Who benefits when international students pay higher tuition fees?

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

In 2014, over 3 million students in OECD countries – more than double the amount in 2000 – were studying outside their country of citizenship. International students go to study in countries with reputations for academic excellence; but they are frequently also seen as seeking economic and social opportunities in the host country.

As many countries seek to restrict immigration, international students are becoming a targeted population. One of the policies that aim to reduce the number of incoming international students is charging higher tuition fees for international students compared to national students (“national” meaning outside the European Economic Area [EEA] in the case of European countries). Countries also hold the view that national resources and taxpayers’ money should not be spent to subsidise international students, so they increasingly aim to charge the full tuition cost to international students. Some of the countries that have put themselves firmly in the market for international students in recent years also see fee-paying international students as an important source of revenue for their higher education sector.

The current Education Indicators in Focus brief, based on the most recent data on international student mobility and tuition fees published in Education at a Glance 2016, looks into the reforms differentiating tuition fees between national and international students. The majority of OECD countries still do not differentiate fees between the two categories, but a growing number of countries do. As the chart above shows, in some countries the differences are significant. In Australia, Austria, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, foreign students pay double or more the tuition fees charged to national students, on average, while Sweden and Denmark charge no fees to national students but ask international students to pay more or less the full cost of tuition.

It is well known that exporting education services has become an important economic activity in some countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Fee-paying international students generate a considerable revenue stream to higher education institutions; they also consume other goods and services and thus contribute to the host country’s economy. But to what extent do universities in these countries benefit from this source of income? There are no data available to make reliable estimates for a large group of countries; but for Australia and New Zealand, countries that vigorously market their higher education services, the income from fee-paying international students equals over one-quarter of the total expenditure on higher education. By contrast, in the United States, income from these students represents only 2.4% of total expenditure on higher education; in Canada, it represents only 8.2%. But it is interesting to see that in Denmark – a country that traditionally considers free higher education to be a right, but introduced tuition fees for non-EEA students in 2005 – the income generated by international students now equals 13.3% of total expenditure on higher education.

Universities are genuinely concerned about their place in the global scientific research and education system. They thus see the internationalisation of their institutions as part of a wider strategy. But at the same time, it is clear that in several countries fee-paying students generate welcome additional revenue at a time when public funding is insufficient to cover costs. As is evident from the political debate in several countries, this creates tensions between universities’ policies to defend their commercial interests on the one hand and governments’ restrictive immigration policies on the other.

These developments fundamentally alter the position and perception of international students. From being a desirable addition to the student population, a source of global relevance and diversity, they are now regarded as either cash-cows or scroungers of national resources, taking away benefits and opportunities from locals. It remains to be seen how these students will react to these developments. The current Education Indicators in Focus brief provides some evidence, based on observations in Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden, that introducing fees for international students did result in a drop in their numbers in subsequent years. International students are looking for the best education at a reasonable cost, balancing perceived academic excellence and reputation against cost and hospitality.

As long as higher education systems in emerging economies are not able to match growing demand with sufficient high-quality local supply, students will continue to cross borders to seek education opportunities. For destination countries with excellent higher education systems, international students offer a lot of benefits – but only if they are regarded as welcome additions to the student population, and not as cash cows or opportunistic free-riders.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 51: Tuition fees reforms and international mobility
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Podcast: International Tuition Fee Policies: An Interview with Gabriele Marconi
Follow the conversation on twitter: #OECDEAG

Join us on Edmodo

Chart source: OECD (2016), Education at a Glance Database, http://stats.oecd.org/.

Leave a Reply