Who Counts What in the Top English-language Host Countries?

In the first of this two-part series, we take a look behind the mobility statistics reported by the top five English-language higher education receiving countries to see if their data are directly comparable. We outline which agencies are responsible for reporting mobility statistics, how they define international students, and what the latest data are showing.

For more on the problems associated with comparing academic mobility statistics please see this month’s feature article. In next month’s issue of WENR we will conclude this series with a look at mobility data from the top five receiving countries among non-English-language nations.


Australia Education International (AEI), a division of the Department of Education Science and Training, is the government body responsible for most facets of international academic activity into and out of Australia. This includes the tabulation of academic mobility statistics, with datasets on international enrollments provided both monthly and annually.

Definition of an International Student

International students in Australia are defined by AEI as those studying onshore only with visa subclasses 570 to 575. This excludes students on Australian-funded scholarships, as well as sponsorships or students undertaking study while in possession of other temporary visas. Data also exclude students with New Zealand citizenship because they do not require a visa to study in Australia.

Data & Sources

Australia’s annual headline number (543,898 in 2008) includes enrollments from primary school to university and everything in between, including short courses in the English language sector, which accounted for 23.1 percent of enrollments in 2008. The tertiary sector (Higher Ed & Vocational Education and Training [VET]) enrolled 358,231 international students (182,770 Higher Ed, 175,461 VET).

AEI enrollment data is derived from updates by education providers and by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). Due to the streaming nature of the incoming data, AEI updates previously released monthly data on an ongoing basis. An enrollment is considered a count of a student enrollment in a program of study and includes ongoing students, meaning possible double counts. AEI also counts “commencements” which is a count of new student enrollments in a discrete program of study.

The DIAC uses a database known as PRISMS to tabulate its data. The database provides information on enrollments for all sectors, enrollments by students on a visa, electronic confirmation of enrollments, and country of origin based on citizenship, not permanent residence. Data is initially uploaded to PRISMS by educational providers when an enrollment is offered to a prospective student before a visa is granted, and again when a student obtains and uses their visa to enter Australia and starts studying.

The DIAC updates PRISMS as students enter or leave Australia or change their visa or residence status. Providers also update PRISMS when students change programs or fail to comply with student visa requirements.

It is important to note that because the database counts program enrollments and not individuals, the AEI data does not represent a headcount of international students in Australia or the number of student visas issued, as a student that changes programs or moves from one sector to another (commonly VET or English Language to Higher Education) will be double counted in the same reference period. The actual number of individuals studying on a visa in Australia in 2008 was 435,263, more than 100,000 fewer than the headline enrollment number of 543,898.

While the total headline count includes any student on a study visa, the figures are further broken down in the AEI data reports by sector and field of study. The three biggest sectors for international enrollments are Higher Education, VET, and the English Language Sector (ELICOS); Schools and Other make up the remaining sectors. In 2008, enrollments in the higher education and VET sector totaled over 358,000.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics [1] (UIS) reported a much lower number for Australian international tertiary students in 2007 (211,500) in its 2009 Global Education Digest [2], while the Institute for International Education [3]’s (IIE) Atlas of Student Mobility [4] has the number pegged at 202,448.

According to email communications from officials at AEI, the Atlas number is a count of Higher Education (only) students studying in Australia – regardless of visa status and other exceptions not counted in the published AEI numbers (New Zealanders, overseas aid (AusAid) scholarship students and others). By contrast, the AEI data for 2007 show that there were 168,052 international students in Higher Education (177,760 enrollments) and 107,066 students in the VET sector (121,422 enrollments). The total count of international students in the tertiary sector was 275,118 (299,182 enrollments).

The OECD reported in the 2008 edition of Education at a Glance [5] that in 2006 Australia had a 6.3 percent share of the world’s 2.9 million internationally mobile students, representing a total of 182,700 international students.

The AEI data for 2008 data can be viewed at: http://aei.gov.au/AEI/MIP/Statistics/StudentEnrolmentAndVisaStatistics/2008/Default.htm [6]


Statistics Canada [7] receives data directly from all public universities and colleges in Canada and is the lead agency for reporting international enrollment data. However, there are a number of other sources that report statistics related to international student numbers, which result in conflicting and somewhat confusing data, demonstrating how difficult it can be to establish an accurate read on international student numbers.

Definition of an International Student

According to email communications from officials at Statistics Canada, the working definition of an international student in Canada includes:


The Statistics Canada definition, therefore, is essentially a count of both ‘international’ students and ‘foreign’ students as defined by the OECD.

For data submitted to the OECD for its Education at a Glance report, this is the working definition:

‘Foreign students’ are defined as temporary residents who have been approved by an immigration officer to study in Canada. Every ‘foreign student’ must have a student authorization, but they may also be in possession of other types of permits or authorizations. (Students do not need a study permit for courses of six months or less if they will finish the course within the period of stay authorized upon entry, which is usually six months.)

Data & Sources

For 2007, international-student numbers were derived from the following sources:

Statistics Canada: 79,962 (2006/07). This number comes directly from Statistics Canada and is a count of total international (public) university enrollments, as reported by university admissions departments. In addition, there were 29,280 college enrollments in 2005 (the last year for which data is available), bringing total tertiary enrollments to 109,242.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada [8] (CIC) pegs the number of entries and re-entries (not new visa issuances) for 2007 at 74,038. The CIC’s count for total ‘stock’ of foreign students in 2007 was 176,077. These numbers are based on the calendar year and a reflection of immigration statistics for all categories of students, compared to the data from Statistics Canada, which are based on the academic year and are a read of total university and college enrollments, as reported by universities and colleges.

The Canadian Bureau for International Education [9] (CBIE) reports that in 2008 there were 123,901 international students enrolled in Canada, according to data published via the Institute for International Education’s Atlas of Student Mobility. If this number is the same reported by Australian authorities, then it is a count of total higher education students (degree/university) in Canada regardless of visa status. According to Atlas, and presumably CBIE, an “international student” is defined thus:

A temporary resident who has been approved by an immigration officer to study in Canada. The study permit identifies the level of study and the length of time the individual may study in Canada. Students do not need a study permit for courses of six months or less if they will finish the course within the period of stay authorized upon entry, which is usually six months. Before June 28, 2002, students did not need a study permit for English and French as a second language courses of three months or less. Every foreign student must have a student authorization, but may also have been issued other types of permits or authorizations.

This definition suggests that the CBIE number includes short-program language students, whereas the Statistics Canada data (79,962) is a count of university students only.

Although the OECD does not offer absolute numbers by country, it does offer percentages as a share of its total 2.9 million globally mobile tertiary students. For 2006 (last year available), Canada’s share was pegged at 5.1%, which amounts to a total of 147,900 international tertiary students. However, the UIS reports that just 68,500 students were enrolled at Canadian tertiary institutions in 2007, which is a confusing number, when compared to the OECD number.

New Zealand

The government of New Zealand is responsible for the collection and dissemination of statistics related to international-student enrollments in New Zealand. Data is gathered in collaboration with institutions of education and various government ministries, including public data released by the Ministry of Education [10], Statistics New Zealand [11], and the Immigration Service of the Department of Labour [12]. International enrollment data [13] is made available through the Ministry of Education’s Education Counts [14] website.

Definition of an International Student

International students are defined by the government as those foreign nationals who travel to New Zealand for the purpose of education, and/or are currently studying on a student permit or domestic passport. Data thus exclude students who are permanent residents. (Data also exclude students with Australian citizenship).

Data & Sources

The Ministry’s data on international enrollments [15] within public and private tertiary education institutions summarizes those students enrolled at any time during the year in formal qualifications of more than a week in duration at the 35 public tertiary educational institutions and the 263 private providers that received Ministry of Education funding, or that enrolled students in receipt of student loans or student allowances. The statistics represent student numbers rather than enrollments (as in Australia), and include exchange, scholarship, and foreign fee-paying students.

The Ministry offers information disaggregated by origin, according to the key markets of North Asia, South-East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America, and the developing markets of Latin America and South Asia.  Further information is given on the estimated economic value-added to New Zealand from international education.

Since peaking in 2002 with 126,919 international enrollments, there has been a 28 percent decline in tertiary enrollments to 88,557 in 2008. Almost 41,000 of the total international enrollments were at Private Training Establishments, with just over 29,000 enrolling at Public Tertiary Education Institutions.

International students planning to enroll in programs that last more than three months must apply for a student visa before traveling to New Zealand. Students from a visa-free country may apply for a student permit in New Zealand. For courses of a three-month or shorter duration, non-New Zealand residents are not required to obtain a student visa or permit, though they will still require a temporary permit to be in New Zealand.

The Immigration Service [16] of the Department of Labour publishes monthly updates on the numbers of approved applications for student visas and permits. While this information source [17] provides a timely update on the origins of prospective international students, the data is not able to be matched with the actual enrollments by different providers, as this information is not collected by the Department of Labour. In addition, student visa and permit data can understate total student numbers, as many enrollees in English Language Providers are believed to be in New Zealand on visitor visas.

The number of study visas and permits issued by the Immigration services has, like total enrollments, been in decline since 2002. However, in 2007/08 there was a year-on-year increase suggesting that a turnaround in international enrollments may be imminent. In 2007/08, 69,193 people from outside New Zealand were approved to study in New Zealand. This was a 3 percent increase from 2006/07.

The Export Education Levy (EEL), which has been administered by the Ministry of Education since January 2003, is paid by all providers which enroll international fee-paying students.  Information on the national origins of enrollments has been collected from January 2006. A limitation of the EEL data is that it only records enrollments of international fee-paying students, and so does not include students who have domestic fees status with New Zealand state education providers. This group includes exchange students, and doctoral students who enrolled after 2005. The summary EEL data for the 2003 to 2008 calendar years is on the websites of Education Counts, and of the Education New Zealand Trust.

According to OECD numbers, New Zealand had a 2.3 percent share of the global market in internationally mobile students in 2006, which translates to a total of 66,700 enrollments.

United Kingdom

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) [18] is the primary organization responsible for international student data collection and dissemination. The statistics agency reports annually, by academic year, through its Students in Higher Education Institutions [19] publication. HESA collects data from individual universities and colleges for its annual publication. The most recently released data (May 2009), for academic year 2007/08, does not include those students whose mode of study was classified as “writing-up” or “sabbatical,” as it did for previous years, meaning data from the same publication from previous years is not directly comparable.

Definition of an International Student

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) sets governmental policies regarding data collection. For purposes of collection, international students are defined by their country of domicile, i.e., “the student’s permanent or home address prior to entry to the programme of study.” International students are those who are not UK-domiciled.

For data reported to the OECD, the following definition is used:

‘International students’ are defined as students who are not UK domiciled, and whose normal residence is either in countries which were European Union (EU) members as of 1 December of the reporting period (EU students) or whose normal residence prior to commencing their programs of study was outside the EU (non-EU students). Data thus exclude students who are permanent residents without British citizenship

Data & Sources

The total number of non-UK international students at colleges and universities for 2007/08 (August 1, 2007 to July 31, 2008), as reported to HESA, was 341,790. Adjusted figures (without students on sabbatical or writing-up) for 2006/07 and 2005/06 were 325,985 and 307,040 respectively. The figure for 2007/08, with the inclusion of students on sabbatical or writing-up, is 389,330, and this continues to be the headline number for most media outlets. The number of new international students in their first year grew by four percent overall in 2007/08 to just over 209,000.

HESA collected data from 166 UK institutions of higher education, but not from further education colleges. Based on its current methodology, HESA data is available from 2002-2003 onward.

In addition to those international students enrolled at institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, there were 156,025 students enrolled at UK institutions in 20 countries offshore, accounting for four fifths of the ‘offshore provision’ total (196,750). Offshore provision is the term used to describe study taking place entirely outside the UK, but where the students either are registered at a UK institution of higher education, or are registered with a partner organization in the country of study, but are working towards a qualification awarded by a UK institution of higher education.

In a note on offshore provision [20], HESA explains: “Government departments in the four administrations then decided that the financial and reputational significance of offshore provision to UK HEIs individually, and to the UK HE system as a whole, meant that for policy purposes it was necessary to have full coverage, and to achieve this they decided to use their powers under legislation to make that aggregate collection mandatory. In consequence, it is now possible for the first time to publish information on offshore provision.”

A study by the British Council [21] found that with the inclusion of nationality as a compulsory field in data submitted by universities and colleges to HESA there were a total of 513,570 foreign students studying at British universities and colleges – an increase of 124,240. This count of passports is in essence a count of what the OECD defines as “foreign students,” or non-citizens studying outside their country of citizenship, but not necessarily in a mobile manner. This would include foreign students domiciled in the UK for secondary school or foundation degrees, and applying to universities from a British address.

The figure reported to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for calendar year 2007 was 351,500. The OECD reported last year that the United Kingdom enrolled 11.3 percent of the 2.9 million internationally mobile tertiary students around the world, amounting to a total of 327,700.

United States

The Institute for International Education [3] (IIE) is the primary source for international enrollment statistics in the United States. The annual Open Doors [22] report from IIE includes data on place of origin; sources of financial support; fields of study; host institutions; academic level; rates of growth of the international student population in the United States; and data on U.S. students studying abroad.

Definition of an International Student

An international student is defined by IIE for its Open Doors report as anyone who is enrolled at an institution of higher education in the United States who is not a U.S. citizen, an immigrant (permanent resident), or a refugee. These may include holders of F (student) visas, J (exchange visitor) visas, H (temporary worker/trainee) visas, and M (vocational training) visas. Data thus exclude students who have long-term or permanent residency, but not citizenship.

Data & Sources

The data are obtained each year through surveys sent to over 2,800 accredited U.S. institutions of higher education that report on the international students enrolled at their colleges and universities. Funding comes in part through grants from the U.S. Department of State.

According to IIE, in academic year 2006/07 there were 582,984 international students in the U.S. tertiary system, and in 2007/08 that number grew to a record-high 623,805. The UNESCO institute for Statistics, which reports on calendar year statistics, reported 595,500 international students in 2007.

The National Center for Education Statistics [23] (NCES) also offers data on enrollments [24] of ‘nonresident aliens,’ which in the fall of 2007 (last available) totaled 626,383. This data is in line with IIE data, and shows that 337,322 of the nonresidents were enrolled at the undergraduate level, 280,268 at the graduate level, and 8,793 at the first-professional level.

For data specific to graduate enrollments, the Council of Graduate Schools [25] (CGS) conducts a three-part survey [26] annually (since 2004) to take stock of international applications, admissions and enrollments at U.S. graduate schools. The CGS defines an international student as “a person who is not a citizen, national, or permanent resident of the United States and is in this country on a student visa, or on a temporary basis, and does not have the legal right to remain indefinitely.”

The CGS data is not a reflection of total graduate enrollments from abroad, as it relies on survey responses, and typically receives a response rate in the one-third to one-half range, although the response rate from the bigger enrollers of international students is typically much higher. Owing to the nature of the survey methodology, absolute numbers are not reported, rather percentage increases or decreases from year to year, based on a comparison of data from reporting institutions. Data comparisons dating back further than a year are based on surveys from institutions that reported for the years in question. By way of example, a comparison of applications data from 2004 with current data would be based on the 84 institutions that reported to the Phase II survey in both 2004 and 2009.

The 2009 Phase II survey data show that U.S. graduate schools received an increasing number of applications from prospective international students for fall 2009, but the rate of increase continued to slow for the third year in a row. And, the rebound in international applications still was not large enough to reverse the declines that many institutions reported in 2004. Furthermore, the data show a decline in the initial offers of admission to prospective international students for fall 2009. This is the first decline in offers of admission since 2004.