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Danger! Beware of cliff edge; population numbers affecting int’l education

An ageing population is a problem for many of the world’s most developed countries; shrinking birth rates can equal less innovation, weaker productivity and higher welfare costs further down the line.

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Alternatively, a demographic dip can act as a push factor for study abroad

They also impact on the number of eligible students entering tertiary education domestically, and countries and institutions often look to international students to fill the gap.

Alternatively, a demographic dip can act as a push factor for study abroad or a shrinking market that can impact student mobility trends.

In our recent survey of leaders in international education, 62% of our readership who responded said that population cliff edges were a genuine concern. Only 3% of respondents across 16 countries said that population numbers were not a threat for student recruitment long term.

The PIE examines how this might affect international education in some of the world’s top study source countries and destinations.


China’s population has fallen for the first time in 60 years and the United Nations is now predicting a 6% fall in 20-24 year olds between 2020-2030.

As a result, the national economy faces significant challenges as more working-age people are needed for an economy still largely based on manufacturing.

In addition to falling numbers of younger people, rising wages and a climb in the world rankings for Chinese universities could encourage more people to study or work domestically in the near future.

The PIE News recently reported on reduced competition for higher ed as China’s population declines.

Some analysts predict that the total number of Chinese students in overseas higher education specifically will peak within five years and then stagnate or decline.

For a country with a population of over 1.4 billion, however, this is likely to be a drop in the ocean in terms of falling demand for those wanting to study overseas and universities needn’t panic just yet.


Japan is often cited as a cautionary tale for problems associated with an ageing population. In the 1980s, Japan was considered an emerging global super-power due to its superior electronic and automotive design and manufacturing.

That high economic growth, though, has declined over the last 30 years as the population has grown older and the country has resisted immigration as a solution to the shrinking workforce.

A third of Japanese people are now over 60 years old, making Japan home to the oldest population in the world. It is recording fewer births than ever before and by 2050 it could lose a fifth of its current population.

Japan is a conservative country and has never been a large source market for western study destinations; younger Japanese people are now less likely to be married or have children – and less likely to speak a foreign language or have studied overseas than their parents.


The ramifications of an ageing population are certainly disrupting the higher education market domestically in the US. Unlike other countries, the issue is not simply about slower population growth, but more specifically about the demographic changes within society.

According to census data, during the pandemic year 2020-2021 the US population grew by just 392,665, a figure that should have been closer to 1 million in normal times.

Like many countries at that time, the number of deaths increased, the number of births decreased and immigration was curbed as the world ground to a halt.

“Some analysts predict that the Chinese student numbers overseas will peak within five years”

Similarly, many younger people left large metro areas to avoid lockdowns and benefit from remote working.

The biggest national decline, notably, has been within the white population – the race-ethnic demographic group traditionally most likely to go to university.

Non-white Americans, especially Latino or Hispanic Americans, now comprise larger shares of the population at all ages.

There has also been an exponential rise in enrolments in online education, micro-credentials and hybrid model degrees, as this disrupted generation is weighing up the perceived value of a four year campus college degree.

All of these factors have resulted in a 10% decline in enrolments at US colleges in 2021, totalling almost 4 million people less in the system.

Combined with falling numbers from major source markets such as China, parts of the US sector are facing challenges in meeting admissions targets.


Italy has the fastest declining population within the EU, although other countries such as Finland, Greece and Portugal are catching up. Even Germany, the most populous European country, has a low fertility rate of 1.5 children per female.

The Italian National Institute of Statistics, Istat, predict that Italy could lose almost a fifth of its residents by 2050, with the population set to decline from 59.2 million in 2021 to 54.2 million in 2050.

“Parts of the US sector are facing challenges in meeting admissions targets”

Italy is one of the more robust study abroad markets in Europe, with UNESCO estimating that there are as many as 77,000 Italian students studying abroad in countries like the UK, Austria, Germany, France and Spain.

South Korea

Between 2019-2021, South Korea statistically had the world’s lowest birth rate at 0.81. Despite being the world’s 10th biggest economy, the population actually shrank in 2021.

Analysts have claimed that the problem for Korea is largely to do with quality of life and widespread unemployment amongst the younger generations.

Unlike other global societies, younger couples want to feel secure and optimistic about their prospects before deciding to have children.

Like China, South Korea implemented birth control in the 1990s to slow population growth but it has the generational impact of much of the younger population not aspiring to have families themselves.


The UK recently tracked a demographic dip of 18 year olds, with a 2% decline occurring in both 2019 and 2020. The decline was actually mitigated by the pandemic, which saw more mature students returning to study, fewer teenagers deferring university places and non-EU student numbers rising.

All of these factors, as such, combined to result in record numbers of students at British universities rather than the predicted fall.

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