New report forecasts postgraduate mobility trends through 2024

The British Council has just released a report – Postgraduate student mobility trends to 2024 – that forecasts the contributions of 23 source markets to international postgraduate student mobility through 2024. The report also predicts what six destination markets – Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Germany, and Japan – can expect over the next decade in terms of the levels and sources of inbound graduate enrolment.

India and China are projected to continue to drive postgraduate enrolment growth over the next decade. But the British Council forecasts reflect as well the increasing importance of key markets outside of Asia, including Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

While much of the recent growth in global mobility has been fuelled by undergraduate enrolment, the report notes, “There has been a recent trend towards attaining even more advanced qualifications.” It attributes growing postgraduate student mobility to a combination of factors:

  • Students eager for better employment opportunities;
  • Governments endeavoring to create more competent workforces;
  • Universities needing to attract talented postgraduate students to boost their research output in order to attract funding and to secure better placements in international university rankings.

The predictions: outbound markets

The British Council projects that in 2024, the largest postsecondary-aged population will be in India, with 119 million. The importance of this data point is encapsulated in this quote:

“There is a clear positive correlation between the number of 18 to 22-year-olds and the number of tertiary enrolments, inclusive of postgraduate enrolments, in a country.”

India is also predicted to trump all other markets by 2024 in terms of postsecondary enrolments (48 million, compared to China’s projected total of 37 million, the US’s 22 million, and Indonesia’s 11 million).

The report forecasts that China will have the second-largest postsecondary-aged population in 2024, but projects a bigger gap between China and India a decade from now. China’s postsecondary-aged population is forecast to shrink over the next decade – falling 30 million from 109 million in 2013 to 79 million in 2024 – while India’s will grow modestly over the same period. Other countries with declining populations of 18 to 22-year-olds include Russia (-1.8 million by 2024), Vietnam (-1.8 million), and Iran (-1.5 million).

Declining youth population aside, China is still projected to become the world’s largest source of international postgraduate students by 2024. It is expected to send 338,000 students abroad for graduate studies in 2024, compared to India’s 209,000.

In the UK, China is projected to represent the main source of international growth for postgraduate programmes (44% in 2024). Meanwhile, India is expected to be the main source for the US (54%). The report cautions that such high single-country contributions to international enrolments make the UK and the US increasingly dependent on Chinese and Indian postgraduate students – perhaps to the detriment of their share of students from other established and emerging markets.

The author, Zainab Malik, director of research for British Council Education Intelligence, said: “We knew China and India would be a big part of the story, but were surprised at the level of dependence on these origin countries. Considering the numerous factors that can affect international student mobility, diversifying postgraduate recruitment strategies may not only help lessen that dependence but also broaden and deepen global skills and knowledge exchange.”

The five countries forecast to contribute the strongest average annual growth in graduate student mobility through 2024 are:

  • Nigeria (+8.3%);
  • India (+7.5%);
  • Indonesia (+7.2%);
  • Pakistan (+6.4%);
  • Saudi Arabia (+5.2%).

The predictions: inbound markets

The British Council report forecasts that the US will retain its #1 spot as a destination country for international postgraduate students, and that it will host 407,000 students enrolled in advanced degree studies in 2024. The UK follows with a projected international postgraduate enrolment of 241,000 by 2024, then Germany with 113,000 and Australia close behind with 112,000.

Canada and Australia are expected to experience the most growth in their international postgraduate enrolments, with an average annual growth rate of 4.1% each. Canada has also enjoyed the highest annual growth rate of the six studied destination markets from 2007 to 2012.

The report predicts 4% average annual growth for the US through 2024. The UK, meanwhile, will see its growth in international postgraduate enrolment slow to an average of 3.5% per year (compared to an average of 4.1% from 2007 to 2012). Japan is also forecast to see slower growth of 1.6% through 2024, compared to its average of 5.4% from 2007 to 2012.

Here are the countries expected to contribute the biggest proportions of postgraduate students to the six destination markets studied through 2024; the countries are listed in order of their contribution to the destination market:

  • For Australia: China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
  • For Canada: France, India, China, the US, and Iran – with India rising sharply from fifth place in 2012.
  • For Germany: China, India, Russia, Spain, and Italy.
  • For Japan: China, Indonesia, Korea – with Indonesia bumping Korea to third place from its second place standing in 2012.
  • For the UK: China, Nigeria, India, the US – with Nigeria bumping India to third place from its second place standing in 2012.
  • For the US: China, India, Saudi Arabia, Korea, and Iran.

Indian and Chinese students changing their study abroad preferences

The report reveals fascinating and contrasting trends regarding where Chinese and Indian students are choosing to study now compared to previous years.

For additional background on these important shifts, please see our recent posts on India’s surge and China’s slowdown in the US as well as the converse trend in the UK, where Indian enrolments continue to drop and Chinese enrolments are growing.

The British Council report predicts that the country with the second largest number of Indian postgraduate students (after the US) in 2024 will be Australia, not the UK. The UK will continue to command the second highest number of Chinese students, however, with Australia third in line.

The report contains valuable forecasts for all 21 of the other origin markets as well.

What’s driving growth?

The British Council notes a recent trend toward students wanting to go beyond undergraduate degrees, a result of students looking for better jobs and governments wanting to create more highly skilled and educated workforces.

The Council also considers that a prior trend of the “massification” of higher education, in which higher education became accessible to more of the population, is a major contributing factor. This has led to a situation in which greater numbers of students are now able to enter postgraduate programmes via their newly achieved undergraduate qualifications.

But, the report advises, such broad trends, while definitely at play, are harder to measure and thus it bases its forecasts on available data on broad demographic and economic trends.

Such data includes predictions of GDP growth per capita. All 23 source countries are expected to see GDP rise over the next decade – Asian economies in particular. The countries expected to experience the strongest annual average growth rates are:

  • China (+6.0%);
  • Vietnam (+5.4%);
  • India (+5.0%);
  • Indonesia (+4.3%);
  • Pakistan (+3.7%).

Economic growth has a direct correlation with growth in students entering into postsecondary education, postgraduate studies included.

Other data sets used by the British Council study either amplify or offset the GDP data. For example, while in general Asian economies can expect big jumps in per capita GDP in the next decade, some of them (China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) are also experiencing declines in their postsecondary-aged populations. By contrast:

“The tertiary-aged population in Nigeria, India and Indonesia are expected to boom, which will have a positive effect on tertiary enrolment levels in these countries.”

The British Council report concludes that, “For destination markets, [India] is likely to be the real opportunity for inbound [postgraduate] student growth over the next decade.” It will not displace China in 2024, but it is predicted to have greatly narrowed the gap. The report also suggests that in the rush to recruit Indian and Chinese students, other fast-growing source markets should not be neglected:

“Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia are forecast to post substantive increases in outbound postgraduates.”



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