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Mission impossible: Is the quest for diversity realistic?

Every university wants to improve diversity on campus, but the numbers suggest that achieving growth and balanced diversity might be an impossible task.

Recent geo-political events have cast doubts over the future relationship of western countries with China. Photo: iStock

Recent geopolitical events have cast doubts over the future relationship of western countries with China

Is it time for universities to be realistic about where international students come from and what that means for the student experience?

Recent geopolitical events have cast doubts over the future relationship of western countries with China, with the UK and US recently issuing a joint statement that the country was the “biggest long-term threat” to their economic and national security.

Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion recently commented that “any university that is totally dependent or very largely dependent on one market needs to have a risk assessment of that”.

“That’s not a comment about China as such, but that’s a general point. We’ve always said [it’s best to] have a balanced portfolio, be aware of risks around the world and we don’t talk about a particular country in that sense,” he added.

Attracting students from other countries in the same numbers however is not straightforward, as markets the size of China and India simply do not exist anywhere else in the world.

“The reality is… half of your international students come from two markets”

China has a population of 1.44bn and India a population of 1.39bn, and together they represent 37% of the world’s population. As a continent, Asia accounts for 61% of the world’s total.

India could overtake China as the world’s most populous country as soon as 2027, according to the United Nations.

The influence of these two enormous super-powers in every aspect of global politics is unavoidable. Proportionality by any measure, be it by GDP or population size, will always equate to overwhelming dominance from China and India as international source markets.

HolonIQ states that China may be the largest economy in the world, accounting for 20% of world GDP by 2050, with India second, US in third and Indonesia in fourth place.

Only six countries, including China and India, account for 80% of the global demand for education at all levels.

Justin Wood, partnerships manager for the UK and Ireland at ApplyBoard, speaking of his prior experience as university international director, said ‘the easiest way of achieving [diversity] is to shrink the population size [of dominant nationalities at your institution]”.

“The reality is that when half of your international students come from two markets, you either choose to accept students from those markets or say that’s the university decision [not to]. We’ve had this discussion [about diversity] for a decade and it’s a bit of a red herring,” Woods explained.

Nigeria represents a large source market for the US, Canada and the UK, but the number of students studying overseas globally from Nigeria would have to grow by 1000% to match student numbers from China alone.

According to the ICEF monitor, more than 1m Chinese students study abroad each year, with another 200,000 students taking part in international exchange programs. By comparison the number of Nigerian students studying abroad annually is estimated at 100,000 per year from a population of over 200 million.

In the UK, the largest proportion of non-EU students in 2020-21 came from China (31%) totalling 143,820 students, followed by India (19%) with 84,555 students. Statistics from the UKVI showing granted study visas confirm that inbound numbers from India grew a further 197% in 2021.

In Australia 109,000 visa holders were recorded as Chinese (27%) and 59,000 were Indian (15%) in 2021 according to the Australian Department for Education.

In the US the picture is stark, with more than half of all international students enrolled in colleges and universities originating from China and India. Nearly 650,000 students came from Asia, vastly outstripping demand from any other continent (Open Doors, National Centre for Education Statistics 2021).

Eleanor Mitchell, director of global engagement at Charles Sturt University, gave some staggering statistics at this year’s BUILA conference, stating: “China has 8 million high school graduates per year, India has 4 million. To get an idea about the pipeline of future students, there are 46 million children currently in the Chinese kindergarten system.”

“China is now the producer of the most research in the world. You wouldn’t want to cut yourself off from science even if you have other concerns”

Despite the Chinese one-child policy ending in 2016, birth rates in the country have continued to steadily decline. The pandemic also caused significant disruption to student mobility from China with many students being unable to travel – Australia estimates 50% of their Chinese student population is currently still residing offshore.

The combined effect could see student numbers from China flatline or even decline but they still represent an irreplaceably large market. Malcolm Butler, VP of global engagement at the University of Sheffield explained.

“It is a real dilemma as to how we deal with China and the balance between what we [universities] might think or what the government thinks. But it’s so big, it does need to be at the forefront of all our discussions because the potential impact [of a loss of students] is going to be huge,” Butler commented.

The UK has taken steps to deepen its relationship with India through mutual recognition of qualifications as part of its post-Brexit international education strategy, however Smith has also been conscious to point out the long term importance of China for research and innovation.

“China is now the producer of the most research in the world. You wouldn’t want to cut yourself off from science even if you have other concerns. So it’s a balancing act, and our job is to try to make sure that there are a variety of markets, for all countries, for all parts of the UK, and for all parts of the education sector.”

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2 Responses to Mission impossible: Is the quest for diversity realistic?

  1. Fantastic article Nick – few things are impossible, but some things are very hard and to deliver those you really need to know why you are doing it – what the costs and the benefits are – and who can help you get there. Even NASA recognises it needs help to get to the moon and Mars, the sector has an increasing range of potential partners who can help them to achieve their strategic ambitions and we are absolutely the right people to look to to drive diversity becasue of our global reach, in-country teams, ability to access students, lower costs of acquisition etc etc

  2. Interesting article. The GDP and research volume comments are flawed, but not only is the population flatlime an issue, politics with China will get more complicated too and impact on universities and pedagogical choices of the more dependent universities.

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