Students – the migrants everyone wants

By Joris Ranchin and Cuauhtemoc Rebolledo-Gómez 
Staticians, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division 

International students are one of the fastest growing parts of the global education system. In just 20 years their numbers have more than doubled, and there are now over 4 million young people currently studying abroad to get their degree. Driven as much by a rise in tertiary education as by an increasingly globalised world, they are taking advantage of cheaper travel and communication costs to improve their language skills, get high-status qualifications – and give themselves a leg up in a competitive job market. But they’re not the only ones benefiting. The countries they are flocking to are cashing in while countries like China encourage their young people to travel abroad to study in order to bring their new skills home.

So who are these new students and where do they go? The latest edition of Education Indicators in Focus suggests that the global market in education is changing and that there’s increasing competition for these globetrotting young people.

Meet the international student
Your typical international student will be from Asia – most likely China, India or Korea, the top three countries of origin for foreign students. They are overwhelmingly likely to be studying in an OECD country, and preferably  an English-speaking one  – with the United States the number one destination, followed by the United Kingdom and Australia. They’ll probably be studying social sciences, business or the law, and increasingly they’ll be found at the very highest levels of education – one in five of those enrolled in advanced research programmes in the OECD are now international students, and more than one in four in some countries.

Price isn’t everything (but it helps)
With so much choice on offer, international students have to take many factors into account. A country’s reputation and the courses it offers matter – as does the cost. Fees have been rising, with the vast majority of countries charging their international students more than their domestic ones. High fees needn’t necessarily be a deterrent, especially if there are scholarships available or students can work to offset the cost. But at least some of America’s decline as a destination for international students may be due to high university fees, especially as a good quality degree is now on offer more cheaply elsewhere. Sweden is a prime example of this – after introducing tuition fees for students from outside Europe, it saw numbers plummet by more than half in a single year.

Language and laws are also key
There are other barriers – and bridges – to international students, the most important being language and immigration policies. Because English-speaking destinations are so popular, some non-English speaking countries have even taken to offering courses in English to attract more students. Some countries have changed their immigration laws to make it easier for students to come in, and to stay on once they’ve graduated – although others such as the United States and the United Kingdom are increasingly making it harder for international students to enter the country. As a result of these changes, some of the old certainties are changing. Destinations like Germany – and even the United States – are losing popularity, while new destinations – the Russian Federation, New Zealand, Korea – are rising fast.

A changing market in a changing world
Increasingly, international students are seen as an asset both for the countries and the institutions that host them. As well as their fees and their living expenses during the period of study – Canada, for instance, estimates that foreign students are a bigger earner than aluminium or aerospace – international students can benefit the economy long term if they stay on after their education. Patterns of travel reflect  broader migration patterns as students seek countries which already have ties with home, but they also reflect the way countries and institutions are competing to attract the brightest and the best. International students are changing themselves as they get experience of life abroad – but they’re also changing the world they live in.

For more information 
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:

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