Is international academic migration stimulating scientific research and innovation?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Higher education and academic research are among the most rapidly globalising systems. Today, around 5 million students study and do research in a country other than their own, attracted by the quality of overseas universities and willing to complement their education portfolio with international experience. Employers generally value the impact international education has on the skills and mind-set of graduates, and see international experience as indispensable for future global leaders.

But in an age when governments are increasingly concerned about rising levels of migration and are making their migration policies more stringent, international student mobility is also being scrutinised. Some countries impose stricter visa requirements or limitations on the time for international students to stay in the country. Others make it more difficult for graduates to stay and work in the country where they have studied. The prospect of losing the economic returns from international students and the income provided by fee-paying students does not seem to dissuade some governments from imposing stricter regulations on international students.

The recent Education Indicators in Focus brief looks in more detail at the international mobility of master’s and doctoral students. The mobility of doctoral students is of special concern because of its relevance to research policy. The chart above illustrates the close relationship between the number of international doctoral students in a country and the country’s commitment to research, as measured by spending on R&D in tertiary education. Countries with a large share of international doctoral students are also countries that invest a lot in research.

The chart does not suggest any causality. In fact, there are two ways to interpret the relationship. Countries with relatively high levels of investment in university research are probably well-integrated in global research networks. International collaboration naturally leads to an exchange of researchers. Favourable research climates, high levels of investment and the prospect of collaborating with researchers working at the cutting edge in their fields offer attractive opportunities for young doctoral researchers.

The global research landscape is diversifying. Next to the academic centres in the United States and the United Kingdom, new strongholds of global academic research are emerging in countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. These countries have opened up their universities for international researchers, and now 30%, 40% or even more than 50% of the doctoral students in these countries are of foreign origin.

But it could very well be that the causality also works in the other direction. Higher numbers of international researchers probably contribute to the global competiveness of academic research by strengthening integration in research networks or by facilitating international knowledge transfer. We can find support for this hypothesis in comparing our data on the percentage of international doctoral students with OECD data on the share of publications in the top 10% academic journals. The strong country-level correlation between both sets of data suggests that doctoral students have a positive impact on the quantity and quality of scientific research in the host country. In turn, this could prompt governments to increase their R&D spending on universities. Indirectly, international students then contribute to the innovation process and the development of a research-intensive knowledge economy in the host country.

The case of Switzerland is telling. A small country in the heart of Europe that is now fiercely debating migration policy, Switzerland has opened up its universities to international researchers and doctoral students, while at the same time increasing its R&D investment. Anyone who looks at international rankings has noticed that Switzerland is rising rapidly up the global academic hierarchy. Sweden and the Netherlands are close behind. This is no coincidence.

Current debates about international student mobility tend to overemphasise the benefits for the individual student or the financial returns for the host institution or host country. But it is also important to look into the wider benefits of academic migration. Laboratories and research centres at the frontier of their fields cannot do without strong integration in global networks and without international researchers. Progress in scientific research happens by sharing and confronting ideas, questioning established wisdom and looking at the world from different perspectives. International exchange and mobility of doctoral researchers is absolutely critical to this. Countries that curtail academic mobility risk paying a high price.

The internationalisation of doctoral and master’s studies, Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 39, by Gabriele Marconi.
L’internationalisation des études de doctorat et de master, Les indicateurs de l’éducation à la loupe, issue No. 39 (French Version).

Graph sources: OECD Education Database,, (accessed 21 January 2016), and OECD (2015a), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,, Table B1.2.

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