Understanding imbalances in international student mobility

International student mobility has grown strongly over the past decade. The OECD reports that 4.3 million students enrolled in tertiary education outside of their country of citizenship in 2011, more than double the 2.1 million students doing so in 2000.

Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada attract large numbers of international students, enrolling more than two million international students combined. At the same time, new international study destination countries have appeared – ranging from China to Malaysia to Saudi Arabia – which enrol more than 100,000 international students each.

But an increasingly salient dynamic among many leading destination countries is the push for more outgoing mobility of domestic students. This is not necessarily new for countries such as Germany that sends many students abroad with the support of the German Academic Exchange Service.

On the other hand, recently developed international education strategies or policy statements from Canada, the UK, and Australia all make explicit calls for augmenting the numbers of their students pursuing educational experiences abroad.

Within Europe, where bi-directional student mobility is enshrined through the Bologna Process, Erasmus, and other European Union programmes, an emerging area of consideration is “balanced mobility”, that is, the cultivation of equal student flows between countries.

This has been a particular challenge for countries such as UK which has tended to attract disproportionally more international students than it sends abroad. In 2011, around 420,000 international higher education students studied in the UK, while only around 22,000 UK tertiary students studied abroad.

Data limitations

While imbalances are a policy concern, another and in many ways more basic issue is the difficulty of properly accounting for student in and out-flows. Often, different agencies are in charge of capturing data and, in the case of out-bound mobility, at times no systematic, central data collection exists.

Definitions of mobility vary, including short-term visits or full degree studies, and levels of data completeness vary even more. Specifically, the largest obstacle to effectively mapping the balance of international student mobility is the inconsistency of data available on international students.

Root issues include the very terminology of “international student” (widely defined as a student moving to another country for the express purpose of study) versus the use of “foreign student” (a non-citizen of the country the student is studying in).

Countries that produce and publish statistics on international student enrolments vary in their choice of definition, if data is systematically collected at all. Differences in data definition and data collection methodology aside, available data are often not directly comparable, given the structure of a given country’s education system.

For example, many comparisons tend to use higher and tertiary education interchangeably which in the case of the United States might be benign, but in countries such as Germany or Australia would be quite imprecise. More often than not, only information on international students in higher education is consistently available.

While most leading destination countries produce statistics on the international students they host in one form or another, national-level data on outbound student mobility is scarce. Where outbound mobility is studied at a national level, the focus is often on short-term outbound mobility, such as exchanges taken by domestic university students, reflected in the figures from the Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum or the US Institute of International Education’s study abroad data.

Disparities in mobility data

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) produces a dataset of tertiary-level student mobility figures based on data provided by host countries, including estimates of outbound mobility. However, the UIS acknowledges that its data definitions and coverage results in differences from national-level reporting.

In some cases, differences can be drastic such as in the case of UIS and International Institute for Education, or IIE, data on out-bound US mobility. The latter tallied around 283,000 students for 2011 while UIS data indicated around 57,000.

The table compares UIS figures for international students in select countries in 2010 to the data on international students reported by government agencies in each country. The differences in these example figures range from as low as 2,000 students to as many as 53,000 students.

What the above discussions show is that data definitions, collection methods, and responsibilities for capturing mobility data differ to a point which renders any definitive discussion on in-bound versus out-bound mobility for many countries essentially mute.

Future perspectives

Looking into the future, measuring the balance of international student mobility is bound to become more complicated. For example, some institutions operating transnational education models such as foreign branch campuses include these students in international enrolment counts, despite potentially no student movement having taken place.

The online delivery of education and possibility of enrolling and credentialing students in other countries through MOOCs – massive open online courses – can further confound the existing data landscape.

Another strongly emerging phenomenon is the increase in true free movers who will partake in multiple, different international education experiences – sometimes within one year. This may include English language training in one country, a semester of undergraduate classes in a second country, and an internship for academic credit in yet another country.

Today’s international student mobility data gathering and analysis is as yet ill-prepared to address the rising complexities in international mobility. This already impacts on international mobility policy-making and obscures a clear perspective on the overall educational and training mobility of young people. Much remains to be done to catch up.

* Dr Daniel J Guhr is Managing Director of The Illuminate Consulting Group, an international academic consulting firm, while Nelson D Furtado is an ICG analyst.