New report overviews international students in Europe

A complex picture of the policies and strategies of European countries and universities to attract international students is painted by a new report from the European Commission. It reveals, for instance, “great interest” in growing ties with emerging economies through their students, and that 75% of international courses in The Netherlands are now taught in English.

The study on Immigration of International Students to the EU, published by the European Migration Network run by the commission, provides an analytical overview and statistics on the immigration and mobility policies of states.

It looks at countries’ strategies and policies to promote Europe as an attractive destination for international students – and to prevent misuse of the student route to migration.

The study drew on contributions from 24 countries – Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Norway – and statistics from Eurostat up to and including 2012.

It focused on the migration of international students to the European Union, including those who progressed through several courses of study. It did not include migrants who entered the EU for another purpose, even if they subsequently studied.

International students represent a substantial proportion of the non-EU population in many countries, the study found. In 2011, more than two million first residence permits were issued to third-country nationals, 21% of them for educational reasons. Of these, nearly 190,000 were issued for study purposes, as per Student Directive 2004/114/EC.

Some findings

In recent years, the study found, European countries have increasingly recognised the significant benefits of international students and have undertaken numerous initiatives to attract them.

“These developments are considered to be vital for the EU to be a realistic competitor to other student migration receiving countries, such as the US and Canada.”

At EU level, policies “strongly focus” on advancing Europe as a centre of excellence in education and training. The EU has a wide range of initiatives including policy dialogue, bilateral agreements, and programmes to support mobility and scholarships – particularly to establish international networks among universities and alumni.

In recent years, EU countries have also developed national strategies and policies to lure international students.

“These include attracting high level skilled migrants in order to fill existing gaps in the education and labour market (following graduation), as well as promoting international trade and cooperation with third countries. The economic benefits associated with international students are also linked to strategies to enhance revenue coming from abroad.”

National strategies in Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and the UK focus on attracting the ‘brightest and the best’ – mostly masters and PhD students who can contribute to knowledge in sectors key to the economy.

“Retention of skilled workers is also a key feature in Austria, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia, with this perceived as an important source for driving socio-economic growth and development, particularly due to demographic changes and shortages of skilled workers.”

Priority sectors such as engineering in France, and business and law in France and Luxembourg, have been identified in strategies. In France it is common to establish needs-based priorities with countries of origin through agreements between universities.

Several states – Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain – have set targets relating to the number of international students.

Poland aims to increase the share of international students from 4.9% in 2012 to 10% in 2015, Spain from 4.9% in 2012 to 10% in 2015, and Finland wants to raise the number of foreign degree students by 77%, from 11,303 in 2007 to 20,000 in 2015.

Ireland aims to grow the economic impact of international education to €1.2 billion a year, an increase of €300 million on current levels.

There are overlaps, with some countries’ strategies focusing on all these imperatives. The report noted that the diversity of approaches to international students resulted in part from the divergence of higher education systems at the national level.

“States’ interests in attracting international students can differ depending on whether the cost of accessing education is free (or low).”

Only Hungary and Latvia have no national policy on international students. In Latvia, it is up to institutions to decide on the need to and options for attracting students and to develop a strategy. “In Hungary, only an action plan is in place which aims to strengthen the education of ethnic Hungarians living outside the territory of Hungary.”

In terms of future developments, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia plan to amend their policy on international students.

The Netherlands and Slovenia are seeking to become more attractive study destinations. The Netherlands plans to more effectively prevent “misuse of the student route” by setting targets for students and collecting biometric data during the visa application process.

“Poland intends to introduce preferential admission and stay regulations for international students and university graduates.”

Attracting students

Although there are similarities between countries, the differences that exist in educational structures and the (independent) role played by some universities “make each national policy on the immigration of international students unique”.

“There seems to be great interest to attract students from emerging economies in an attempt to strengthen economic ties with these nations. For example, Belgium and Luxembourg target China for the recruitment of students,” said the report.

Some institutions in Belgium work with brokers in China to facilitate recruitment, while France and Lithuania focus on attracting students from “countries with whom they have strong historical ties to circumvent the challenge posed by differences in language”.

While such initiatives have been successful in attracting more students, systems in most states are fragmented as a result of having a large number of actors “working on their own to complete specific objectives”.

In most cases, the task of promoting the study environment is left to universities, which often present themselves individually at education exhibitions rather than collectively. But they might not have the answers to overall enquiries, for instance on visa conditions.

“There seems to be a need to make information provision less fragmented, given that in some states lack of sufficient information is identified as the reason why fewer students are coming to study in relation to other countries,” the report said.

Most importantly, countries did not have initiatives to promote the EU as a whole as a study destination for international students.

While states did not admit that there was competition between them, it was apparent that they “are indeed attempting to attract international students to their own territory by the implementation of different measures”.

The study identified the importance of providing timely information to international students, who “increasingly wish to receive information on all aspects of the state in question in order to make informed decisions on their academic route.”


In recent years, there has been a trend across European countries to provide more courses in English, in an effort to attract more international students. “All offer courses in foreign languages but the extent to which this takes place varies significantly.

Some 75% of international courses in The Netherlands are taught entirely in English. The availability of study in English is also well developed in Sweden. Other countries including Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain have identified this as a priority area in their national strategies.

There are also substantial differences in the needs and wishes of higher education institutions, which are largely autonomous in deciding if and how to attract international students.

The Polytechnic University of Milan has decided that all masters and PhD courses from 2014 will be taught in English, but this has sparked debates in Italy on the rights of Italian students to study in their language.

In Slovenia, institutions are expected to develop a number of – especially postgraduate – programmes in foreign languages by 2020 in order to attract more international students. In Poland and Lithuania, courses in foreign languages was set as an important criterion for assessing quality and in the longer term such courses will receive additional state funding.

“Though this has been the case, the impact this measure has on integration of third-country nationals is currently not clear. This is particularly the case for those member states wishing for students to remain on their territory following graduation.”

Visas, family members and work

The study found that countries had attempted to introduce flexible procedures, “with different visas issued depending on the purpose and length of study, as well as fast tracking of applications in order to facilitate formalities for international students”.

But while such measures were being “continuously enhanced”, there were still obstacles, especially regarding the length of time taken to issue visas or permits and the conditions that must be fulfilled, such as proof of subsistence for the academic year.

Countries have different practices regarding accompaniment by family members. Although most allow this, it is often limited to doctoral students and only a few countries grant family members access to the labour market. This aspect of migration is important to mature international students, the study stressed.

Student Directive 2004/114/EC had been important in facilitating immigration and had introduced common basic conditions for admitting third-country nationals, guaranteed certain rights – such as labour market access – and ensured transparent procedures.

The directive gives international students access to the labour market during study. While some countries offer open access, others limit this to certain economic sectors according to national needs. Countries with flexible policies might be considered more attractive.

Regarding staying on after study, some countries striving to attract highly skilled students to fill labour gaps, facilitate students’ stay in the EU to seek employment. Others allow foreign students to stay and obtain work experience, in line with international cooperation policies.


Student mobility is facilitated by international cooperation through a wide range of bilateral and multilateral agreements, often set up within a framework of broader strategic objectives – “for example, to serve labour market needs or to facilitate trade”.

EU mobility programmes have been effective in opening up opportunities to students from third countries, both to study in one country and to move between states, especially the Erasmus Mundus programme.

Some states have changed application processes to facilitate the entry of students, by simplifying administrative processes, allowing universities or government departments to act as sponsors, and facilitating communications across government departments and agencies.

However, there are obstacles kicked up by legislation and safeguards at national level, and inefficiencies in processing systems for residence permits.

The study was not able to demonstrate whether measures implemented were the main factor for non-EU students wishing to migrate. “This is particularly the case in relation to the imposition of less strict immigration rules.”


The study found that the scale and nature of misuse varied significantly across countries. Misuses included overstaying, non-attendance of courses, submitting an application for asylum following entry on a student permit, and working outside legal conditions.

There was little research into what happens to students after completing their studies, with available statistics “not able to pinpoint exactly whether the student route is being misused or whether international students have returned to their country of origin”.

Most countries reported some incidences of abuse, but only three considered this a major problem. Misuse identified by some states related to specific sectors of education, such as language courses.

To combat misuse, countries implemented a range of measures including systems to check qualifications and skills, licensing or inspection regimes to ensure that institutions do not violate the use of student permits, and codes of conduct to encourage self-regulation in admitting international students.