Markets that have previously been considered easy pickings for institutions keen to maintain a steady level of international students have recently been subject to unpredicted downturns, while new opportunities are emerging in unexpected areas such as Indonesia and Iran.
As recently as 2015/16, Saudi Arabia was the third largest market for US institutions hoping to attract international students to their schools, yet by the fall semester of 2016, the number of Saudi student visas had dropped by almost 20 percent. A tightening of the Saudi government's budget has been felt by those issuing scholarships for its students to travel abroad. Coupled with policy changes aimed at ensuring this money is spent only on high-ranking institutions and courses, it is now a far tougher job for universities to convince Saudi students to apply.
Still, domestic research and industry-facing opportunities are on the increase as Saudi authorities grapple with a shifting demographic and a difficult job market for under-25s. Prospective students now face the challenge of choosing between studying abroad or finding a local position. Foreign universities who want to continue to attract Saudi students need to reach out not just to the students themselves, but to Saudi ministries, institutions, and scholarship providers if they are to make a case for investing in overseas education.
Like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia's young population has rapidly outgrown the country’s employment opportunities, and local schools are not yet meeting the increasing need for access to market-oriented curriculums. But Indonesia is an up-and-coming economy, making its newly affluent classes ripe for enticing international universities who can meet needs not yet met by domestic institutions.
If Indonesian schools want for a more competitive syllabus, Nigerian universities are simply pressed for space. Only one-third of local applicants find a place in Nigerian universities each year, leaving up to a million potential students with nowhere to go. It's no wonder the British Council have earmarked Nigeria as the nation likely to have the strongest annual growth in international postgraduate mobility through to 2024. Education actors will already have noted that Nigerian students tend to have high proficiency in the English language. They will want to concentrate on communicating directly with international schools in the region if they are to maximize the potential for undergraduate recruitment from this promising market.
Following last year’s historic nuclear agreement, Iran’s improved economic and social mobility will be a welcome relief for graduates eager to take the next step but frustrated by the lack of post-graduate opportunities at home.
Widespread higher education is still a relatively new phenomenon in Iran. While undergraduates are now well catered-to, when they emerge into the highly competitive job market many are prompted to apply for postgraduate positions against which the odds of being accepted are quite staggering.
Still, the possibility of studying abroad remains a novel and intimidating prospect. Iranian graduates may respond more positively to personalized approaches that address their concerns about application processes and entry requirements. And with recent geopolitical changes, Iranian students will be more inclined to look further afield for study opportunities.
Meanwhile, the UK government has committed to increasing education exports to £30 billion over the next three years, an ambitious figure that will likely prompt British universities to diversify the flow of foreign students to their doors. Just five non-EU sending markets account for nearly 60% of all non-EU enrolment in British universities, a figure that is comparable to the situation for American and Canadian educators. Institutions in these three countries will look to highly populated, under-resourced nations such as Indonesia and Nigeria to be their ‘next China.’
In light of hints that foreign students applying for “lower quality” programs could face stricter visa regulations post-Brexit, with business-minded institutions creating new distance learning opportunities and even franchising their prestigious brands. Certainly, students from emerging EU economies and non-EU markets alike will be eager to capitalize on the chance to get a ‘British’ education without the increased living costs associated with relocating to the UK.
And as delivery methods develop in exciting new directions, communication will remain key to educators who wish to develop potential new markets, and to negotiate the tightening of border controls in the US and UK. Student markets in countries like Iran, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia will be watching international institutions closely. Those universities which thrive in such an atmosphere will likely be characterized by their empathy, cultural sensitivity and a willingness to embrace change.