The Year in Review: What 2017 Tells Us About 2018

By G. John Cole

The past twelve months have been an exciting time for those who are invested in student mobility and international education.

While issues such as equality and educational technology have been pulled into sharp focus, the monitoring of ongoing trends such as the aging of the global population – longer life expectancy and fewer babies – has reinforced the need for educators to innovate and diversify as they move forward into 2018.

And it’s not just about shifting demographics: students are becoming more sophisticated in the way they make their choices. They’re aware of the brands, but want to know a lot more about the experience and career prospects of a university before they commit.

Institutions that are looking to develop in harmony with the underlying demographic trends will link the dots between equal opportunity, technological advances, and value for money as they establish their recruitment strategies for 2018 and the decade ahead.

New Generations, New Expectations

Millennials may be a constant feature in the current news cycle, but the future is all about Generation Z – today’s teenagers and tweens.  Recruiters should already be refining their methods of targeting this bright new audience who, being just a dash younger than millennials, are the first full digital natives. Further implementation of the aforementioned opportunities and advances into your strategy - already useful in establishing a bond with the current millennial student body – will become more and more attractive as Gen Z progress through undergraduate study and begin to think about postgrad opportunities.

Generation Z, like their older millennial siblings, are mobile and connected. More importantly, Generation Z communicate differently. They may have half a dozen devices or more, but will generally default to the smartphone – and that’s where 80% of them will find academic opportunities. They may have shorter attention spans, but they multitask like no other generation. Visual forms of communication such as emojis, gifs, and videos facilitate this split attention and can be capitalized upon by a university’s marketing department.

But form should not eclipse content.  Building on the commitment to social responsibility and self-fulfillment championed by the previous generation, one can expect Gen Z to be driven and focused on entrepreneurship and self-determination – but also on doing things in an ethical, socially-conscious way. They value transparency and authenticity above glamour and hype. Furthermore, we can expect Gen Z, even more than the millennial generation, to reject a one-size-fits-all approach to higher education.  Bespoke programs, degrees, study opportunities and even marketing strategies are the key to reaching a generation whose predecessors pioneered the freelance career and digital nomadism. 

And institutions won’t just want to preach to this astonishing new generation: they’ll want to listen, collaborate, and develop university services and curricula in close co-operation with their bright new students.

The rise of the Asian middle-class

The growth of the Asian middle-class over the past half-century has created an uneven terrain of the region’s postsecondary education sector. GDP in the Asia-Pacific region rose from 15 percent to 27 percent in the years from 1970 to 2012, building towards an expected middle-class of 3.2 billion people by the end of the next decade.

Some big-name schools are flourishing. Places at institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia are in high demand from local and international students alike, while Australia continues to entertain incoming students from the region due to its location and English-language base. Australia remains a particular lure since the government offers favorable visa opportunities to those who study there: Asian authorities might even up the balance by providing comparable conditions to incoming students.

But while cities are flourishing, there is still important work to be done in rural areas. Provincial universities are learning to capitalize on their strongest departments in order to remain competitive. Students from the Asia-Pacific region and beyond may find themselves enticed to the unique experience of an education at an institution without a showy international profile if its reputation in a particular specialism is given a chance to travel. The building of a vibrant local R&D culture may create a similar pull.

For those unable to travel for study, technology promises another solution: the rapid revolution in online learning. One in three of the world’s mobile users reside in Asia, and the continent hosts more than 70 open universities. For schools, the benefits of pioneering online opportunities such as virtual field trips and video conferencing include improved international visibility.

China is among the pioneers of online and distance learning and boasts progressive policies towards the sharing of course materials between institutions. The limits of the ICT infrastructure in parts of the country have attracted the attention of The World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network and UNESCO’s Higher Education Open and Distance Learning Knowledge Base, and a sharp upturn in progress can be expected over the next months and years.

The predominance of the English language in online resources and industry-standard software is another issue. Opportunities to help students benefit from developing technological infrastructures may require imagination and co-operation on an institutional, governmental, and corporate level.

One trend we’re likely to see as a result of all this is an upturn in both supply and demand for postgrad opportunities. On the one hand, a far higher number of qualified, academically-cultured teachers are needed to deal with the surge in undergraduate studies. On the other, Asia’s ambitious young students are going to graduate, hungry for more, in greater and greater numbers.

Africa in need of a bigger education market

One area that’s bucking global demographic trends is Africa. The continent is expected to home five of the fastest growing youth populations by 2025. Like Asia, the African middle class is booming, its students are online, and education supply is not yet meeting demand.

This trend has already manifested in a phenomenal increase of qualified African students pursuing international education opportunities. In 2013, one in ten internationally mobile students came from the continent, and although to date most of those are from French- and English-speaking nations we can expect this to diversify in the years ahead. Portuguese-speaking Angola, for example, already has over 11,000 outbound students pursuing degrees in places such as Brazil, Portugal, and South Africa.

Perhaps even more so than in Asia, catering to Africa’s burgeoning student population will require innovation and adaptability. If the mobile infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, it’s only a whisper away: mobile phone ownership is set to triple to over 700m between 2015 and 2020, with data traffic set to increase 15-fold.

This late development comes with the significant advantage that Africa can build on the achievements already made in more technologically-developed regions. Diverse needs and economic pressures will be well-served by unbundled education packages, in which teaching, resources, and assessment are delivered modularly, on demand, and in a range of formats.

Virtual campuses are springing up as African colleges embrace the social and technological shift: corporations and NGOs are extending support to homegrown institutions such as the African Virtual University, and Samsung’s Solar Powered Internet School. The Universities of Leeds and Cape Town are co-operating on a huge study into the very relevance of the bricks-and-mortar education experience in the age of eLearning. Whatever the balance proves to be in the future, institutions need to be adaptable, to listen to users’ needs, and to reach potential students through marketing initiatives that are as progressive as their programs.

The British Council has noted that, with its oversubscribed degrees and English-speaking population, Nigeria is likely to lead the way in postgraduate mobility over the next few years. Two-thirds of Nigerian applicants find themselves unable to find a place in the nation’s universities, creating an excess of one million students. International schools in the country are waiting to hear from foreign universities who can offer their ambitious pupils a solution.

European and American Trends

In the past two years, international student numbers have surged around the world.  Top destinations like Australia and Canada saw increases of fifteen and eighteen percent, respectively, and they were not alone.  Overseas student numbers have quadrupled in the past twenty-five years and international education has expanded far beyond its twentieth-century confines. Equally significant is the change in migration patterns, with the classic east-west flow broadening into a multidirectional movement of students between established and non-traditional sending and host countries.

That is not to say that the entire student mobility pattern has been upended. Canada pushed ahead in 2017 to be the number one destination of international students, and the UK remains second in the world by number of students.  The UK is also the second most subscribed EU destination for Eastern European and Russian students, and student mobility from Russia and Caucasus can be expected to continue to grow. The UK’s international education industrial strategy has a particular eye on Russia and Kazakhstan, areas from where a higher number of students are expected to travel and which may prove valuable from a post-Brexit, burgeoning New Silk Road perspective.

In Latin America, the past two decades have seen a general trend of students moving abroad for university – without leaving the region altogether. The US remains the top destination for Latin American students, but Chile also claimed a spot in the top ten and Cuba continues to attract regional international students.  Still, Latin American students are increasingly looking further afield, with France and Spain attracting solid percentages. Universities in the region are also working to establish bilateral agreements, and Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Argentina are all actively expanding their international recruitment efforts.

In recent years, Mexico increased its number of outbound students to the US by more than a third, with Mexican enrollment at US universities accounting for more than seven percent of the US’s international student population. This year, institutions can expect to see record numbers of Mexican and LatAm students but experts anticipate that this growth will not be sustained. While this, and an overall dip in international enrollments in the US may be attributed to the country’s political situation, it also reflects the long-term growth of higher education in Latin American and the rest of the world. Improvements in English-language learning across Latin America may see the region’s student begin to challenge their Asian counterparts more closely for places in English-speaking destinations beyond the US.

Online education and big data

However ambitious an institution’s plans are for internationalization, they can no longer overlook the opportunities that improved technological infrastructures are offering African and Asian students who are eager to study online. In Africa, international powers such as Microsoft and the British Council are investing in the continent’s tremendous potential for eLearning. In India, one in five tertiary learners is enrolled at the open university, IGNOU.

And at the provider end, educators will benefit from switching on to big data. Students throughout the world are more than ever using the social web, which means that schools can reach out directly to them through targeted marketing and then continue the conversation in a way that each party considers appropriate.

Campuses in those regions and others will make smarter use of their resources by using collected and real-time data and feeding them back into the systems that keep their buildings and facilities running smoothly. Those oversubscribed universities might use booking and cancellation data to organize more efficient, dynamic use of their labs and studios – and to plan new buildings and subsequent intakes more effectively.

In each of these cases, technology meets the student halfway – capitalizing on how they live and work already and expanding this potential through innovation and investment. Moving forward into 2018, the postsecondary recruiters who will thrive are those who are able to create and communicate a student experience that reflects the state of the art today – and anticipates where we’re going.

Topics: Education International News