Global Talent, National Efforts

Higher Education December 01, 2019

The scale and volume with which postsecondary students are crossing international borders are unprecedented, and never have so many countries vied to attract these global aspirants. Although Anglophone countries are among the largest hosts of international students with just five countries hosting half of the world’s 5 million mobile students, attracting international students has become a key feature of national-level policies in many countries and plays a central role in broader global debates about the role of skilled migrants; the competing forces of brain-drain, brain-gain and brain circulation; the role of knowledge flows in the science and innovation enterprise; and the enduring need for cultural understanding and diplomacy, especially with the recent rise of nationalism and the potential threat of isolationism amongst countries that have typically attracted large numbers of students from around the world.

Numerically, too, the metrics of student flows are staggering. The targets that countries have set to attract international students are ambitious: China and France both aim to host 500,000 international students each by 2020 and 2025, respectively; and Japan aims to host 300,000 by 2020. The revenue generated from international students also makes this phenomenon one of the most valuable industries for many countries, with international students contributing US$24.7 billion to Australia, US$15.5 billion to Canada, US$31.9 billion to the UK, and $42.4 billion to the U.S. economy. The strategies governments have used to attract international students and global talent include financial incentives such as scholarships, grants, and subsidized tuition; the provision of English language programs; opportunities for job-related learning and internships; and a clearer and easier pathway to immigration. Of these, the ability of non-Anglophone countries to offer coursework in English and the role of skilled immigration policies are likely to be the two approaches that will have the most impact on altering the future landscape of mobility.

Given this overall picture of growth, it is important to consider questions of future demand and supply: Which students want a global education experience, and which countries are best positioned to provide it? The field has been rife with various projections, including speculation that Germany could soon overtake the U.K. as the top host destination in Europe. Another suggests that by 2020 China will overtake the U.K. as the host country to the second-largest number of international students; yet another projection suggests that Australia will overtake the U.K. Such predictions in the past have fallen short because they failed to anticipate the rise of China—and Asia at large—as a solid higher education contender. The accuracy of projections notwithstanding, demographic shifts will play a key role in determining where the world’s global talent will come from, and which countries face declining populations and a potential “talent deficit” due to factors such as an aging population; rising life expectancy; lower birth rates; and declining higher education cohorts—all of which result in a greater reliance on drawing talent from potential source countries.

In a rapidly evolving landscape of higher education provision and student mobility, what can countries do attract and retain global talent? A new WISE Research Report that analyzes the current national-level strategies often established and emerging host destinations for international students offers some key takeaways and best practices for other countries to consider when expanding their national-level policies to attract international students:


  • To succeed, international student recruitment efforts need to be part of a comprehensive internationalization approach that includes sending domestic students overseas; internationalizing at home; and building university linkages that result in an overall ecosystem that is global and attractive to talent from around the world.
  • Skilled immigration policies are paramount in attracting international students. If countries want to attract the world’s best and brightest in the global marketplace of knowledge and ideas, they should also expect that this global talent pool will want the most competitive opportunities in terms of employment and their future.
  • Financial assistance is an enduring vehicle for attracting international students at a time when higher education costs worldwide are escalating, and many countries are grappling with issues of increasing higher education access.
  • A focus on international students’ experiences, perspectives, and outcomes is important, yet few countries consider this aspect in their recruitment strategies and even fewer actively involve international students in shaping policies that affect them.
  • International student alumni are the best ambassadors for their host country, yet few countries tap into international alumni networks—a highly effective and low-cost approach to attracting future international students.
  • Countries are tapping into, new patterns of mobility and relationships such as the increase of regionalization, South-South mobility, and diasporic connections that attract students with a historical or cultural affinity with the host country.
  • Attracting international students through alternate modes of delivery such as Trans-national Education (TNE) is key, but the role of technology and virtual learning—especially in relation to traditional mobility—remains largely unexplored.


Beyond national-level policies, there are a multitude of push-and-pull factors that affect the wider landscape of international student enrollment, including the impact of university tuition and fees as a factor in student choice; students’ and families’ perceptions of personal safety and feeling welcome; the role of agents in student recruitment; the expanding higher education capacity of prospective international students’ home countries; and the impact of broader socio-political developments that either welcome or deter visitors and students from other countries. Most importantly, how countries view international students—as either instruments of “soft power” or sources of “global talent”—affects the mix of recruitment strategies that are adopted and aligned with broader efforts related to trade, human capital development, and skills development. Even so, the overarching aims of global engagement and talent-building need not be mutually exclusive.