There is growing evidence that in a world without borders it is not virtual money that is the global currency, but a university education. As national borders become increasingly permeable, it is becoming clear that more and more graduates will be competing in an international jobs market. And many consider that the best asset they can have is a degree from the ‘right’ university.
Figures released this month show that record numbers of children are studying at international schools. Data published by the UK-based International School Consultancy (ISC) group shows that 3.6 million children aged 3-18 attended international schools in the 2013/14 academic year, up from 3.3 million the previous year.
These schools usually provide internationally-recognized qualifications, as well as a degree of elitism, but most of all they offer an English-speaking education.
And according to ISC chairman Nicholas Brummitt, a key reason why parents forked out $36 billion dollars in fees for international schools last year is that they want their children to get into an English-speaking university.
The biggest growth for international schools has been in Asia, where enrolments have risen by 65% over the last five years. The UAE leads the way in the numbers of students at international schools (389,000), followed by Saudi Arabia (209,000), China (150,000), India (142,000), Pakistan (137,000) and Qatar (107,000). A UK school principal who told me that one of the biggest trends among his students over recent years is the increase in the number applying to study in the US.
The result is that around one in 10 undergraduates at UK universities come from outside the EU, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, with another 5% from EU countries.
In the US the number of international students reached a record high last year, with an increase of 7%, although they still make up less than 4% of all students.
The allure of these universities of course is their international reputation. Whatever the standard of education, the reality is that certain universities are seen as more desirable than others. At Cambridge University, 17.5% of first degree students are international students, while at Oxford the equivalent figure is 13.8%.
According to university rankings specialist QS, the growth in international enrolments is particularly marked at leading universities, rising by 9% last year at its top 100 ranked institutions, compared with 6.5% among the top 400.
International rankings underline the dominance of English-speaking universities. Out of the top 20 in the Times Higher Education rankings, only one is outside the English-speaking world, while in QS’s rival list there are just two. But while English-speaking universities are having it their own way now, it may not last long. Universities outside the English-speaking world are fast catching up, and themselves becoming international hubs.
QS reports that international student numbers at the 10 Chinese universities ranked in its global top 400 rose by 38% last year, the majority from Russia, Japan and South Korea but significant numbers coming from the US and Europe.
Academics may dispute the validity of international comparisons – or even of ranking universities at all – but there is no doubt that they matter to the people who matter: students and their parents. And the reason they matter is that a growing number of people realise they will be competing for jobs around the world with people from around the world. And if an education from a particular university can give them an advantage, then that really is a currency worth having.