This study makes a series of contributions towards an improved understanding of the emerging multipolar geography of international student mobility. The results indicate that as ISM has experienced a three-fold increase, the number of country-to-country connections has also increased, making the network over three times as dense in 2018/2019 than in 1999/2020. They also indicate influence is more widely and evenly distributed among the core countries within the network, as the raw number of countries that make up the core has increased, along with a more even distribution of relative influence of core countries in the overall network. Finally, as the number of universities in planned and emerging destinations listed in the ARWU, THE, and QS rankings has almost doubled, the network structure indicates a movement toward multipolarity, where a more diverse set of countries now exert greater relative influence in the overall network. A multipolar future for ISM has significant implications for research and theory.
The results indicate a significant shift underway in patterns of ISM, which has been prevalent for decades, dominated by traditional destinations like the USA, Canada, the UK, and France. Although these countries remain top destinations for international students, their relative influence significantly waned with the rise of planned and emerging hubs over the 20-year period of the study. While the influence of traditional destinations in the overall network remains significant, it dwindled to roughly one-half of what it once was 20 years earlier. All the while, planned educational hubs, particularly Turkey and South Korea, began to exert comparable influence in the network. And, although slightly less influential, Malaysia, India, Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, Russia, and the Ukraine began to exert substantially more influence. Gulf States that invested in transnational exchange zones (e.g., Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates), as well as emerging hubs (e.g., Saudi Arabia), began to exert more influence in the network, although they remained less influential than the aforementioned countries. China’s growing influence resulted from its role as a sending country to traditional destinations, as well as its growing importance as an emerging destination for international students.
The big picture view indicates seismic changes in ISM. At the turn of the century, a half-dozen or so traditional destinations dominated ISM. Only 20 years later, about two dozen countries exerted substantial influence in a multipolar exchange network. This represents a 300% increase in the number of influential ISM countries. Indeed, the results suggest the beginning of a shift from an East–West axis, which has been prevalent for decades (Altbach, 2004; Waters, 2012), to a more multipolar network, where more countries are sending inbound and outbound students at more equal rates to more destinations (Hazelkorn, 2021). To be clear, the East–West axis remains and there is no reason to believe international student enrollment will not continue to increase in traditional destinations. However, the increase in inbound mobility to planned and emerging hubs has increased at a faster rate than traditional destinations, with exchanges among a larger and more diverse set of countries, resulting in the increase in relative influence of more countries and a more multipolar network structure. The increasing influence of this larger subset of core countries has coincided with the rise of transnational exchange zones (Kleibert et al., 2020), as well as the growing demand for higher education (Cantwell et al., 2018a, b) which has resulted in greater intra- and cross-regional exchange based on cultural, linguistic, and geographic proximity (Hou & Du, 2020; Kondakci et al. 2018; Macrander, 2017). Although previous network studies have documented evidence of multipolarity at a single moment in time (Kondakci et al., 2018; Wen & Hu, 2019), the current study quantifies shifts in ISM and the movement towards multipolarity over a consequential 20-year period marked at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The results also indicate that, while university world rankings still matter, a shift may be occurring in terms of how they matter and for whom. Most strikingly, traditional destinations accounted for almost two-thirds of universities in the league tables in 1999/2000–2002/2003 but just about one-half in 2015/2016–2018/2019, whereas emerging hubs accounted for less than 10% of universities listed in 1999/2000–2002/2003, but accounted for almost 20% of universities in the tables in 2015/2016–2018/2019, largely due to the increase in the number of Chinese universities listed in the tables (Hazelkorn, 2018). Equally dramatic, however, is that increased influence in the network is not always associated with an increase in ranked institutions. For example, Ukraine has emerged as a destination for students from former-Soviet republics, e.g., Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, but it only has a few universities in two of the three major global rankings tables. Likewise, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa also emerged as new destinations but comprise a fraction of institutions listed in the tables. Broadly speaking, this may indicate that emerging patterns of mobility in some cultural corridors and geographic regions are also being shaped by overall improvements in educational quality as well as affordability (Perkins & Neumayer, 2014; Waters, 2012). There is no question that rankings continue to structure mobility to traditional destinations (Hazelkorn, 2018, 2021). However, as more countries send and receive students at more equal rates to more geographically and culturally proximate destinations, it is possible that rankings may not matter as much to new generations of price sensitive, middle-class students seeking tertiary-level education (Glass et al., 2021; Macrander, 2017; Marginson, 2016, 2018).
Finally, the results suggest implications for the long-standing core-periphery patterns of ISM, where migratory flows reflect movement from the peripheral countries to core countries as hypothesized in the World Systems Theory (Wallerstein, 2004). To be clear, a small handful of traditional, wealthy destinations continue to dominate the network, such that there is no reason to believe core-periphery patterns of ISM will not remain in some form (Altbach, 2004; Kondakci, 2011; Kondakci et al. 2018). The results exhibit core-periphery structures in directed networks, which exhibit the pattern of a well-connected core with a periphery connected to the core, but sparsely connected to other nodes in the periphery (Elliott et al., 2020). The core-periphery structure persists due to a number of interrelated factors: first, the production of scientific papers is concentrated in countries with the material resources to support a large number of research universities where rankings, which heavily weight the production of scientific papers, act as a reinforcement mechanism (Hazelkorn, 2018, 2021). Second, geopolitical asymmetries are structural in nature and produce reinforcement mechanisms highly resistant to change, such that inequalities tend to persist over time (Cantwell et al., 2018a, b; Wallerstein, 2004; Waters, 2012). Finally, despite the three-fold growth in ISM and incremental shifts in the network structure, international student mobility continues to take place in the context of long-standing asymmetries of power that privileges the production of knowledge in countries in the center and the diffusion of that knowledge of countries in the periphery (Medina, 2013).
Nonetheless, the results also suggest two shifts in the core-periphery structures in the first two decades of the twenty-first century: First, whereas the core countries in the network used to be solely in North America and Europe, the network structure indicates that the core now also includes countries in Africa (e.g., South Africa), South America (e.g., Brazil), the Middle East (e.g., Turkey), and Asia (e.g., China, India, and South Korea). Second, although a small number of wealthy countries have gained disproportionate economic advantage in the past, there is evidence that the growing influence of planned and emerging education in relative terms is providing a counterbalance to this long-standing power of traditional destinations. Greater intra-ASEAN student mobility, as well as regionalization in South America and the Arab States, suggests that the increasing influence of these emerging destinations are likely to persist (Batista 2021; Choi, 2017; Jafar & Knight, 2020). Hence, economic inequality manifests at a regional level (Macrander, 2017).
The results suggest directions for further research. As the share of the world population living in cities is expected to grow to 68% by 2050 (World Bank, 2018), disparities have arisen between rural and urban populations within countries, not merely the well-documented disparities between countries. City-to-city networks operate with their own logics of exchange beyond those of nation-states (Kleibert, et al., 2020). Top-ranked global research universities are often embedded within global cities that attract highly skilled work for the growing middle class (Marginson, 2018). Hence, urbanization, with the rapid growth of the urban middle class in countries with growing economies, suggests further analysis that examining city-to-city networks would produce valuable insights of the restructuring of ISM. We would be remiss to not note the need for research that examines the impact of COVID-19 on international education and exchange given the precipitous drop in inbound mobility to traditional destinations, as the post-COVID world represents a new geopolitical era that should be examined in further analysis as data become available (Choudaha, 2021).