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Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

The cost of living: A closer look at inflation and foreign exchange trends in key student markets

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Inflation is chipping away at the spending power of families in dozens of countries across the world
  • There is also a currency crisis in several major student sending markets
  • In this article, we look at the economic context in which families in 11 emerging countries are making decisions about study abroad

Demand for study abroad is high in 2023, and several countries are enrolling record numbers of international students (e.g., Canada, UK, Germany, France). Nonetheless, this growth trajectory is being challenged by the financial pressures affecting many families in emerging markets.

Today, we identify countries in which students may be challenged to follow through on study abroad plans due to inflation and/or a devalued domestic currency. Heightened price sensitivity may also lead to families being more open to a wider range of destination countries, institutions, programmes, and types of study (e.g., online, 2+2 models).

Before we turn to inflation rates in sending markets, we’ll note what is happening in destination countries for a comparison.

  • Australia: Inflation rate of 7% in Q1 2023, a decline from 30-year-high of 7.8% in Q4 2022
  • Canada: Inflation rate of 4.3% in March 2023 (lowest level since August 2021)
  • France: Inflation rate of 5.3% in March 2023, a six-month low
  • Germany: Inflation rate of 7.4% in March 2023, down from over 8% in February and March 2023
  • UK: Inflation rate of 8.9%, down from 9.1% in February 2023
  • US: Inflation rate of 6.4%, the lowest level since May 2021

These inflation rates are much lower than in many emerging countries. But rising food prices in the US and Canada – and food prices and energy costs in Europe – have been an issue for at least a year. This trend affects international students living in host countries, and it may also make the families of prospective students think twice about study abroad in certain destinations.

Egypt

Inflation rose to 31.9% in March 2023 largely due to increases in food prices, which rose by 14.4% over the previous month and 61.8% compared with March 2022. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace blasts the Egyptian government’s hiking of interest rates in response to inflation, saying the government based the decision on a sense that local demand was rising. Instead, says the Endowment, consumer demand has been shrinking, “driven by rapid currency devaluation and import restriction imposed by the shortage of hard currency, which is the real cause of the inflationary wave gripping Egypt.”

Egypt’s pound is the sixth-worst performing currency in the world in 2023. It lost half its value in 2022 and is weaker than every currency other than the Lebanese pound, the Venezuelan bolivar, the Zimbabwean dollar, and the Iranian rial.

Egypt is growing market for institutions in a number of destinations. Roughly a third of Egypt’s outbound students choose to study in UAE (5,260) or Saudi Arabia (4,890). In addition, close to 4,000 Egyptians are studying in the US, and between 2,000–3,000 are studying in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and Malaysia. Most of those countries enrolled record numbers of Egyptians in the past two years.

Ghana

Inflation is the most significant challenge in the Ghanaian economy. In March 2023, the rate fell to 45% after reaching 54.1% in December 2022, the highest rate in more than 20 years. The World Bank reports that poverty reduction slowed in 2022:

“The ‘international poverty’ rate is estimated at 20.5% in 2022. Currency depreciation, increased price of electricity and water, and an increase in the VAT have driven up the cost of living, particularly for food. This places considerable strain on household budgets, especially for those who devote more than half of their budget to food.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that 2023 will be a difficult year for Ghanaian households, but also forecasts a return to growth in coming years:

“Public dissatisfaction about worsening living conditions due to high inflation will spur sporadic unrest. Real GDP growth will slow in 2023 as rising consumer prices and monetary tightening weigh on private consumption and investment and as government spending declines. In 2027 growth will pick up sharply, driven by an uptick in exports of gold and oil as new projects come on stream.”

As student recruiters widen their Africa focus beyond Nigeria and a few other markets, Ghana is increasingly on the radar. For example, the number of Ghanaian students in Canada rose by 88% in 2022 to 3,745 and the US enrolled 16% more in 2022 for a total of 4,915.

Iran

Inflation has been spiralling upwards in Iran for months and the trend is expected to continue. Iran International reports that the record high inflation recorded in March (46.5%) is expected to be replaced by “hyperinflation” for the rest of 2023:

“Hyperinflation is a very high and typically accelerating inflation, which quickly erodes the value of the local currency – rial in this case – while the prices of all goods increase exponentially.”

Iranian families face a depreciating currency and skyrocketing food bills. Iran International elaborates:

“It is the second time Iran recorded such a figure since World War II. Considering the devaluation of the rial from 260,000 against one dollar to about 540,000 in the past 12 months, the inflation rate is expected to hit new highs in the coming months. Food prices have been rising much faster, with official figures indicating between 70–100% annual inflation for basic food items such as meat and dairy.”

The main destinations for Iranian students are Canada (21,115 in 2022, up 25% y-o-y), Germany (11,625 in 2021/22), and the US (9,295 in 2022).

Nigeria

Nigeria’s inflation rate rose to 22% in March, the third consecutive rise over the first months of 2023. According to the government’s statistical office, food is getting much more expensive for Nigerian families: “Food inflation in March 2023 rose to 24.45% on a year-on-year basis —7.25 percentage points higher compared to the rate recorded in March 2022.”

Perhaps even more than inflation, the government’s decision to redesign the Nigerian currency is creating chaos and instability across the country. Nigerians were ordered to trade in all old naira notes in for new ones at the end of January 2023. Writing for the University of Oxford, Ayodele Ali explains that the government told Nigerians that the new notes “would curb corruption and currency fraud, tackle the growing menace of kidnapping for ransom, lower inflation and address the problem of having too much money in circulation.” But inflation continues to rise, and the scarcity of new notes is leading to violence. Mr Ali writes:

“The dearth of new notes in circulation has added to the hardship suffered by poor Nigerians who have chosen to trade by barter in order to feed themselves. And there is more hardship to come. Fuel remains scarce in some parts of Nigeria, and expensive where available. Banks have been attacked and ATMs burned down, leading to some banks shutting down their operations. In some cities, protesters were seen besieging the CBN offices in their frustration. In an attempt to dispel protesters, security forces have taken over the streets.”

The naira fell against the US dollar all through 2022, and some experts say the redesigned naira crisis is prompting further havoc.

Study International reported last year on the effect of foreign currency controls and the depreciating naira. The included a striking illustration, in the form of the following tweet, of how much a currency crisis can affect choices about study abroad.

Student tweet listing tuition-free countries for Nigerian students faced with self-funding their studies. Source: Study International

Tens of thousands of Nigerian students are currently studying abroad. Top destinations are the UK (44,195 in 2021/22, a more-than-doubling over 20,305 in 2020/21) Canada (21,660 in 2022, up 60% y-o-y), and the US (14,338 in 2022, up 12.3%).

Turkey

The inflation rate in Turkey was 55.2% in February 2023, down from a peak in October when it was 85.5% – the highest in 24 years. Rising food and beverage prices have compounded the hardship endured by so many because of the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey and some parts of Syria in early February. That natural disaster killed more than 55,000 people and injured at least 130,000. The damage is expected to cost more than 50 billion lira and decrease Turkey’s GDP by 1-2% in 2023.

Adding to the economic turmoil is a continuing currency crisis. JP Morgan bankers predict that the lira could fall to 30 lira to the US dollar after Turkey’s elections in May.

Top destination countries for Turkish students are Germany, the US, the UK, and Canada.

Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan economy shrunk by 7.8% in 2022. The World Bank reports:

“Due to the economic contraction, half a million jobs were lost in industry and services and back-up lower-paying agricultural jobs could not compensate for income losses. Combined with increases in the cost of living, this economic contraction led national and urban poverty to double (to 25%) and triple (to 15%), respectively. The crisis left 52% of the population in estate areas living in poverty, exacerbating spatial disparities, and led to an increase in overall inequality.”

In March 2023, the inflation rate stood at 50.3%.

The World Bank cautions that external financing support will not solve Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and attests that major structural reforms are necessary. In the short term, “the fluid political situation and heightened fiscal, external, and financial sector imbalances pose significant uncertainty for the outlook.”

Sri Lanka is in the top 15 sending markets for Australia. Close to 12,000 Sri Lankan students are enrolled in Australian institutions.

Which emerging markets are more stable?

Brazil: Inflation was 4.6% in March 2023, the lowest rate since January 2021. GlobalData.com reports: “Brazil’s economic performance in 2023 is projected to be better than other Latin American peers including Argentina and Chile due to the reopening of the China economy (which accounted for above 30% of total exports in 2021) and better soyabean output (world’s largest producer). The soyabean exports are expected to rise in 2023 as producers are likely to use it for making edible oils amid the supply crunch due to Russia-Ukraine war.”

Mexico: The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OCDE) considers that Mexico intervened early and intelligently to curb inflation. The economy is expected to grow marginally in 2023, and growth will be dependent on whether the US goes into recession this year, but Mexico is more stable than many other emerging markets this year.

Bangladesh: While it faces challenges in 2023, Bangladesh can “sustain its growth momentum” through careful policies, says the World Bank. Checking inflation will be a major priority, as the inflation rate was 9.3% in March 2023, up from 8.8% percent in February and the highest since August 2022. Escalating food prices are behind the rise.

Thailand: The World Bank expects the Thai economy to grow by 3.6% this year, up from 2.6% last year on the back of consumer demand, an upturn in the tourism sector, and China’s reopening. The inflation rate was 2.8% in March 2023.

Vietnam: The World Bank reports that the Vietnamese economy rebounded strongly in 2022, “with growth reaching 8.0 percent, exceeding its average rates of 7.1 percent from 2016 to 2019.” The inflation rate was 4.9% in March 2023.

For additional background, please see:

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