GLOBAL: What do international students study?

International students prefer to study social sciences, business and law when they go abroad. But in non-English speaking countries a higher proportion of international students are enrolled in education, humanities and the arts, according to figures just released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The sciences attract fewer than 15% of international students even in countries popular for these subjects, such as Germany.

International students opting to study in Eastern European countries, Belgium, Italy and Spain tend to opt for health-related programmes. But the numbers are much lower elsewhere in countries receiving international students, in part due to restrictions on entry to the medical profession.

This often means that international students seeking to study these subjects are even more likely to aim for countries with fewer restrictions on foreign students studying medicine-related subjects.

The OECD's Education at a Glance 2011 report released this week found that business studies attracts more international students than any other discipline at both the undergraduate and research levels in 14 out of 22 countries within the OECD enrolling international students.

Around half of all international students in Australia, Estonia and the Netherlands are enrolled in social sciences, business or law courses.

More than one in five international students in Austria, Germany, Japan, Norway and Switzerland are enrolled to study humanities and arts degrees.

Some countries attract students specifically for linguistic and cultural studies, and they include Japan, France, Austria and Germany.

The sciences attract at least 15% of international students in Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and France but fewer than one in 50 in Japan.

However when agriculture, engineering, manufacturing and construction are included among science disciplines, science subjects attract up to 50% of international students studying in Sweden, almost four in five overseas students in Germany and just over that number in Finland.

In Canada, Chile, Denmark and Switzerland, around a third of international students are enrolled in these subjects, and in America the figure is 37%.

Most countries that enrol large proportions of international students in agriculture, science and engineering offer their programmes in English, the OECD noted.

Overall the concentration of international students in various disciplines is due to both supply and demand, according to the OECD. On the supply side some destinations offer centres of excellence or traditional expertise, such as Finland and Germany in science, engineering, manufacturing and construction.

The universal use of English in scientific literature could explain why students in scientific disciplines are more likely to study in countries with programmes offered in English.

Similarly, high demand for business training among Asian students may explain the strong concentration of international students in social sciences, business and law in Australia and New Zealand and to a lesser extent in Japan.

The figures compare overall with the popularity of social sciences, business and law among domestic students, with these subjects attracting the largest proportion of students in most OECD countries.

In 2009 on average one in three students in the 34 OECD countries opted for social sciences, business and law. The proportion was highest in the Russian Federation, accounting for 50% of all students, and lowest in Finland (fewer than 25%) where the proportion of new entrants was highest in engineering, manufacturing and construction. In Korea the share of new entrants was highest in education, the humanities and arts.

Fewer than 21% of local students in OECD countries study science and engineering. This is due in part to the under-representation of women in these subjects, according to the OECD. On average in 2009 only 13% of new university entrants who were women chose science and engineering. Among young men it was 38%.