The politics of the great brain race: public policy and international student recruitment in Australia, Canada, England and the USA


As the number of globally mobile students has expanded, governments are assumed to be consistently and intentionally competing for talent, in what has been called a “great brain race”. While the notion of competition has become dominant, there is little evidence on long-term policy dynamics in this field, not only across jurisdictions but also over time. We seek to address this gap in this paper through a longitudinal analysis of the politics and public policies impacting international students in four major recruiting countries—Australia, Canada, England and the USA. Through this comparative analysis of the period 2000 to 2016, we demonstrate that international student numbers across the jurisdictions have grown steadily but that this appears to be decoupled from political and policy changes. We also discuss how “internationalization” initiatives provide an insufficient policy umbrella for policy action on the recruitment and retention of international students. Public policy impacting international students spans multiple government agencies or ministries, encompassing different policy fields. This requires greater policy coordination, which remains elusive for the most part.

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  1. 1.

    Japan and the Russian Federation also both host 3% of all international students. Other major recruiters include France, hosting 6% of all international students, and Germany, with 5% of the total (OECD 2015).

  2. 2.

    Whereas in the past, higher education policy applied to all four UK nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), since 1999 processes of devolution in Scotland and Wales mean that policy made in London is now only applicable for England and Northern Ireland. However, where materials analysed for this study refer to the UK as a whole rather than just England, national findings are presented.

  3. 3.

    International students are classified as those from outside the European Union, at least for fee purposes where there is a two-band fee regime with lower fees for EU (including British) students and generally higher rates for international students.


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This research was supported by the Government of Ontario, Canada, through the Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund.

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Correspondence to Creso M. Sá.



Table 1 Public policies impacting international students

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Sá, C.M., Sabzalieva, E. The politics of the great brain race: public policy and international student recruitment in Australia, Canada, England and the USA. High Educ 75, 231–253 (2018).

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  • International students
  • Public policy
  • Student mobility
  • Immigration
  • Internationalization