Why do students study abroad?

The world’s numbers of international tertiary students reached 4.3 million in 2011-12, up from 1.3 million in 1990. In 2016 the United States alone had 1.2 million international students or almost as many as the entire world did in 1990.

These rapidly growing numbers of international tertiary students indicate that demand is high for top quality higher education and that growing numbers of students are willing to leave their homelands to obtain that education.

However, if one looks not just at student numbers abroad and the largest senders (China, India and South Korea), but also at country Outbound Mobility Ratios or OMRs, a different picture emerges that provides additional insights into why some students go abroad and the importance of outbound student mobility in countries’ tertiary education systems.

The OMR, which measures the number of students from a given country studying abroad as a percentage of that country’s total tertiary enrolment at home, varies considerably across countries and tends to be relatively low in the largest senders.

In 2015, OMRs ranged from fewer than four of every 1,000 tertiary students in Argentina, the Philippines and the US to more than one hundred of every 1,000 tertiary students in Albania, Morocco and Senegal.

Other countries had similar differences. What accounts for such wide country disparities in OMRs and why do tertiary students from some countries go abroad more often than students from other countries?

Family affordability

Countries differ in a number of structural dimensions that can influence OMRs, including population size, gross domestic product or GDP per capita, urbanisation and tertiary education supply and demand. China and India, for instance, have the world’s largest populations, which means they have a large pool of students who could potentially go abroad to study.

Countries with high GDP per capita levels usually have high levels of urbanisation and more middle-class families who can afford to send their children abroad to study. Family affordability is important because few scholarships are available in receiving countries for undergraduate tertiary students.

The increasing numbers of middle-class families in China, India and other Global South countries have increased family affordability and spurred outbound student mobility from those countries.

Another factor that shapes OMRs is the supply and demand for tertiary education in sending countries. Rising demand for tertiary education in Global South countries is a consequence of rapid population growth because it produces young population age structures. Country responses to rapid population growth and increasing education demand, however, have varied considerably.

In the 1960s when populations started growing rapidly in Global South countries, several countries responded by adopting family planning programmes and investing in their education systems.

Other countries did not, which resulted in the diverging development trajectories that we see today among Asian, African and Latin American countries.

To illustrate, in 1960 South Korea and Kenya had comparable levels of population growth annually, 2.9% and 3.1%, versus 0.4% and 2.7% today. Their education indicators also diverged. While both had tertiary gross enrolment ratios or TGERs under 5% in 1970, South Korea’s is now 98% and Kenya’s is still under 5%. The TGER is the ratio of tertiary enrolled students to the population of tertiary age.

Not surprisingly, Kenya’s OMR is higher today than South Korea’s, 11.8% and 1.7%, respectively.

While they had comparable levels of income per capita in 1960, South Korea‘s income was 20 times greater than that of Kenya in 2014. Development experts argue that greater investment by South Korea in education, research and innovation accounts for its development success.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Studies in International Education, I used multiple regression to examine how these and other structural conditions correlated with OMRs from 190 countries. In particular, I looked at correlations between OMRs and income per capita, population size, tertiary supply and demand, development status, language, and other indicators.

That analysis showed that OMRs remain large in countries that have less tertiary training capacity even after controlling for country differences in tertiary demand, population size, GDP per capita and developed country status. The analysis also showed that countries with populations below two million were particularly prone to have high OMRs if they had limited tertiary capacity.

Other research on small states shows that it is difficult for them to achieve economies of scale because they have limited human capital and revenue available to invest in education and other development sectors.

OMRs also correlated positively with GDP per capita (purchasing power adjusted) and developed country status. These anomalous findings reflect the inclusion in UNESCO annual statistics of students from Western European and North American countries who go abroad for a semester or year but then complete their degrees at home. Numbers of study abroad students are on the increase in the US and other countries.

Stemming brain drain

The study concluded that while China and India do have the largest numbers of students abroad, they have relatively low OMRs, 1.9% and 0.7%, respectively. Most Chinese and Indian tertiary students study at home, which indicates that outbound mobility is a relatively minor factor in the tertiary systems of their countries.

Moreover, both China and India are investing heavily in their tertiary education systems and starting to become hubs for students from other Asian countries.

Countries with large OMRs, in contrast, have low tertiary capacity at home. Low tertiary capacity in most of Africa accounts for why OMRs are large for most countries in that region but, at the same time, why the total numbers of African students abroad are small compared to other regions.

Given that OMRs are highly correlated with skilled emigration, which often starts because non-return rates are high for nationals who study abroad, African countries could stem their brain drain losses by taking steps to expand and strengthen their tertiary education systems.

Dr Mary Kritz is a senior researcher at Cornell University, USA.