Facing a rising imbalance of mobile students

The worldwide growth in international mobile students is hitting Europe especially hard, given that the various European countries are hosting more than half the world’s estimated five million mobile students.

At the same time, the majority of foreign students, almost 90%, moving around Europe are Europeans and of these, three out of four are from the EU member states.

Among OECD countries with the highest percentage of students who go abroad to study compared with the number who remain at home, Iceland has nearly 19%, Slovak Republic 14%, Ireland 13%, Estonia 7.7% and Norway 7.1%

Countries with the smallest ratios of adventurous and outgoing students are the US, UK, Japan and Australia. Considerable differences exist, however, between European countries: 10 being net importers of students and 22 being net exporters – with more of their students going abroad than foreign students arriving.

UK to stem the tide?

The UK receives 150,000 more international students than British students leaving to study elsewhere: in fact, 19 European students arrive for every British student who leaves. Other net importer countries are Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, The Netherlands and Switzerland.

Major European ‘sending’ countries include Turkey, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia which together have 100,000 more of their students enrolled in degree studies abroad than are in their own universities.

The imbalance has increased significantly over the last decade and does not show any signs of abating. These figures are increasingly creating headaches for politicians and university leaders, and generating strains in the European Union’s treaty regarding the free movement of people between member states.

An example of the rising tension is Britain’s decision last year to impose a 1% reduction in the number of non-EU students at UK universities. The House of Lords has asked its science and technology committee to report within three weeks on the issue of whether the nation’s immigration rules were “starving our universities of talent”.

Under the chairmanship of Lord Krebs, individuals and organisations were invited to submit written evidence to several questions, including: “Are Britain’s immigration policies and values jeopardising the provision of particular STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – masters or postgraduate courses at your institution?”

This may be an over-reaction by the Lords but the reduction could cause talented international students, who are highly in demand and most notably in STEM subjects, to look to the north in Europe or elsewhere. This is especially so at the doctoral level where northern countries do not charge tuition fees and where PhD candidates receive an attractive salary as young researchers.

Imbalances in low-fee countries

The imbalances, with a heavy influx of foreign students in the low tuition-fee countries of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and Switzerland, are being tackled by different measures: Austria and Belgium have secured the preliminary support of the European Court of Justice to cap the admittance of foreign students to 25% in Austria and 30% in Belgium. This applies to many professional health degrees such as medicine, psychology, veterinary science and physiotherapy.

The court’s 2006 ruling was extended in 2011 to 2016 on the grounds of public health concerns: too few homeland students were being admitted to these studies as a result of the strict competition criteria for admission.

Switzerland has a particularly high proportion of foreign students at the postgraduate level, with several universities exceeding 50% in their enrolments. This has contributed to the immigration protests in Switzerland, to be settled by three referenda this year, including one next Sunday.

The Netherlands has many German students competing for study places in the state lottery system for medicine and some other fields. The percentage of foreign students studying medicine, dentistry and veterinary science in The Netherlands doubled from 9% in 2006 to 18% in 2011.

The Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education, or Nuffic, has been ordered by the Dutch Education Ministry to develop an action plan to make more foreign students remain and work in the Netherlands upon graduation. The strategy plan, in Dutch only, can be seen here.

Denmark is now working on a similar plan as part of its internationalisation strategy, to be published by the Education Ministry later in the spring. The Danish Ministry of Finance has published a memorandum that states that each foreign student who graduates in Denmark and then works in the country for five years would generate a significant surplus for the treasury.

In the 2012-13 winter term, 88,400 foreign students were studying in Austria and they accounted for 31% of the student population. At public universities, the percentage was 25%, at private universities 39%, at Fachhochshulen 14% and at universities of education 5%. At the school of theology, a remarkable 62% were foreign students.

Exploding numbers

During the decade from 2002-2012, the number of foreign students increased by 150% at Europe’s public universities, the main source countries being Germany, Italy, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Hungary. More than half of all the foreign students moving around Europe came from these five countries.

According to the OECD report Education at a Glance 2013, Austria was fifth among the ”high importers” of foreign students, after Australia, UK, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Austria’s Minister for Science and Research, Karlheinz Töchterle, said last year that the recruitment of foreign students by certain Austrian universities, where they comprised more than 80% of students in psychology in Salzburg and Vienna, could not continue.

“Together with other European countries, notably Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, we are raising this imbalance issue with the European Commission,” Töchterle said.

“In 2005, 5% of newly-admitted students were German, rising to 14% in 2011 when the government, supported by an EU court decision, capped several of the health sciences.

“Student mobility is important. But nobody wants such an asymmetry to give rise to anti-European attitudes among the Austrian people,” he said.