An Existential Crisis – or Learning to Operate in a VUCA World?

“These are the times that try mens’ souls”

Latest SEVIS release confirms a decline in foreign enrollments in the United States

In 1998, the United States War College coined an acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It was designed as a conceptual model to help military officers understand the world – and has been popularized by the world’s leading Business Schools.

Looking at the latest SEVIS data release from December 2017, VUCA may well represent a definition which defines the world in which professionals in US international higher-ed operate. For any international education professional under the age of 45 – the international enrollment data for the United States has been linear – a period of uninterrupted growth – augmented by relatively sudden peaks (and troughs) in demand such as the Brazilian Science Without Borders program and the King Abdullah Scholarship program which fueled an explosive growth in the number of Saudi Arabian students studying Language programs in the USA.

Now – for the first time in two decades growth is slowing. In fact SEVIS December 2017 data release reveals a 1.4 per cent drop in the number of foreign students in the United States compared to November 2016 reporting period which, coincidentally is the month Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States.

Interestingly, California has experienced a larger relative decline (211k students in November 2016 down 5.7% to 199k in December 2017). South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Mexico have experienced particularly noticeable declines. And while the larger markets remain stable – there is growth from emerging countries including Vietnam, Nigeria and Nepal.

SEVIS: 1.4% decline in number of foreign students in the United States November 2016 v December 2017

SEVIS data report December 2017

So, what do these data tell us? Is market turbulence a direct consequence of the Trump Presidency or are there wider mega trends at play? In this post, we have analyzed the SEVIS data release from December 2017 and compared the data with the November 2016 release – to examine whether the trends identified in earlier forecasts are bearing fruit.

Saudi Arabia- a continued decline in the number of Language Enrollments – a 20% decline between November 2016 and December 2017

The decline in the number of Saudi Arabian students continues. Indeed, there has been an 87% decline in the number of Saudi students enrolled on Language programs between 2014 and 2017. It is affecting every State in the United States – and clearly predates the Trump Presidency. What this decline also indicates is the extent to which large numbers of institutions became reliant on the largesse of the King Abdullah Scholarship scheme and perhaps, mistook a large influx of Saudi Arabian students for a balanced internationalization strategy.

India and China

Both India and China record modest growth in the total number of enrollments. As most observers know, there are challenges across some parts of India with visa denials. Given that Indian students are heavily weighted towards Masters level study, and there is increasing evidence of a harsher visa regime in place across US consulates in India, it seems to present a considerable risk to continued growth. It is more important than ever for increased advocacy across higher edcuation in support of visa processing which protects the security of the US while providing opportunity for students from across South Asia to benefit from overseas study.

As for China, while demand remains robust, the market is more complex and there is a demographic downturn forecast. Chinese students are sophisticated consumers. Attracting students from across a country as large as China requires a sophisticated, powerfully messaged approach – and an infrastructure, both digital and physical, which is almost impossible to develop alone.

SOUTH KOREA – A nine per cent drop from November 2016 to December 2017

There has been a nine percent decline in the number of South Korean students recorded between November 2016 and December 2017. Once again this has affected almost every state and every level of study.

This, however, is not a sudden decline but a continuation of a six year trend. It appears largely driven by demographic declines – Korea, alongside Germany has the world’s lowest birthrates. Indeed some of the more alarmist trends, reported in the Washington Post, suggest the Korean population could drop by 40 million by 2136. Korea which has been a mainstay of the top sending countries for the United States.

MEXICO – a 14% drop in Mexican students – with particular impact for Texas and California

SEVIS December 2017 reveals double digit percentage drops in Mexican students in the space of one year. Once again these drops appear to be consistent across the United States. However, the decline has a larger impact on Texas than many other states. Mexico is a top ten source country for the United States as a whole – but is the second largest source country for Texas. While the declines appear most evident in language study, one might conclude that the rhetoric and Mexico’s central feature in discussions on illegal immigration has played a role in deterring Mexican students from studying in the United States.

Nigeria up 5.5% and Vietnam up 4%

The most recent SEVIS data is not unremittingly bleak. Nigeria and Vietnam, both countries with rapidly growing young populations and a lack of local capacity show signs of significant growth.

So, what does all of this mean?

This blog hasn’t touched on the wider mega-trends that drive or potentially constrict demand for the United States. Not least, global population dynamics, foreign exchanges and the very real risk presented by perceptions of safety and welcome to the United States. Something our analysis of the world’s largest agent survey revealed in May 2017. Students have choice, in their home countries, in regional hubs and of course in the traditional destination countries.

This world is certainly not for the faint hearted. There are lessons for all of us in these data. Not least, they reaffirm the importance of ensuring a balanced approach to student recruitment – over reliance on students from one source country or funding stream – when times change expose institutions to severe risk.

While mega-trends are at play, there are also very clear risks that more strident political rhetoric, unchecked and unchallenged has consequences. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure students who can benefit from study in the United States and who contribute immeasurably to our communities are supported at all stages in their journey.

By 2027, there will be more than 500 million college aged students around the world.
What is not going to change is higher education shapes their lives and drives global prosperity. We believe it works best when it is infused with global perspectives and built on a series of values which remain constant.

As the world evolves and changes – what is clear to us is that it is going to be increasingly difficult for institutions to manage this complexity alone. International educators must remain true to their core values. Combined with an understanding of the wider trends at play, and skilled in advocacy at all levels, they can be powerful force for change.

Dr. JoAnn McCarthy, INTO’s senior academic advisor noted: “We have a lot at stake, and we must be well-informed in order to shape policies that will contribute to more globally diverse and competitive institutions, a stronger nation, and a more stable world.”

As Thomas Paine said in December 1776 in his seminal paper An American Crisis:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we …”

Tim O'Brien

Author: Tim O'Brien

Tim is Vice President, Global Partner Development, INTO University Partnerships

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