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Relax, everyone: International students aren’t fleeing the US

The headlines say it all: International students are abandoning the United States because they have been scared away by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Research from the highly respected Institute of International Education (IIE) shows that new international student enrollments at U.S. universities have fallen for the first time in 12 years. The unprecedented drop of 3.3% heralds tough times ahead for U.S. colleges and universities, which have come to rely on international students to fill their classrooms and pad their accounts.

Or does it? Look beyond the headlines, and you’ll find that most of the drop was due to a decline in students enrolled in non-degree intensive English classes — hardly the bread and butter of major universities. These are more likely to be offered by dodgy English language schools that in reality operate as illegal visa mills. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has been calling for a crackdown on these schools for years. English language classes have also been the subject of visa fraud investigations in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

You can’t even blame (or credit) Trump for cleaning up the English as a second language (ESL) mess.

The much-ballyhooed IIE research showing declining student numbers focused on the 2016-2017 academic year. That’s the school year that started at the end of August 2016. Those students would have applied in January, been accepted in March, and bought their plane tickets by May 2016. Trump didn’t scare them away. These students likely expected Hillary Clinton to be president during their college years, not Trump.

Drill down and it becomes clear that there’s no international student problem at all. Total international student numbers are up 3.4% and those at universities are up 2.3%. Many more students are extending their visas to stay in the U.S. after graduation. The only dark cloud on the horizon is a decline of 2.2% in the number of new international freshmen in undergraduate degree programs, which is more than offset by an increase of 1.9% in the (much larger) number of international graduate students. International students aren’t fleeing the U.S. They’re upgrading.

Asia is the present — and the future

Even the freshman decline is no cause for alarm. It is entirely due to a reduction in the level of Saudi Arabian international scholarship funding and the end of Brazil’s generous Science without Borders program. As a result, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. declined 14% and Brazilians by 32%, according to IIE data. By contrast, Chinese and Indian student numbers are up, by 7% and 12%, respectively. China is the world’s number one source of international students in the United States. India is second, and catching up fast.

China and India are far and away the most important sources of international students in the world. Slightly more than 800,000 Chinese students attended universities abroad in 2016, according to data from the United Nations, compared to 255,000 from India. Both figures have grown at a rate of 6-7% per year for the last 10 years, though there are signs that the Chinese figures are starting to level off. Like its economy, the Chinese education market is maturing.

The reason is simple: due to the historical one-child policy, China’s university-aged population is rapidly falling. There are currently 16.5 million 18-year-olds in China. In 10 years, there will be only 15.5 million. That’s a drop of a million. In India the number of 18-year-olds will also fall, but by only one-tenth as much, from 23.3 million to 23.2 million. Combine that with India potentially overtaking China in economic growth and you can see why India is the next big thing in international education.

For these prospective Chinese and Indian international students, Donald Trump is not a problem. Indians hold a generally positive view of Trump, with the number expressing confidence in his leadership growing over time. No one knows how the Chinese people feel about the U.S. President, but anecdotal evidence suggests that their opinions are generally favorable, with Chinese state media usually portraying him in a positive light.

Chinese and Indian students — and their families — are much more concerned about levels of violence in the United States than about who sits in the Oval Office.

The June murder of a Chinese student at the University of Illinois has been national news in China, and murders of Indians in the United States are a staple fare of Indian media. If the U.S. wants to continue to attract Asian students, the most important thing it can do is make sure they get home safely. But so far all signs indicate that Asian students are still ready to take their chances to pursue an American university degree.

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: