examples, China supports the construction of hundreds of rural elementary and secondary schools, and provides learning materials and equipment to African universities. It is planning the creation of five transportation universities across Africa, and currently supports digital literacy projects in countries like Kenya. The Chinese government also funds more than 20 rural agricultural training centers in Africa to modernize farming. More than 1,000 students have been trained at Chinese agricultural centers in Rwanda alone. In 2012, Bejing donated USD$8 million to UNESCO to strengthen teacher training in Africa. In Malawi, China helped finance the country’s first dedicated science university—the Malawi University of Science and Technology.

Contrary to the perception that Chinese aid is mostly a tool to advance influence and access to markets, there are also small but growing numbers of Chinese nationals volunteering as teachers in underserved African schools, and Chinese NGOs building schools in slums, or providing tuition assistance and housing for teacher trainees. However, much of China’s assistance remains interwoven with business projects. For example, “more than 45,000 local staff received professional skills training” during the construction of the Mombasa-Nairobi railway, Kenya’s largest infrastructure project since independence. Chinese firms like industry giant Huawei are setting up information technology classes at Kenyan universities to upskill the local workforce. This kind of involvement helps to transfer knowledge to African societies but also serves Chinese business interests. These interests are on display in recent initiatives like the establishment of a joint academic institute in Morocco specifically devoted to studying China’s Belt and Road initiative.

India in Africa   

In some ways, India’s involvement in education in Africa follows a different approach and is based on a different legacy. The Indian government does not systematically promote Indian culture the way China does with its vast network of Confucius Institutes. Compared with China’s, India’s relationship with African nations also has a longstanding tradition—it has been shaped by centuries of sea trading between India and Africa’s eastern seaboard. The presence of more than 2.2 million ethnic Indians in South Africa and East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania has also helped..

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Mehwish Kamran, Team Leader, WES, Yigu Liang, Research Associate, WES, and Stefan Trines, Research Editor, WENR   

Photo of Badme Library of University of Ghana, Accra, Ghana by Rjruiziii, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Ghana is a medium-size country in West Africa bordering Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. Like many African countries, it’s a diverse, multilingual nation—around 50 indigenous languages are spoken throughout the country, the most widespread of which is Akan, the language of Ghana’s largest single ethnic group of the same name. However, English is the lingua franca and official language spoken by at least half the population. It is also the formal language of instruction at all levels of education, although indigenous languages are also used in elementary school, depending on the region. Not a given in Africa, Ghana is a democracy that holds free and largely fair elections.

While Ghana is a much less populous country than large sub-Saharan states like Nigeria, Ethiopia, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it faces the same challenges in providing economic opportunities and education to its fast-growing population. The country’s populace has doubled within just three decades, from 14.2 million people in 1989 to 28.8 million in 2017 (World Bank). At 2.5 percent, the present population growth rate in Ghana is far above the global average. The country is gaining another 700,000 to 800,000 people each year—a trend described as “alarming” by some observers.

On the upside, with nearly 39 percent of the population under the age of 15 (in 2016), Ghana has a window of opportunity to harness a formidable “demographic dividend,” as long as it can adequately educate its young people. To help achieve this goal, the Ghanaian government in 2017 announced that it was making secondary education tuition-free throughout the country. President of Ghana Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo promised, “There will be no admission fees, no library fees … no examination fees…. There will be free textbooks, free boarding and free meals.” While a heavy burden on Ghana’s constrained budget, these measures continue a long tradition of progressive public policies that have helped make education in Ghana more inclusive. They also set an example for other West African countries like Sierra Leone.

Ghana’s accomplishments in advancing access to education over the past decades have certainly been impressive. The country’s youth literacy rate, for instance, jumped from 71 percent in 2000 to 86 percent in 2010. Ghanaian children now attend school in higher rates than their counterparts in many other African countries, as well as in developing nations in other world regions. While more than 84 percent of children participated in elementary education in 2017, the gross enrollment rate (GER) in secondary education increased from 57 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2017, compared with 42 percent in Nigeria, 45.5 percent in Pakistan, and 65 percent in Jordan.[1] Education spending in Ghana has been high in recent years, even though public expenditures on education recently dropped from a record peak of 8 percent of GDP in 2011 to 4.5 percent of GDP in 2017.

These improvements come amidst a solid performance of Ghana’s economy, which has been the second-fastest growing in Africa after Ethiopia’s in recent years. Called the “Gold Coast” during the time of British colonial rule from 1867 to 1957, Ghana is a country rich in natural resources, including the sixth largest oil reserves in Africa, which have helped propel economic growth. Ghana’s GDP grew by 8.5 percent and about 6.2 percent in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and is anticipated to continue to grow by another 6 percent in 2019. Parts of the population are also becoming increasingly affluent: “Ghana is one of just six countries in sub-Saharan Africa in which the middle class – composed of individuals with a daily income of at least $8.44 – exceeds…” one million people.

However, that is not to say that matters in Ghana are rosy: The country’s economy suffers from rising public debt and surging inflation. The Ghanaian currency, the cedi, had depreciated by a record 8.6 percent against the U.S. dollar as of February this year – the steepest decline of any currency tracked by the financial news organization Bloomberg. While the OECD now classifies Ghana as “lower-middle income country”, almost one third of the population still lived on less than $USD1.25 a day as of 2011. Social inequalities are not only high, but growing and the majority of Ghanaians remain employed in low-paying jobs in the agricultural sector, rapid urbanization notwithstanding. According to the charitable organization Oxfam, the “wealthiest 10% of Ghanaians now share 32% of Ghana’s total consumption – more than is consumed by the bottom 60% of the population combined, while the very poorest 10% of the population consumes only 2%.”

In education, significant problems persist in the form of critical shortages of trained teachers, classroom facilities, and learning materials, particularly in rural regions. The recent introduction of free secondary education was an attempt to curb high dropout rates in Ghana’s schools. A reported 100,000 children do not transition from basic to secondary education each year because their parents cannot afford the costs. Furthermore, literacy standards and learning outcomes often remain poor, despite increased enrollment rates in recent years. About 70 percent of high school students, for instance, failed the final senior secondary West African Examination Council exams in 2014. And gender inequalities and disparities in access to education between rural and urban regions are severe.

Despite its skyrocketing over the past decades, the tertiary net enrollment rate also remains low and stood at only 17 percent in 2016—higher than the sub-Saharan African average of 9 percent, but less than half that of the Philippines or Indonesia, for example. Prospects for increased tertiary attainment rates aren’t helped by the fact that unemployment among university graduates is so high, there was a formal “Unemployed Graduates Association of Ghana”.[2]Despite these problems, Ghana’s education system is in good condition overall compared with those of many other sub-Saharan African nations, but the country faces daunting challenges in providing inclusive, high-quality education to its youth, especially given its rapid population growth.

Outbound Student Mobility

While being dwarfed by the much more populous Nigeria, Ghana has become an increasingly important sending market of international students in the sub-Saharan region over the past seven years. The number of Ghanaian students enrolled in degree programs abroad climbed from 8,964 in 2012 to 12,559 in 2017 (UIS) – an increase of 40 percent. Economic development, rising income levels, population growth and demand for higher education, are factors that likely contribute to student mobility from Ghana, as are existing quality shortcomings in domestic higher education and the fact that the English language abilities of Ghanaians facilitate study abroad. While competition over the limited number of available slots at Ghana’s public universities is fierce, most private institutions are of lackluster quality – a situation that creates incentives for study abroad, especially among more affluent Ghanaians. High youth unemployment and a lack of economic opportunities are other push factors driving young Ghanaians overseas.

Increased availability of scholarships for African students, including Ghanaians, no doubt also plays a role. Study abroad scholarships for students from Ghana are provided by the Ghanaian government, as well as by countries like China, Germany, Japan, and Russia. China, for example, has funded more than 1,000 scholarships to Ghanaian students.

Destination Countries

The United States is the most popular destination country of Ghanaian degree-seeking students overseas, followed by the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Canada, and South Africa. UIS data show that student inflows from Ghana to the U.S. have expanded significantly since 2000, and that the number of Ghanaian students is now almost twice as high as in 1999. Open Doors data of the Institute of International Education, indicate that Ghana is now the third-largest African sending country of international students to the U.S., with 3,213 students in the 2017/18 academic year (an increase of 3.3 percent over 2016/17). The only African countries that send more students to the U.S. are Nigeria and Kenya, other English-speaking countries that have similar push factors.

About 48 percent of Ghanaians in the U.S. are enrolled in graduate programs (vis-à-vis 35 percent in undergraduate programs). This is mirrored by relatively high academic attainment levels among Ghanaian immigrants in the U.S. in general. According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, 12 percent of Ghanaians held a graduate degree compared with 11 percent of the overall U.S. population.

Unsurprisingly, Ghanaian students tend to prefer English-speaking study destinations like the U.S. or the U.K., with the latter hosting 1,300 degree-seeking students in 2017. However, while four out of the top five study destinations are English-speaking, other destinations have grown in popularity as well. The number of Ghanaian students in Ukraine, for instance, now the third most popular destination, nearly doubled between 2014 and 2017, largely because of students pursuing low-cost medical education in the Eastern European country. Visa hurdles in the Ukraine are lower for Ghanaians than in most Western destinations, and the cost of living is lower as well, although there have been reports of racial violence.

The fact that there is no UIS international student data available for China makes it difficult to compare developments in China to trends in other countries.[3] However, there’s no question that China is becoming an increasingly popular study destination for students from Africa, particularly from Ghana. According to government data released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the number of Ghanaian students in China has consistently increased since 2011, driven primarily by the availability of scholarship funding. As per this data, Ghana is now the largest African sender of international students to China—there were 5,552 Ghanaian students in the country in 2016 compared with just 1,753 in 2011, an increase of 217 percent in five years.

Canada, meanwhile, has also seen a surge in Ghanaian enrollments. Canadian government data show that the number of Ghanaians studying in the country tripled over the past decade, from 465 in 2008 to 1,570 in 2018. This trend is in line with Canada’s emergence as a top international study destination in recent years, chiefly because of the country’s openness and the availability of post-study work opportunities and immigration pathways.

Inbound Student Mobility

Ghana is a popular international study destination in sub-Saharan Africa—only South Africa hosts more international degree students than Ghana (although it should be noted that no comparable data exist for Nigeria). As per UIS data, student inflows from other West African nations to Ghana have surged over the past decade. The number of international students in the country skyrocketed by 838 percent between 2007 and 2015, from 1,899 to 17,821 students. Since then, a downturn in student inflows from Nigeria has helped depress the total number of inbound students to 12,978 by 2017, but inbound mobility in Ghana remains sizable nonetheless. The country’s inbound mobility ratio, that is, the percentage of international students among all tertiary students, is high by international comparison (it stood at 2.8 percent in 2017 according to the UIS).

Nigeria is the largest sending country by far, contributing more than 70 percent of international degree-seeking students in Ghana (9,172 students in 2017). When factoring in non-degree-seeking students, that number is even higher. By some accounts, there were between 71,000 and 75,000 Nigerian students in the country as of 2014, injecting considerable funds into Ghana’s economy and education system. According to a former governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, the money Nigerians recently spent on education in Ghana exceeded the entire federal university budget of Nigeria—a reflection of the poor condition of Nigeria’s education system, which is strained by severe capacity gaps and funding shortages. Given the extreme difficulties in gaining access to quality universities in Nigeria, Ghana has become an increasingly viable alternative for many Nigerians, especially since the country is less costly and closer to home than study destinations like Australia, Canada, China, or the United States. As observers have noted, “…  many Nigerians schooling in Ghana see the country’s education system as a rescue option from many months of strike and complicated admission process into university, compared to Ghanaian universities….” In 2017, Ghana was the fourth most popular destination country for Nigerian degree students, right after the U.K., the U.S., and Malaysia.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of Nigerian degree students in Ghana doubled within just three years, before decreasing sharply. This recent drop was likely the effect of an economic recession in Nigeria in 2015, primarily caused by declining world market prices for crude oil, a key Nigerian export. As a result of this downturn, the Nigerian currency lost more than 40 percent of its value by June 2016, making it more expensive for Nigerians to study abroad. What also may have played a role is a potential backlash against quality concerns. While standards at Ghanaian public universities are comparatively high, many Nigerian students went to low-quality private providers that charged high fees for substandard programs. The Deputy High Commissioner at the Nigerian Embassy, Mohammed A. Kurmawa, charged in 2014 that private Ghanaian institutions, as well as unscrupulous foreign providers from India, were fleecing Nigerian students for monetary gain: “90 percent of the students in private universities [in Ghana] are Nigerians, it is a scam. Someone comes from India with a briefcase and that is the person that would award a certificate.”

Aside from Nigeria, all other top sending countries of international students in Ghana are located in West Africa as well. Gabon ranked second with 509 degree-seeking students in 2017, followed by Côte d’Ivoire, the Republic of the Congo, and Benin with 434, 426, and 273 students, respectively. The only non-African country sending a significant number of students to Ghana is the U.S., which was the sixth-largest sending country with 216 students in 2017. As per Open Doors, Ghana is also the second most popular destination of U.S. students for study abroad..

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Makala Skinner, Research Associate, WES

China is a global powerhouse within international higher education. Its well-known dominance as the top sending country of international students positions it to have outsize influence on higher education policies and funding around the globe. Intentionally developed through a series of initiatives, partnerships, and strategic plans both domestic and international, China’s significance as a recipient of globally mobile students could match or exceed its relevance as a source of international students within the next few years. With its growing influence as the largest sender and third-largest recipient, China is the prime mover of international mobility trends globally.

While China’s influence as a sending country is most commonly discussed, the methods China has used to achieve its significance as a host country warrant exploration. This article examines the strategic economic, political, and educational initiatives that have broadened China’s sway in global mobility trends in recent years.

No.3 Host Country

Over the last decade, China has implemented a multitude of initiatives and policies—some directly related to education and some tangentially—that has contributed to its success and growing popularity as a destination for international higher education students. These strategies include the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), joint education programs, intergovernmental education partnerships, billions invested in China-Africa relations, the proliferation of Confucius Institutes, China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020), and relaxed work policies for international students. These initiatives—some of which have elicited both praise and criticism—have been effective in securing China’s ascendancy as a host country.

China’s influence on international higher education as a receiver of students has been increasing for the past several years. In 2011, China moved ahead of France to become the third-largest recipient of international higher education students, according to data from IIE’s Project Atlas. Since that time, China has steadily closed the distance between itself and the United Kingdom—the second top host country—from a gap of about 188,144 students in 2011 to just 58,272 in 2017. If it continues along this trajectory, China will likely overtake the UK for the No. 2 spot within the next two or three years.

The top three countries of origin that send international students to China are South Korea, the United States, and Thailand, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (see Figure 1). In 2016, South Korea sent nearly triple the number of students as the number two country; South Korean students made up 16 percent of all international students in China. Students from the U.S., China’s second top sender, made up only 5 percent of all inbound international students in China. The remaining top 10 countries sent students that made up between 2 percent and 5 percent each. The percentages from these varied countries mean that China has a fairly diverse international student body—in sharp contrast to the U.S., where students from China and India made up a full 51 percent of all international students in 2017/18.

Figure 1 Source: China Center for Strategic & International Studies


China’s growth as a host country is the result of efforts employed through multiple channels, across both sectors and national borders, as well as through governmental initiatives. One such initiative is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), formerly known as One Belt, One Road. The program is a regional effort to “strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment links” between China and countries that fall along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the New Maritime Silk Road. BRI’s scope is massive. China’s Belt and Road Portal lists 130 countries affiliated with BRI. While the website does not provide a definitive list of Belt and Road countries, it says that the 130 nations “mainly includes countries along the Belt and Road and countries that have signed cooperation agreements with China on Belt and Road Initiative.”

The effort has approximately USD$900 billion in allocated funds, with much of that focusing on infrastructure. For projects under the BRI framework, China contributes a certain amount of money, and the partner country supplies the rest. BRI has been criticized as “creditor imperialism” or “debt trap diplomacy” because of the large loans that China provides to BRI countries that do not have the necessary funds—loans that some countries may not be able to pay back.

Nevertheless, BRI has proven to be politically effective. China signed 50 diplomatic cooperation agreements through BRI in 2017 alone. These 50 agreements make up almost half of all diplomatic agreements signed by China since 2012. According to a 2018 World Bank brief (which included China and about 65 other countries in its calculations), BRI countries “account collectively for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves” in the world.

The intergovernmental project directly influences higher education through earmarked funds for joint education programs. It has helped to foster thousands of cross-border relationships between Chinese higher education institutes (HEIs) and those abroad. The project supports the country’s explicit goal, as laid out in its 2010–2020 educational reform plan, that “schools at all levels … should be encouraged to engage in diverse forms of international exchanges and cooperation, and a good job should be done in running demonstrative joint schools … in cooperation with foreign partners.” China’s Ministry of Education closed 234 of these transnational programs in 2018 (after all enrolled students finished their course work) as a regulatory control effort to address quality concerns, the public was told.

In addition to developing cross-border HEI partnerships, China has also been constructing strategic education partnerships with foreign governments. An example is the Belarus’ Year of Education, which will take place throughout 2019 and comprises “institution building, publicity campaigns, training, contests, seminars, and youth exchanges.” In a similar vein, China signed an agreement with Indonesia in 2017 for higher education credential recognition between the two nations.

BRI influences student mobility indirectly as well. In an interview with PIE News, the Center for China and Globalization suggested that BRI created enough jobs within participating countries that the increased economic means allowed more families to send students abroad, and that these economic ties encouraged students to select China as their study destination. In a similar vein, a recent study of international students (from both BRI and non-BRI countries), found that international students studying in China “expressed optimism about economic cooperation between China and their home countries, and thought that studying in China would give them an edge in their careers.”

BRI appears to have influenced both inbound and outbound student mobility in China. According to China’s Ministry of Education, the number of students from participating BRI countries increased by approximately 12 percent in 2017 from the previous year, and made up a staggering 65 percent of all international students enrolled in the country. Year-over-year inbound growth of international students from BRI countries has increased at a consistently higher rate than inbound growth from non-BRI countries (see Figure 2). Likewise, more Chinese students are pursuing their education in BRI countries. BRI destinations have seen a nearly 16 percent growth rate of Chinese students since 2016.

Figure 2 Source: WES constructed this graph from data found at the China Center for Strategic & International Studies website. *WES determined “BRI countries” to be the 130 nations listed on China’s Belt and Road Portal.

Ties with Africa

China’s increasing political and economic ties with African nations have influenced student mobility as well. China is now second only to France as a study destination for African students. While some African countries fall along the New Maritime Silk Road and are therefore part of BRI, the ties between Africa and China go beyond the BRI initiative. These ties are generally rooted in infrastructure development; however, education plays a significant role as well.

At the 2018 FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation) Beijing Summit, President Xi Jinping outlined eight initiatives to strengthen ties between the nation and the continent. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he stated: “China will extend USD$60 billion of financing to Africa in the form of government assistance as well as investment and financing by financial institutions and companies.” The fifth initiative he discussed pledged multiple education supports, including the establishment of 10 Luban Workshops (which offer technical and vocational education training) in Africa; a China-Africa innovation cooperation center for African youth; 50,000 government scholarships; and 50,000 training opportunities.

These wide-ranging proposals continue a trend of African student and scholar support. The Chinese government funded 40,000 scholarships from 2011/12 to 2016/17 and established 200 placements for African scholars. In addition, China has established 48 Confucius Institutes—which promote Chinese culture and language—in 33 of the continent’s 54 countries as of 2017. South Africa has gone so far as to include Mandarin Chinese in the country’s curriculum.

The intertwining economic and educational ties of the Sino-African relationship are almost certainly contributing to shifting trends in international student mobility. In fact, the number of African international students in China grew 3,335 percent between 2003 (1,793 students) and 2016 (61,594 students). From 2012 to 2016, the rate at which African students are enrolling in Chinese HEIs has consistently grown faster than that of students from other regions. In 2016, it showed 24 percent year-over-year growth, a full 14 percentage points higher than non-African year-over-year growth (see Figure 3).

Figure 3  Source: China Center for Strategic & International Studies

Quality, Cost, and Work Opportunity

In addition to developing initiatives and strategic ties with other nations, China is bolstering the appeal of its own education system by allocating increasingly higher funds to educating international students. The country has also relaxed its employment policies to attract students from abroad.

China’s growth in international student numbers is aligned with and partially driven by the country’s education improvement plan. China’s explicit goals of admitting more international students (as a way to increase China’s soft power) and of improving its education systems are laid out in China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020).

In 2018, two of China’s universities (Peking University and Tsinghua University) were ranked two of the top 30 in the world in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. China has set its sights on more ambitious targets, however, and is endeavoring to place 42 universities in top rankings by 2050. Along with making improvements in quality, China is also expanding its course offerings. More and more international students are “pursuing non-language degrees,” made possible by the increased number of programs offered with English as the language of instruction, a further draw for many students. In 2018, more than 100 HEIs in China offered courses in English—nearly triple the number offered in 2009.

In tandem with the quality benefits it offers, the Chinese government is increasing funds and scholarships for international students. China’s low cost of living already provides an appealing financial incentive to students considering learning abroad, and scholarships are another. In 2018, China’s Ministry of Education dedicated USD$469 million to inbound students, an increase of about 16 percent over the previous year. Approximately USD$300 million of that budget is used for scholarships each year, and in 2017, approximately 12 percent (58,600) of all international students within China received a scholarship from the government. This is a drastic increase from 2006, when only 8,500 international students were awarded scholarships. The Chinese Government Scholarship and the Confucius Institute Scholarship are perhaps the most notable scholarships available to international students, but province-based scholarships, such as one in Jiangsu and another in Beijing, also support students from abroad.

China has also been taking steps to make work opportunities available to international students, both during and after their studies. The government established a rule in 2017 that allowed recent international graduates from master’s programs and higher to obtain up to a five-year work permit. The following year, China instituted a policy that allows international students to work part-time while they pursue their education. China even created a New Immigration Bureau that will “focus on the immigration of international students.”

Comprehensive Strategy

China’s status as the top sender and No. 3 receiver of international students imbues the country with significant power—perhaps even the most power—to shape global mobility trends within higher education. It is important to take note of how China has become so successful as a host country. The world is witnessing a proliferation of internationalization plans—including those of France, Russia, Japan, and the UK—and many nations have experienced success. However, arguably no other country has seen its internationalization goals come to fruition as quickly and on as large a scale as China.

China is seeing its inbound international student population multiply so swiftly, in part, because it does not “silo” or isolate education. Rather, it has linked its education sector to its economy and geopolitics and thrown the full weight of the Chinese government behind large-scale, inter-sector projects. China’s dominance within student mobility is a result of the dynamic relationships between sectors. Though different sectors are regularly discussed as disparate, in reality they are often so closely..

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Bryce Loo, Senior Research Associate

Discussions about diversity and inclusion within U.S. higher education typically revolve around domestic students, particularly racial and ethnic minorities. International students are overwhelmingly spoken of as adding diversity of nationality to the American higher education landscape. Rarely are there substantive discussions about other facets of international students’ identities other than nationality, such as race, and the special challenges that race can bring to certain international students.

This article explores some of the scholarly and professional research on international student experiences navigating race (and ethnicity, to an extent) in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent in Canada). We will also take a look at a few helpful practices for creating a more inclusive and aware campus experience for international students.

Most of the research on this subject has consisted of small-scale qualitative studies, often at just one university—which perhaps limits our ability to generalize their findings. But many common themes have emerged. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that every international student has his or her own unique journey and story, even when students come from the same countries or similar backgrounds. However, the topic of race is certainly relevant in international higher education today, particularly in an era of both global and American populist nationalism, with its signature traits of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice.

Nationality, Race, & Ethnicity

While it is common to classify individuals by race or ethnicity, these identities are social constructs which vary widely, depending on the context. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau uses five racial categories (though survey respondents can report more than one): White; Black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The term “ethnicity,” however, is reserved for whether an individual is “Hispanic or Latino.”

These classifications are specific and particular to American conceptions of race and ethnicity.  They are deeply rooted in the sociological and historical context of American race relations and have, at most, a tenuous relation to any objectively meaningful criteria for differentiating people. While international students are viewed through the lens of national origin from the perspective of the admissions office, once they arrive on campus they are often viewed through the prism of American racial and ethnic classifications. Since these distinctions differ from the students’ own understanding of differences, they can be jarring and alienating.

Race refers to a categorization of people based on physical characteristics (or phenotypes), such as skin color. Race is widely acknowledged to be a social construct, something formulated and understood differently in different national and other social contexts based on different histories and cultures. In the U.S., race is often described as being a “white/black binary,”[1] informed heavily by the country’s history of slavery and racial segregation focused primarily on black Americans.

Ethnicity refers to categorizations based on cultural differences, such as language, customs, and beliefs, as well as ancestry. This would include groups such as Chinese (or Chinese American), Jewish (or Jewish American), Cherokee, and so forth. Many countries around the world have more than one ethnic group living within their borders, all of which would be classified as the same race in the U.S. For example, in Nigeria, the largest ethnic groups are Hausa, Igbo (Ibo), Yoruba, and Fulani, according to the CIA World Factbook. Each group has its own language, history, culture, and traditions. Of course, race and ethnicity can have complicated overlaps, and there is no full, universally agreed-upon distinction between the two.

Negotiating New Racial Identities, Prejudice, and Discrimination

When students are part of the majority people group in their home countries, and even more particularly if the country is relatively homogeneous, race may not have been an important marker of identity or have factored into their identities at all. Only when they come to the U.S. does race become salient. Students may suddenly become “black” or “Asian” or “Middle Eastern” or “Latino”[2] in an American context when previously they never saw themselves as such before.

Black international students, such as those from Africa or the Caribbean, can sometimes initially be confused for black Americans.[3] The fact that race is based mostly on physical appearance can cause greater confusion. One student in Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, and Peralta’s study of race among black and Latino international students[4] looks visibly Asian (and is of Asian heritage). However, she grew up in Latin America and identifies as a Latin American, but she notes that Americans label her instantly as Asian.

For many international students of color, suddenly becoming a minority within the racialized environment of the U.S. is often a lot to process. They experience “discomfort” from many different sources.[5] The privileged position that many international students occupied in their home country may make them extra sensitive to their new minority status and the discrimination they experience in the U.S.[6]

Bardhan & Zhang,[7] in conducting 22 interviews with students from the Global South[8] at a midwestern university, found that race is often not a facet of identity for many international students of color when they enter the U.S. and that race is sometimes seen as a “Western phenomenon.”[9] In particular, “the experience of racialization seems most intense for participants from sub-Saharan African or mainly black countries who struggle with ‘becoming’ black in the United States,” they note.[10]

In their qualitative study of race at various U.S. universities (conducted from 2004 to 2009), Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, and Peralta[11] found that the majority of the mostly African and Caribbean students they interviewed said they didn’t really understand race when they first arrived in the U.S. It had little meaning to them. One Senegalese student explained it this way:

Oh, it’s just funny when people speak of race. I don’t know how you guys felt, but when I first came here I knew nothing about race. I knew how to spell racism but that’s as far—I didn’t even know what it really meant. I never looked it up in the dictionary.[12]

Many of the interviewees, in fact, were surprised at how much race was a consuming factor society-wide in the U.S.

The research also shows that international students typically arrive here with their own views on other races. According to Ritter’s study conducted at UCLA,[13] East Asian international students appear to have developed a certain sense of global racial hierarchies: whites, followed by East Asians, Latinos, and finally African Americans[14] and Southeast Asians at the bottom. The bottom ranking of the last two groups tends to be attributed to their darker skin color.

Many of these students had little sense of Latinos or Latino culture before coming to the U.S. and sometimes couldn’t differentiate them from white Americans, particularly Latinos who appeared more European in heritage.

The belief among some Asian students in Ritter’s study that whites were somehow superior to East Asians appears to have originated in the dominance of Europe and the U.S. worldwide over the past several centuries. It is, however, unclear if this perception is widespread among East Asian international students in the U.S., given the small scale of this study. Yet, it does reveal that international students are not necessarily “blank slates” upon entering the U.S. when it comes to race.

Most of the students in this study learned about race in the U.S. through the media and their own day-to-day interactions, which can provide a skewed view. For example, many internalized the view that African Americans are dangerous or suspect. Most said they held negative views of African Americans coming into the U.S. As one South Korean student from Ritter’s study said of her knowledge of black Americans before coming to UCLA, “I was scared of them.… I thought only black people are violent and aggressive.”[15] In general, the media seemed to be a main source of information on race for many of the students who were interviewed.[16]

Some of the research[17] indicates that many international students of color try to avoid taking on race as part of their identity, at least initially. Many do not often see themselves in the specific context of race in the U.S. Several of the students in Bardhan and Zhang’s study[18] expressed challenges in keeping their pre-U.S. identities while negotiating their new identities as racial minorities in the U.S. Many remained proud to be where they were from; “they resisted centralizing U.S. conceptions of race in how they defined themselves.”[19] Yet, as Fries-Britt and colleagues point out, various interactions forced their study participants to tangle with the issue of race: “…their experiences in the classroom with peers and faculty, being pulled over by police on campus, being called the ‘N’ word, and responding to comments about their hairstyles and dress.”[20]

International students of color can, of course, face discrimination, prejudice, and microaggressions based on their race and ethnicity. In a survey of 640 international students from around the world enrolled at UCLA, Hanassab[21] found that Middle Eastern and African students reported the most discrimination on and off campus. A survey conducted in 2016 by World Education Services (WES) on international student experiences in the U.S. also found that sub-Saharan African and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) students, followed by Chinese students, were the most likely to cite discrimination as a top challenge.

Microaggressions are particularly insidious forms of prejudice and discrimination. They are defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.”[22] Houshmand, Spanierman, and Tafarodi,[23] in their qualitative study of East Asian and South Asian students at a university in a major Canadian city, catalogued six types of racial microaggressions that their participants regularly faced: Being excluded and avoided, being ridiculed for their accent, rendered invisible, having their international values and needs disregarded, making assumptions about their intelligence, encountering environmental microaggressions (structural barriers on campus)[24]. These are described in the table below.

These microaggressions show again the complex interplay of race, ethnicity, and nationality when it comes to discrimination. In particular, the way some international students of color speak—their accents, their general English-speaking abilities—is frequently cited as a particular microaggression.[25] Likely for many East Asian international students, for example, their particular accents and styles of speaking may be stereotyped as “Asian.” In this way, the microaggression demonstrates subtle (or not-so-subtle) discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and nationality. Asian Americans, even when native speakers of English, often face the common microaggression (even when well-intentioned) of, “You speak English very well,” indicating the assumption that they are foreigners or not truly American[26] (known as the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype). This microaggression is based purely on assumptions about race, often without any knowledge of their specific ethnic background or nationality (American or otherwise), or of their linguistic ability.

Relationships with American students of the same racial or ethnic background are also sometimes complicated. Several studies mention that international students can sometimes face prejudice or lack of acceptance from Americans of the same race, or simply be seen as  “foreign.”[27] Some of the African students in Constantine and colleagues’ study[28] expressed that they experienced discrimination from black Americans, particularly when it came to dating. In Constantine and colleagues’ study, a Kenyan male student said:

I think some [black Americans] see themselves as better than Africans. You find a lot of [light-skinned] black people [in the United States], and I think they don’t want to date us because they think we’re too [dark-skinned]. One black [woman] I asked for a date told me I was ‘too black’ for her and [that] she had to think about how our kids would turn out if we ever got married. I only asked her for one date [and] not marriage.[29]

Additionally, international students may come to the U.S. with or develop their own views of Americans of their same race. Ritter’s study[30] found that many East Asian international students had mixed views of Asian Americans, often viewing them as neither completely Asian nor completely American.

Chrystal A. George Mwangi[31] conducted a study of African and Caribbean international students at an HBCU (historically black college or university) in the Mid-Atlantic region. She found that some black international students come to the U.S. with preconceived ideas about black Americans, both negative and positive. These perceptions are typically formed by the media, particularly negative notions about the number of black Americans in prison and on government assistance.

Some of the positive perceptions revolved around hip-hop, including its creativity and countercultural nature. Several of the students in the study mentioned that while they could empathize with black Americans to an extent, they couldn’t fully understand the racial issues that black Americans regularly face. The international students came to feel connected to black American students through race, but typically didn’t view race as their primary form of identity. Nationality (for example, being Trinidadian) was often more important, particularly in the context of an HBCU, where generally most students are black. According to these students, black Americans quickly saw them as different because of, for example, their accents. Participants also cited that sometimes black Americans held stereotypes about them.

Coping and Thriving in American Higher Education and Society

International students of color cope in various ways with stresses related to racial experiences in the U.S., including discrimination, prejudice, and microaggressions. One study[32] found that participants did everything from directly confronting a situation, to keeping problems to themselves, to even sleeping. Few relied on counseling services, in part because of cultural reasons.

One way of coping and thriving is relying on a strong support network, which can include a combination of family and friends back home and in the U.S. The African students in the study by Constantine and others[33] typically found support from family back home (and sometimes residing in the States), and from fellow African students on campus and even across the U.S. (likely via social media and other online venues, at least in part). According to Bardhan and Zhang,[34] one way international students of color cope is by spending time with those whom they view as nonjudgmental, whether fellow students from their home countries or others.

Despite the challenges, some of the research indicates that some students may use their experiences with race in the U.S. as a cause for deeper reflection or even as a motivator. Becoming a racial minority in the U.S. has caused some students to become self-reflective, often allowing some to understand any positions of privilege they occupy in their home countries or ways that they participate in prejudice or discrimination or help in perpetuating the status quo.[35]

Malcolm and Mendoza[36] found in their study of Afro-Caribbean undergraduate students at a public research university that their participants used issues of race and ethnicity to explore their own identities, often confirming their ethnic and national identities and reaffirming their values, while at the same time learning new viewpoints. Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, and Peralta refer to this as “integrative awareness,” when students are able to understand their “racial/ethnic positioning” in the U.S. and maintain a solid sense of self.[37]

Good Practices for Creating Inclusive Campuses

As Lee and Rice exhort,[38] it is important for institutions to develop awareness of the issues that international students face in terms of discrimination and integration around issues of race. From that awareness, institutions can begin to meaningfully address the racial issues that international students face.

Teach the American racial context

As has been demonstrated, many international students come to the U.S. with little understanding of the historical and contemporary American racial landscape. They do sometimes arrive with stereotypical or distorted ideas based largely on media portrayals of certain races, particularly black Americans, in the U.S. They also come here with their understandings of race and ethnicity based on their own national and cultural contexts, which may be very different from those of the U.S.

As a result, institutions need to think about how and when to adequately educate international students about race in the U.S. While a one-off session during new student orientation may be a start, it is likely not enough to help students get a fuller picture of this highly complex topic. Institutions have used various methods, from discussions in Intensive English courses, to including sections on race in the international student handbook, to courses for credit on the subject—specifically for international students.

Ritter’s study of East Asian students at UCLA found that “diversity course[s]” and having roommates of different racial backgrounds seem to help students “begin to question the racial hierarchy script delivered in media.”[39] All institutions need to decide what would work best in their given contexts, including geographic location. For example, a university in the rural southeast, with its particular history of race, may need to take a different tack than a university in multicultural New York City, San Francisco, or Miami.

Help students develop support networks

The research shows that international students of color use various strategies to cope with the stress and discomfort of being confronted with race and racism, and with needing to negotiate their identities in a U.S. context. Relying on personal support networks, particularly family and friends, is often a primary form of coping.

While it’s important to support integration by encouraging international students to make friends with American students and students of other nationalities, it is also important to recognize the primacy of..

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