OECD – Who studies abroad and where?

In 2010, more than 4.1 million tertiary students were enrolled outside their country of citizenship. Luxembourg, Australia, the United Kingdom, Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand have, in descending order, the highest percentages of international students among their tertiary enrolments.

In Luxembourg, high mobility is due to strong integration with neighbouring countries, according to the OECD’s 2012 Education at a Glance report published last week. This is an extract from the report.

In absolute terms, the largest numbers of foreign students are from China, India and Korea. Asian students represent 52% of foreign students enrolled worldwide.

The number of foreign students enrolled in OECD countries was almost three times the number of citizens from an OECD country studying abroad in 2010. In the 21 European countries that are members of the OECD, there were 2.7 foreign students per each European citizen enrolled abroad.

Some 83% of all foreign students are enrolled in G20 countries, while 77% of all foreign students are enrolled in OECD countries, and these proportions have remained stable during the past decade.

Factors driving mobility

As national economies become more interconnected and participation in education expands, governments and individuals are looking to higher education to broaden students’ horizons and help them better understand the world’s languages, cultures and business methods.

One way for students to expand their knowledge of other societies and languages, and thus improve their prospects in globalised sectors of the labour market, such as multinational corporations or research, is to study in tertiary institutions in countries other than their own.

The factors driving the general increase in student mobility range from exploding demand for higher education worldwide and the perceived value of studying at prestigious post-secondary institutions abroad, to specific policies aiming to foster student mobility within a geographic region (as is the case in Europe), and efforts by governments to support students in studying specific fields that are growing rapidly in the country of origin.

In addition, some countries and institutions undertake major marketing efforts to attract students from outside their boundaries.

A significant portion of students coming from G20 non-OECD countries includes the better-performing students, natural candidates for public or private support, or students who have a relatively high socio-economic background.

This implies that student mobility can not only bring stature to tertiary institutions’ academic programmes, but also economic benefits to the host country's education systems.

In the current economic context, shrinking support for scholarships and grants to support student mobility – as well as tightening budgets among individuals – may diminish the pace of student mobility.

On the other hand, limited labour market opportunities in students’ countries of origin may lower the opportunity costs of studying abroad, and help increase student mobility.

The increase in student mobility in tertiary education can also provide an opportunity for smaller and-or less-developed host education systems to improve their cost efficiency.

For example, it can help countries focus limited resources on educational programmes with potential economies of scale, or expand participation in tertiary education without having to expand the tertiary system within the country itself.

For host countries, enrolling international students can help not only to raise revenues from higher education, but also as part of a broader strategy to recruit highly skilled immigrants.

International students tend to choose different programmes of study from local students, indicating either a degree of specialisation of countries in the programmes offered, or a lack of programmes in the countries of origin. It could also indicate better employment opportunities associated with specific fields of education.

OECD countries and mobility

Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the US each receive more than 6% of all foreign students worldwide.

International students from OECD countries mainly come from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Turkey and the US and they make up 10% or more of the enrolments in tertiary education in Australia, Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK.

They also account for more than 20% of enrolments in advanced research programmes in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

Since 2000, and up to 2010, the number of foreign tertiary students enrolled worldwide has increased by 99%, for an average annual growth rate of 7.1%. The number of foreign tertiary students enrolled in OECD countries has doubled since 2000, for an average annual increase growth rate of 7.2%.

Europe is the preferred destination for students studying outside their country, and has 41% of all international students. North America has 21% of all international students.

Nevertheless, the fastest growing regions of destination are Latin America and the Caribbean, Oceania and Asia, mirroring the internationalisation of universities in an increasing set of countries.

Longer-term trends

OECD and UNESCO Institute for Statistics data make it possible to examine longer-term trends in tertiary student mobility.

These data illustrate the dramatic growth in foreign enrolments over the past three decades, with the number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship rising dramatically from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to 4.1 million in 2010 – an increase of more than five-fold.

Growth in the internationalisation of tertiary education has accelerated during the past several decades, reflecting the globalisation of economies and societies, and also the expansion of tertiary systems and institutions throughout the world.

The rise in the number of students enrolled abroad since 1975 stems from various factors, from an interest in promoting academic, cultural, social and political ties between countries (especially as the European Union was taking shape), to a substantial increase in global access to tertiary education, and reduced transportation costs.

The internationalisation of labour markets for highly skilled individuals has also given people an incentive to gain international experience as part of their studies.

The increase in the number of foreign students can be compared to the increase in tertiary enrolment worldwide. According to UNESCO data, 177 million students participated in formal tertiary education around the world in 2010 – an increase of 77 million students (or 77%) since 2000.

Most of the new foreign tertiary students come from countries outside the OECD area, and are likely gradually to increase the proportion of foreign students in advanced research programmes in OECD and in G20 countries in the coming years.

In absolute terms, the number of foreign students enrolled in tertiary education has more than doubled since 2005 in Brazil, Chile, Estonia, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Korea, Luxembourg, Saudi Arabia, the Slovak Republic and Spain.

In contrast, the number of foreign students enrolled in France, Germany, Mexico and New Zealand grew by less than 10%.