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Shifting Skilled Migration Trends in the Global Economy: A Comparative Analysis of International Student Mobility to the United Arab Emirates and Russia


In 2017, UNESCO estimated 4.6 million higher education students were globally mobile for education purposes. Much of what we know about skilled international mobility and its relationship with national policy is based on research focusing on traditional destination countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom. I compared how national higher education internationalization policies shape international student mobility to two non-traditional hotspots: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia. I conducted expert interviews with forty-three university administrators and public officials to understand the relationship between strategic plans internationalization on international student mobility.

In terms of internationalization, while Russia’s recruitment goals were to enroll students, the UAE policy had attracted foreign institutes to build branch campuses. Differing outcomes are the results of the composition of international students and state motivations. In both cases, it appeared that a state’s intentions to have more globally competitive higher education institutes was a leading policy determinant, which drives a relationship between the state and its universities. This thus dictated student mobility patterns. In contrast to traditional destination countries, expert interviews revealed that an underlying agenda of global political cooperation trumps purely economic intentions. Finally, in a critical analysis of expert interviews in international fieldwork, I concluded that despite practical challenges and methodological limitations, this data collection technique offers theoretical benefits.

This study advances the comprehension of the direction and drivers of one form of skilled migration—international student mobility—to countries, within regions, and in global contexts, especially from a perspective of non-traditional destination countries. It contributes to the theoretical understanding of educational migration as a process and conduit of economic development and social change within the broader global economy. It also provides a comparative study that seeks to reconcile contradictions between interests, goals, and outcomes among individuals, institutions, and the state. Implications from this research may also apply to those interested in improving the caliber of higher education and attracting skilled students in a competitive global economy, such as international students and their families, educators and administrators, non-profit organizations, private businesses, and public universities, as well as policymakers.

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