Global postgraduate student mobility trends to 2024

India will have by far the most tertiary students in the world in 2024 – 48 million against 37 million in China – but China will still be the largest source of mobile postgraduate students, sending 338,000 abroad, according to a just-published study by the British Council. Nigeria will have the world’s strongest growth in outbound postgraduate mobility, at 8.3% a year.

While China continues to dominate the mobile student market in absolute numbers, in 2024 India is expected to account for 54% of growth in inbound postgraduate students to the United States. In the United Kingdom, China is anticipated to account for 44% of growth in inbound postgraduates.

“Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan will become key postgraduate markets by 2024, next to India and China,” says the study authored by Zainab Malik, director of research for Education Intelligence in the British Council.

The report, Postgraduate Student Mobility Trends to 2024, was launched last Monday at an Education Intelligence research forum on the eve of the 28th Australian International Education Conference in Brisbane.

It is based on research undertaken by the British Council and Oxford Economics from June to September 2014, examines trends in postgraduate mobility between key origin and destination markets, and forecasts student flows from 2012 to 2024.

“Overall, India is expected to be the fastest growing source of international postgraduate students over the next decade, while China will continue to dominate in terms of absolute numbers, despite demographic trends,” says the British Council in a release on the report.

But other countries have other major sources for international postgraduates: “France is forecast to send the highest number of postgraduates to Canada while Indonesia will be the second largest supplier of postgraduate students to Japan in 2024 with the highest annual growth expected from Saudi Arabian students travelling to Japan at a rate of 12.4%.

Drivers of change

The report notes that the ‘massification’ of higher education and growth in undergraduate students is “helping propel a wave of students seeking additional qualifications beyond the first degree”.

The trend towards attaining even more advanced qualifications is being fuelled not only by people eager for better job opportunities but also by governments striving to create more highly competent workforces.

Also, universities need to attract talented postgraduate students, among other reasons because of the growing importance of research in determining funding and international ranking.

“The talent pool is increasingly seen as an international one in which ranked universities across the world are competing for the best students.”

In most of eight leading countries studied recently for a Higher Education Funding Council for England report, “around a third of all higher education awards are postgraduate, ranging from a low of 24.7% in Spain to a high of 37.1% in Scotland.

“The percentage of postgraduate research to total postgraduate awards was much more varied, ranging from 8.6% in Australia to 31.4% in Germany.”

The model

The report builds on the forecasts of two previous British Council studies, The Shape of Things to Come: Higher education global trends and emerging opportunities to 2020, and The Future of the World’s Mobile Students to 2024.

Based on experience gained, a model was constructed to forecast international postgraduate mobility flows, based on demographic, education and economic data and historic trends.

Economic and demographic data provide a solid foundation for analysis, the report says. “However, with the natural unpredictability of human interaction, no mathematical formula can account for all circumstances and possibilities; other considerations come into play that will affect a population’s capacity to fund overseas education.

The study forecasts bilateral postgraduate student flows to 2024 between six destination markets and 23 origin markets, based on analysis of markets of interest, potential fastest-growing origin and destination markets over the next decade, and data availability.

The six destination markets are Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The 23 ‘origin’ markets are: Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United States and Vietnam.

Key findings

The report outlines a number of key forecasts.

One is that demographic trends will have a major impact on future postgraduate mobility trends. Not only is China’s tertiary-aged population set to decline substantially, but this is also the case for Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam.

“By contrast, the tertiary-aged population in Nigeria, India and Indonesia are expected to boom, which will have a positive effect on tertiary enrolment levels within these countries,” the report points out.

Economies in the surveyed countries will remain strong, especially in Asia, and tertiary enrolment rates are also forecast to grow in nearly all of the 23 origin countries.

“Given their strong projected demographics combined with strong tertiary enrolment rate growth, India and Indonesia are expected to have amongst the largest growth in tertiary enrolments to 2024,” says the report.

In the next decade India will overtake China as the country with the highest number of tertiary students – more than 119 million. China will have the second largest population at 79 million, with demographic decline cutting 30 million from its 2012 tertiary-aged population.

India will have the highest number of tertiary enrolments in 2024, at 48 million, followed by China (37 million), the United States (22 million) and Indonesia (11 million).

India and China will fuel growth in outbound postgraduates: “In aggregate, total outbound postgraduates are forecast to rise by 335,000 to 2024 within the 23 origin markets, with India and China accounting for 36% and 33% of the total growth respectively.”

Despite its declining young population, strong enrolment growth and high outbound mobility means that China will remain the largest source of international postgraduate students in 2024, with total outbound postgraduates numbering 338,000 compared to India’s 209,000.

India will have higher growth in postgraduate mobility than China, however: “The strongest annual average growth in outbound postgraduate mobility from 2012 to 2024 will occur in Nigeria (+8.3%), followed by India (+7.5%), Indonesia (+7.2%), Pakistan (+6.4%) and Saudi Arabia (+5.2%),” says the report.

India’s growth in mobile postgraduates will be driven by rapidly expanding tertiary enrolment, economic growth and expanding household incomes. “For destination markets, this is likely to be the real opportunity for inbound student growth over the next decade,” says the report.

Student flows to the UK from India and Pakistan have dropped significantly in recent years, and with the two countries among the fastest growing sources of outbound postgraduate students, the UK is anticipated to lose market share of these students over the next decade.

“Students from Pakistan are forecast to travel to Australia and Germany in greater numbers over the next decade and Indian students will choose the US as well as Australia as a preferred postgraduate study destination.”

America will continue to be the world’s most popular student destination, with an increase of 154,000 students expected, followed by the UK with growth of 83,000.

The US will host 407,000 postgraduates, followed by the UK with 241,000, Germany with 113,000 inbound postgraduates and Australia with 112,000.

Australia and Canada are predicted to have the highest annual average growth in inbound postgraduate mobility, at 4.1% each, with America at 4%.

“In relative terms, the UK is expected to be the second-slowest growing destination, with annual average growth of 3.5% from 2012 to 2024, down from 4.1% from 2007 to 2012, only ahead of Japan.” For the latter, growth will be only 1.6%.


Report author Zainab Malik commented that while the researchers realised China and India would dominate international postgraduate mobility, the high level of destination countries’ dependence on the two was surprising.

“Considering the numerous factors that can affect international student mobility, diversifying postgraduate recruitment strategies may not only help lessen that dependence but also broaden and deepen global skills and knowledge exchange.”

Countries should keep an eye on parts of the world showing strong growth in international mobility – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Indonesia.