The shifting sands of international student mobility

The importance of regional over global student mobility is growing, according to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014. The trend is reflected in the increasing internationalisation of tertiary enrolment in OECD countries as well as high intra-regional student mobility. Patterns of student mobility are shifting, with new destinations emerging.

“Student flows in European countries and in Eastern Asia and Oceania tend to reflect the evolution of geopolitical areas, such as closer ties between Asia-Pacific countries and further cooperation among European countries beyond the European Union,” says the report released last Tuesday.

International student mobility is tracked, and trends are identified. One is the steady growth of student mobility.

Over the past three decades, the number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship has risen dramatically, from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to 4.5 million in 2012 – a more than fivefold increase.

“During 2000-12, the number of foreign tertiary students enrolled worldwide more than doubled, with an average annual growth rate of almost 7%,” says the report.

Globally, the study found, 82% of all foreign students are enrolled in the G20 group of major economies, and 75% of all foreign students are enrolled in OECD countries.

Europe is the top destination region, hosting 48% of all international students. Within the OECD area, the 21 European member countries (EU21) host the largest proportion – 39% – of foreign students.

The 21 countries also host 98% of foreign students enrolled in European Union countries. “Some 74% of foreign students enrolled in EU21 countries come from another EU21 country, demonstrating the effect of EU mobility policies,” says the report.

North America is the second most attractive region for foreign students, with 21% of the global total, followed by Asia with 18%.

The study found that the number of international students in Oceania had almost tripled since 2000, although the region hosts less than 10% of all foreign students.

“Other regions, such as Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, are also seeing growing numbers of international students, reflecting the internationalisation of universities in an increasing number of countries.”

In 2012, the number of foreign students in OECD countries was, on average, three times the number of students from OECD countries studying abroad. “In absolute terms, this represents 3.4 million foreign students in OECD countries, compared to more than one million students studying outside their OECD country of citizenship.”

Major country destinations

In 2012, more than half of all foreign students worldwide were in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK or the US, says the report. International students from OECD countries mainly come from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Korea and America.

“In absolute terms, the United States hosted most of these students, with 16% of all foreign students, followed by the United Kingdom (13%), Germany (6%), France (6%), Australia (6%) and Canada (5%).”

Some new players have emerged in recent years, says the report. “Besides the six major destinations, significant numbers of foreign students were enrolled in the Russian Federation (4%), Japan (3%), Austria (2%), Italy (2%), New Zealand (2%) and Spain (2%) in 2012.”

The share of international students choosing America dropped from 23% in 2000 to 16% in 2012, and the fall for Germany was almost three percentage points. At the same time, the share of international students who chose Korea or New Zealand grew by at least one percentage point, and two percentage points for the UK and Russian Federation.

“Some of these changes reflect differences in countries’ approaches to internationalisation, ranging from marketing campaigns in the Asia-Pacific region to a more local and university-driven approach in the United States,” says the report.

A matter of proportion

The OECD makes a distinction between foreign and international students. Foreign students are not citizens of the country of study, but may have lived there for a long time and been educated there. By contrast, international students “are those who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study”.

Australia, Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK show the highest levels of incoming student mobility, measured as the proportion of international students in total tertiary enrolment – 10% or more of their students are international.

International students account for more than 30% of enrolments in advanced research courses in Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK.

In Australia, 18% of students in tertiary education are from another country, and the figure is 17% in the UK, 16% in both New Zealand and Switzerland, and 15% in Austria. “In contrast, international students account for 3% or less of total tertiary enrolments in Chile, Estonia, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and Spain,” says the report.

“Among countries using the definition of international students based on country of citizenship, France had the largest proportion of foreign students (12%) of the total enrolled at the tertiary level. In contrast, foreign enrolments represented less than 1% of total tertiary enrolments in Brazil, China and Turkey,” says the report.

All reporting countries, except for Germany, have a higher proportion of international students in advanced research courses than in any other tertiary level.

“In 13 of the 26 countries reporting data on international students, more than 20% of all students enrolled in advanced research programmes are international.” In Switzerland the figure is 50% and in New Zealand, the UK and France more than 40%.

In several countries, a high proportion of all international students are enrolled in advanced research courses. In Switzerland, 25% of all international students choose these courses, and in Sweden the share is 22%, America 19%, Ireland 18% and Slovenia 17%.

Also, says the report: “In China, 27% of all foreign students are enrolled in advanced research programmes, as are 11% in France and Brazil.”

The balance between how many students countries receive and how many they send abroad also varies greatly, the study found.

While in Australia there are 18 foreign students for each Australian student abroad, the ratio is less than 0.1 to 1 in Mexico. Other countries with a high ratio of foreign students per national student abroad are the UK (13:1), New Zealand (12:1) and America (11:1).

Regions and countries of origin

Asian students are the largest group of international students enrolled in countries reporting data to the OECD or the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, says the report – 53% of the total.

The proportions of students from Asia among all international and foreign tertiary students are particularly large in Japan (94%), Korea (93%), Australia (82%), the United States (73%) and New Zealand (70%).

Of all international and foreign students in OECD countries, 26% are from Europe, 9% from Africa, 6% from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 3% from North America.

“Altogether, 30% of international students enrolled in OECD countries originate from another OECD country,” says the report.

In 2012, students from China accounted for 22% of all international students in the OECD area. “Some 28% of all Chinese students studying abroad are enrolled in the US, while 11% choose Australia, 6% choose Korea, 13% choose Japan, and 11% study in the UK.”

The second largest proportion of international students comes from India (5.8%), with some 45% of Indian students abroad enrolled in the United States, 17% in the UK, 6% in Canada and 5% in Australia.

Push and pull

Students make decisions about where to study based on many factors, including the academic reputation of an institution or course, the flexibility of programmes in counting time abroad towards a degree, and recognition of foreign degrees.

Other key factors are “exploding demand” for higher education worldwide, higher education limitations or restrictive university admission policies at home, geographical, trade or historical links between countries, future job opportunities, cultural aspirations, and government policies to facilitate the transfer of credits between home and host institutions.

Tuition fees play an important role, as do immigration policies. “In recent years several OECD countries have eased their immigration policies to encourage the temporary or permanent immigration of international students,” the report says.

A large proportion of foreign students in OECD countries come from neighbouring countries – in 2012 an average of 21% came from countries that share land or maritime borders with the host country.

“Higher percentages of foreign students from countries beyond the immediate borders are seen in countries that have the largest market shares in international education, and in countries like Portugal and Spain, which have close historic and cultural ties with other countries far from their borders,” says the report.

“Among OECD countries, the highest percentages of students from neighbouring countries are found in Japan (81%), Greece (76%), Korea (75%), Estonia (70%), the Russian Federation (68%) and the Czech Republic (65%).

“Foreign students from neighbouring countries are also strongly represented in Austria, Belgium, Poland, the Slovak Republic and South Africa. In contrast, only 4% of foreign students in Canada come from the United States; and only 6% of students in the United States come from the Bahamas, Canada or Mexico.”

Language is a major attraction for students going to Portugal: 55% of foreign students there came from countries where Portuguese is an official language, such as Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe or Timor-Leste.

“Language and cultural considerations, geographic proximity and similarity of education systems are all factors that students also consider when determining the country where they will study,” the report says, along with differences in entry requirements such as numerus clausus or greater selectivity for some programmes.

Japan is a notable exception: despite having a language that is not widely used around the world, it enrols large numbers of foreign students.

“Language and academic traditions also explain the tendency of English-speaking students to concentrate in other countries of the British Commonwealth or in the United States, even if they are geographically distant.

“This is also true for other historic geopolitical areas, such as the former Soviet Union, the Francophonie and Latin America,” says Education at a Glance.

“Migration networks also play a role, as illustrated by the concentration of students with Portuguese citizenship in France, students from Turkey in Germany or those from Mexico in the United States.”