Student-led migration is part of global talent contest

As the global competition to attract skilled and talented workers has intensified, international students have become an increasingly important source of immigrant workers, particularly the most skilled workers in advanced countries. A new report by three major international organisations estimates that 15% to 30% of international students who study in the most advanced countries stay on to work.

In the advanced countries of the OECD, the number of international students has grown since 2005 "in virtually all countries", according to Labor Migration, Skills and Student Mobility in Asia drawn up by the Asian Development Bank Institute - the Tokyo-based think-tank linked to the ADB in Manila - the OECD in Paris and the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

More than half the recent Asian migrants in OECD countries "are highly educated and they represent an important contribution to the skilled workforce in OECD countries", said the report released this month. It noted that "highly educated and skilled workers play a critical role in economic development and technological innovations".

More than three quarters of Asian students are concentrated in only four countries: the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan.

Some Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea have been catching up by offering higher education programmes in English, as well as scholarships and work opportunities for international students during and after their studies.

Asia the driver behind skilled migration growth

Students from Asia now make up 52% of all international students in OECD countries and the Asian region has been a main driver behind this growth in skilled migration, the report said. For example in 2011, 1.6 million Asian nationals migrated to one of the OECD countries.

"Pursuing higher education abroad is considered an effective channel to emigrate to industrialised countries," the report said.

The migration trend has been accelerated by a skills gap in many advanced countries and global competition for talent, despite general restrictions on immigration in most OECD countries.

"Asia as an origin region has seen disproportionate growth over the past five to 10 years. Its importance relative to other origin regions has increased in all of the top 10 destination countries for international students with the exception of Austria and Germany."

Japan is also among the exceptions, but Asian migrants still account for more than nine out of 10 international students in that country, the report said.

Countries where the study-migration route is highest are France, Canada and the Czech Republic. In Canada it is as high as 40% of migrants.

First step towards settlement

International study has become a common first step toward eventual settlement in the host country, despite some concerns that it is a 'backdoor' route to migration.

The path is eased for international students staying, in part because a domestic degree is easily accepted by employers. "There is no uncertainty regarding actual value or other recognition issues" associated with qualifications, as there is about the value of foreign degrees, the report noted.

A growing number of countries have sought to attract international students as a source of highly skilled labour, allowing students to work during studies and providing opportunities to change status after studies and to become labour migrants via work-study visas.

Not long ago, visa status changes for international students were often prohibited, sometimes motivated by a desire to protect the domestic workforce against competition. It was thought that international students, in particular those from developing countries, should return to their origin countries after their studies, to avoid brain drain.

"This perspective has changed since and some specific tools have been developed to facilitate the study-to-work transition of international students," the report said.

Most study destinations now allow students to work during studies, generally 20 to 24 hours a week during term. Often, there are specific provisions for additional work during semester breaks. In Japan, students may work eight hours a day during summer and winter breaks.

"Although student employment may not necessarily help in finding work later, it does provide the student with some familiarity regarding the local labour market and practices. Work within one's field can be particularly important for increasing the likelihood of finding employment after graduation," the study said.

However, student work can also be low skilled. It provides contact with the labour market and enhances the likelihood of remaining in the country but, negatively, international students compete with low-educated native-born youths and could damage their own job chances later through unskilled work.

In non-English speaking countries where universities run international programmes in English, graduating students do not necessarily have a broad range of employment opportunities. Nonetheless, study can serve as a transition period while a prospective migrant learns the local language, which is necessary for full integration into the host country.

Country familiarity is one of the reasons behind schemes in several advanced countries to allow international students graduating from their universities to stay on to work.

The duration of post-graduation visas varies from three years in Canada to six months in most European countries. Japan recently increased the duration from six months to a year.

Some countries, including South Korea, allow time for a graduate's job search depending on the level of study, with the longest job search period for those with PhDs.

Most countries with points-based immigration systems provide bonus points for those with host country degrees. This is the case in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and some European countries with a points system, such as Austria.