Mobility has shot up but pace could slow, says OECD

Student mobility has increased dramatically over recent years along with the exploding demand for education. But “the economic climate, shrinking support for scholarships and grants, as well as tighter budgets for individuals”could yet slow the pace of that flow, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD’s Education at a Glance 2015 report, released last week.

Currently there are more than four million international students worldwide. In six countries – Australia, Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom – they represent 16% or more of the student body. In tiny Luxembourg, 44% of students enrolled in tertiary education are from another country.

By contrast, international students account for 3% or less of total tertiary enrolments in Chile, Estonia, Mexico, Poland, Slovenia and Spain.

Among countries which use a different definition of international student, based on the country of citizenship rather than the country of origin, the Czech Republic had the largest proportion of foreign students (9%) of the total enrolled at the tertiary level. In contrast, foreign enrolments represented less than 2% of total tertiary enrolments in China, Korea, the Russian Federation and Turkey.

These are some of the findings of the chapter in the Education at a Glance 2015 report entitled “Who studies abroad and where?

From 2005 to 2012, it says, the number of international students enrolled abroad rose by 50%. By 2013, when the number of students worldwide enrolled in higher education outside their country of citizenship had reached four million, more than 50% of those had moved to study in either Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom or the United States.

Asia is the big sending continent, its students representing 53% of international students enrolled worldwide and China is the country with the largest numbers of citizens enrolled abroad, followed by India, with Germany third. A key beneficiary is the United Kingdom, where 54% of international students come from Asia and one in five international students are from China.

The flow of those taking up international study is predominantly towards richer, more economically advanced countries – hosting 73% of international students – rather than the other way around. In fact, in 2013, the number of international students enrolled in tertiary education in OECD countries was, on average, three times the number of students from OECD countries studying abroad.

However, the winners are not always the biggest economies. Data show that certain countries, often smaller ones in terms of population, have developed niche markets for international students in particular specialisms.

For instance, 53% of the international students in the Slovak Republic study health and welfare, 40% of those in Iceland are enrolled in the humanities and arts, 31% of those in Finland study engineering, and 23% of those in Chile study education.

Larger proportion at advanced levels

The OECD data also reveal that the proportion of international students among total enrolments tends to be much larger at the most advanced levels of tertiary education. On average across OECD countries, 24% of students enrolled in doctoral or equivalent programmes are international students, against an average of 9% in all levels of tertiary education.

According to the OECD’s analysis this could be because:
  • • Capacity constraints in the countries of origin may be particularly severe at these levels of education;
  • • The returns to study abroad, and in more prestigious institutions, may be higher for masters or PhD programmes than at lower levels of higher education; and
  • • Students in these programmes may be a particular section of the population that is more likely to travel and live abroad, independently from their educational choices.
For the destination countries there are strong reasons for concentrating on luring postgraduate talent. “Attracting international students in doctoral or equivalent programmes is particularly appealing to host countries because of their potential contribution to research and development, either as students or later as highly qualified immigrants,” the report says.

In six countries – Belgium, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom – the share of international students enrolled in PhD or equivalent programmes is more than 35%. In Luxembourg and Switzerland, it is more than half.

In contrast, the proportion is 5% or lower in Chile, Mexico, Poland and, among the countries that reported data based on the criteria of citizenship, in China, Israel, the Russian Federation and Turkey.

At masters level Luxembourg had the largest proportion of international students (67%) followed by Australia (38%), the United Kingdom (36%) and Switzerland (27%), the OECD found.

Key factors in choosing destinations

The data also sheds light on the key factors in where students choose to go, which appear to be:
  • • The language of instruction;
  • • The quality of institution;
  • • The cost;
  • • The opportunity to work in the host country after graduating.
According to the OECD, countries whose language of instruction is widely spoken and read, such as English, French, German, Russian and Spanish, can be particularly attractive to international students, both in absolute and relative terms. The key exception is Japan, which despite its language not being widely used globally, enrols large number of students, 93% of them from Asia, the report says.

The adoption of English as a global language partly explains the attraction of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. But increasingly institutions in non-English speaking countries are offering tertiary courses using English as the language of instruction, says the report. In three European countries – Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands – the majority of institutions are offering at least one programme taught entirely in English.

The perceived quality of education offered is thought to be a strong draw factor, with an apparent correlation between high positions in international rankings and an institution’s attractiveness to international students.

In recent years several OECD countries have eased their immigration policies, making them more attractive as destinations for international students. For example, Canada and Australia now permit international students to stay on after their studies to look for a job for up to three and four years, respectively.

Cost is another consideration. Tuition fees are a significant part of the cost for any international student and they vary widely between destination countries. In some countries home students and international students pay no fees at all, in others domestic and international students pay different rates.

The interesting finding of the OECD report is that tuition fees do not necessarily put prospective students off “as long as the quality of education is high and its potential returns make the investment worthwhile”.

It points out that several Asia-Pacific countries have made international education a key part of their economic strategy – as University World News reports this week, education exports are now Australia’s third largest export overall.

The report cites the example of New Zealand as a country that has successfully turned to charging different amounts for international students (except in doctoral studies), while continuing to lure large numbers of foreign students.

Overall, the OECD says, student mobility has increased dramatically over recent years due to:
  • • The “perceived value of studying at prestigious post-secondary institutions abroad”;
  • • The educational value of having a diverse student body;
  • • The “substantial revenues” that can be earned by expanding education for international students; and
  • • The value of being able to persuade graduating international students to stay on and contribute their skills to the economy.
The net result is an increasing and diversified flow of international students worldwide.