What Can we Learn from Previous Shocks to Tertiary Mobility

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We were delighted to participate in a webinar hosted by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at University of California, Berkeley last week exploring  the extent to which COVID-19 might shape international student mobility.  In the first of three blogs, we explore how the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 might provide some insight into how sudden shocks can alter the trajectory of student mobility. The full seminar is available on YouTube

In 1665, the Bubonic Plague swept through Europe, the first recorded evidence of a pandemic disrupting higher education.  The University of Cambridge closed and its students went home to isolate.  It was during this period that Sir Isaac Newton isolated at home, developed calculus and discovered the laws of gravity.  I think it’s fair to say he was certainly much more productive than I have managed to be over my isolation period.

In the modern era, post WW2, there is nothing, even remotely, on this scale which has affected higher education in the way it is being challenged today. International student mobility at a global level since the 1970s has generally moved in one direction. It has been accelerated by tailwinds – rising affluence, lack of local capacity, the advent of mass air-travel and so forth.

 It has also been on the receiving end of severe shock – not least 9/11 – which depressed the numbers of foreign students studying in the United States for three years.  However, 2001 also marked the year China joined the WTO – accelerating the massive growth in the numbers of Chinese students, a phenomenon which persists to this day although the growth is not on the scale of earlier years.

Ironically, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 led to an acceleration in mobility – particularly to the United States.  Why did it accelerate growth?  Partially because public universities in the United States experienced major cuts  in state support which has endured for a decade.  As well as increasing tuition, many turned to out of state and international students to help compensate for the decline in public funds.  This in turn a much more active and intentional approach to international student recruitment and the creation of dedicated programming to support student success.


There is, however, one event which may offer an insight into how sudden shocks can adjust the trajectory of mobility.  Back in the mid-1990’s I was working in the international office of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.  It was a time before China had emerged as a dominant sending country for the UK and when the numbers of Indian students had yet to make a meaningful impact on international student statistics. Instead, most active international recruitment focused on the Arab Gulf countries and South East Asia – Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei and, most importantly, Malaysia. 

As a ‘post-1992’ university, created from Liverpool Polytechnic, growing international enrollments was both a revenue driver but also a mark of our newly acquired status as a university.  As a challenger brand, it led to much innovation, including  18 month degree programs designed for students transfer with credit from private Malaysian institutions and January starts for degrees, better aligning the proposition with their local academic calendar. [PT1] 

Malaysia was the most important source country for both Australian and British universities.  There were almost nine times more Malaysians (18,000) studying in the UK than Chinese (2,600). In fact there were almost three times more students from Singapore than from India.  Then, in 1997 the Asian Currency Crisis hit, leading to recession in Thailand, Malaysia and across South East Asia, the so-called Asian Tiger economies.  In Malaysia, the country’s gross domestic product declined by 7.4% in 1998. The value of the currency against the US dollar almost halved, with GDP per capita not fully recovering for five to six years.

Summary or Macro-economic statistics for Malaysia, 1995 - 2005

The number of Malaysian students traveling to the UK between 1997 and 2002 almost halved and it was five years before Chinese student enrolments matched the 1997 numbers from Malaysia.

UK's top ten source countries 1997- 2006
Source: HESA

Between 1998-2005, the number of Malaysian students studying in the United Stated also fell by 50%.  Thai student enrollments fell by 43% over the same period and it continued on that trajectory for a decade. But it was the contraction few noticed in the United States since it coincided with the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, India which more than compensated for the decline.

Student population in the US 1997 - 2018
Source: Open Doors

In the region, as outbound mobility decreased, gross enrolment ratios – i.e. participation in locally delivered HE provision increased.  The education economist and researcher, Janet Ilieva tracked the inverse relationships between  mobility and Gross Enrollment in a report released at the Australia International Education Conference in 2017

Malaysian Participation in HE and Study Abroad 1998 - 2017
Source UIS.Stat

It is no accident that Monash opened its first overseas campus in Malaysia in 1998.  Or that the University of Nottingham chose Malaysia to become the UK’s first overseas campus in 2000. 

Twenty years on from the crisis, the south east Asian region is now a destination hub in its own right – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand each offer an ecosystem of world class universities, a vibrant private sector which in turn supports the presence of large public universities from the developed world and a variety of offshore campuses from Western countries.  This is as evident in K-12 as it is in tertiary education – Thailand in particular home to a large contingent of international private schools attracting students from throughout the wider region. And, even with this level and diversity of provision, there are still very many students who choose to go overseas for their secondary and tertiary education.

This economic crisis did not change the course of mobility – but it accelerated change already in place, precipitated by sudden change in economic fortunes in the region and a recognition, I would argue, that the universities now dependent on the revenue from this region, needed to innovate  to remain accessible to  the region. 

In the late 1990s during the Asian Currency Crisis there were approx. 1.8 million globally mobile students.  More than 20 years later that number had trebled to 5.3 million.  So one has to wonder how the shape of mobility will change as a consequence of COVID19.

There will certainly be change given the sheer scale of demand for high quality, life-changing education.  But it may not be a Black Swan moment for online education.  Online instruction and/or degrees are a bridge to the future but won’t deliver a sufficient replacement for the traditional university experience, especially for many international students seeking an immersive social and cultural experience, and opportunity to rapidly enhance language skills.  Likewise, lowering entrance requirements to compete for students in a cutthroat market is not a strategy for excellence, especially given increased complexity of supporting students remotely.   Covid-19 may act as a direct barrier to mobility over the short term.  But over the longer term, it is likely to have a more enduring economic legacy, which may be felt in deeper and more disruptive ways across different parts of the world. 

This could be an opportunity for a serious recalibration and redesign of Higher Education for a Global Age, with further regionally targeted innovation, enhancing options for students seeking access to higher education outside their home nation.   Covid-19 will be a catalyst for the continued evolution of a global higher education system where world class universities compete for and serve a global student population.  Anyone who is longing for a return to normal is likely to be disappointed and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  But given the changes that have occurred already over the last two decades, what is, or was normal?  As they say, we should never let a good crisis go to waste! 

Tim O'Brien

Author: Tim O'Brien

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

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