International Academic Mobility Continues to Grow Despite Economic Downturn
By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its annual Education at a Glance report in September, finding that while the global mobility of students continues to increase steadily, the U.S. share of international enrollments continues to decrease. The report collected and analyzed data for calendar year 2010 from the education systems of the 34 OECD member countries, in addition to other non-member G-20 countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
The Global Higher Education Enrollment Picture
Globally, there were 4.12 million students engaged in a higher education program outside their country of citizenship in 2010. This headline mobility figure represents growth of 410,000 students (11 percent) since 2009 (3.71 million), growth of 660,000 students since 2008 (19 percent), 1.136 million students since 2005 (38 percent), and a whopping 99 percent increase since the turn of the century when there were just over 2 million people studying outside their country of origin. Looking back to the 1975 origins of the OECD’s Education at a Glance time series, there were just 800,000 students enrolled in overseas degree programs worldwide.
The number of students in any kind of tertiary program worldwide – domestic or international – has also grown spectacularly in recent years. In 2010, there were 177 million students engaged in some form of formal tertiary education, an increase of 12 million students since 2009 (7 percent) and 77 million (77 percent) since 2000 (UNESCO – UIS). This represents significant growth versus the two years prior (3.3 & 3.6 percent respectively), and suggests that the entrenchment of the global economic crisis has encouraged more people to upgrade their skills, rather than face underemployment or unemployment.
As noted above, during that same time period between 2000 and 2010, the number of foreign students increased 99 percent from 2.1 million to 4.1 million, which according to the OECD means that the share of tertiary students who are foreign students worldwide grew by more than 10 percent in the first decade of the new century. Nonetheless, international students still only account for 2.3 percent of all tertiary students (versus 2.1 percent in 2000), suggesting that international academic mobility largely remains the preserve of the world’s academic and economic elites.
The OECD report notes that: “A significant portion of students coming from G20 non-OECD countries includes the better-performing students, natural candidates for public or private support, or students who have a relatively high socio-economic background. This implies that student mobility cannot only bring stature to tertiary institutions’ academic programs, but also economic benefits to the host country’s education systems.
“In the current economic context, shrinking support for scholarships and grants to support student mobility – as well as tightening budgets among individuals – may diminish the pace of student mobility. On the other hand, limited labor market opportunities in students’ countries of origin may lower the opportunity costs of studying abroad, and help increase student mobility.”
Comings and Goings
The top five receiving countries enrolled almost one in two of all of the world’s international students (48.9 percent) in 2010. The United States continues to dominate in terms of the absolute number of foreign tertiary students its universities and colleges enroll, with a 16.6 percent share of the 4.1 million students enrolled worldwide. However, in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, that share has dropped over 6 percentage points (23 percent in 2000). Between 2009 and 2010 alone, the U.S. share of international enrollments dropped from 18 percent to 16.6 percent, suggesting a strengthening of enrollments in both emerging study destinations and traditional competitor markets.
The United Kingdom continues to be the second most popular destination, with 13 percent of total international enrollments (versus 9.9 percent in 2009), followed by Australia with 6.6 percent (versus 7 percent in 2009), Germany with 6.4 percent (versus 7 percent in 2009), and France with 6.3 percent (versus 6.8 percent in 2009).
It is also interesting to note that much of the recent growth has come from non-traditional destinations. Since 2005, for example, foreign enrollments have doubled in Brazil, China, Estonia, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Korea, Luxembourg, Saudi Arabia, the Slovak Republic and Spain. In that same time period, foreign student numbers in France, Germany, Mexico and New Zealand grew by less than 10 percent. Emerging destinations in important developing economies like Brazil, China and Indonesia have the potential to drive future global mobility growth as marketing efforts and investments in educational infrastructure start to pay off, especially in regional markets.
In terms of sending nations and regions, 52.5 percent of international students were from an Asian country, with China (17 percent), India (5.9) and Korea (3.7) the three largest sources of internationally mobile students. Europe is the second largest regional source of international students (22.7 percent), followed by Africa (11.8 percent), with North American students making up just 2.7 percent of the world’s total international student body.
Among international students enrolled in OECD member countries, students from China represent easily the biggest group at 18.7 percent of all enrollments. Of those, 19.9 percent were studying in the United States, 13.8 percent in Australia, 13.6 percent in Japan, 9.8 percent in the UK, and 7.2 percent in Korea. Indian students made up 7 percent of total international enrollments in OECD countries in 2010, with 46 percent in the United States, 21 percent in the UK, and 9 percent in Australia.
Developed nations continue to attract foreign students, with 83 percent of all foreign students enrolled in a G20 country (or 77 percent in an OECD country), while continuing to send far fewer students overseas than they host. In 2012, the number of foreign students enrolled in OECD countries was almost three times the number of citizens from an OECD country studying abroad.
The OECD data point to a continuing and growing trend of regionalization in the mobility of students. While Europe continues to be the most popular region for students outside their home countries, with 41 percent of all international students (up from 38 percent in 2009), it should be noted that 76 percent of all international enrollments in EU countries come from other EU countries. North America is the second most popular region for foreign students, with 21 percent of the world’s internationally mobile students (down from 23 percent in 2009), but with a much lesser concentration of enrollments from neighboring countries.
This should come as no great surprise given the financial incentives EU students have for staying within the Union, both in terms of egalitarian tuition fees and available grants through long-standing mobility programs such as ERASMUS. In North America, there are far fewer incentives for students to study intra-regionally, and as such only 4.1 and 1.9 percent of international students in the United States come from Canada and Mexico respectively. And in Canada only 7.4 percent of international students come from the United States, with just 1.3 percent from Mexico.
While it is true that Asian students account for much of the recent growth in enrollments at universities and colleges in Europe and North America, there has also been significant growth in intra-Asian mobility. Korea and Japan, for example, enroll 94.5 and 93.2 percent of all international students from Asia. By contrast, the United States enrolls 70 percent of its student body from Asia, the U.K 50.5 percent, New Zealand 64.7 percent, Germany 33.1 percent, Canada 54.6 percent, France 21.8 percent, and Australia 79.8 percent.
Degree of Internationalization
Perhaps the most indicative measure of how much an education system has been internationalized is the ratio of international students to domestic students. In Luxembourg, the most internationalized education system in the OECD/G20 by this measure, fully 41.4 percent of the student body in 2010 was from outside the grand duchy. Australia had the second largest ratio of international students in 2010 at 21.2 percent, followed by the United Kingdom (16 percent), Austria (15.4 percent), Switzerland (15.4 percent) and New Zealand (14.2 percent).
Those countries are the only OECD members where international students make up 10 percent or more of total enrollments. However, at the research level, international enrollments account for more than 20 percent of the student body in Australia (28.7 percent), Austria (22.3 percent), France (42 percent), Canada (20.5 percent – 2008), Denmark (20.8 percent), Ireland (27.1 percent), Luxembourg (80.2 percent) New Zealand (37.2 percent), Sweden (24.2 percent), Switzerland (48.3 percent), the United Kingdom (41.7 percent) and the United States (27.8 percent).
There are numerous factors driving the current increase in student mobility. Primary among these is the skyrocketing demand for higher education and the inability of many of the world’s developing nations to meet that demand, especially as pertains to high quality supply. Much of this demand comes from dramatically increased levels of primary and secondary school completion rates in countries where recent budgetary allocations have been more focused at those levels than at the tertiary level.
Other factors at play include specific policies designed to increase mobility, with the EU’s ERASMUS program being the obvious example, alongside aggressive new overseas scholarship programs in countries like Saudi Arabia and Brazil which are designed to quickly increase those nations’ cadre of skilled professionals in particular disciplines. At the student-choice level, there is the perceived value of holding credentials from prestigious universities overseas, or simply the need among today’s students to prove their internationalization credentials in a world economy that continues to globalize at a rapid pace.
While the level of global interconnectedness continues to increase, the rate of global economic growth has hit something of a roadblock. The OECD’s 2010 data represent the second full year of indicators from the global economic recession, and not surprisingly they show that unemployment rates across the OECD rose regardless of educational attainment, but that higher levels of education resulted in less pain. In that two-year timeframe unemployment rates skyrocketed to 12.5 percent, from an already high 8.8 percent, for those without an upper secondary education, and from 4.9 percent to 7.6 percent for those with an upper secondary education. Those with a tertiary education were shielded somewhat from the worst affects of the recession, with unemployment rates rising to a relatively muted 4.7 percent in 2010 from 3.3 percent in 2008. At the same time, the financial benefits of having a tertiary education grew significantly compared to lower levels of educational attainment. In its report, the OECD points out that:
“In 2008, a man with higher education could expect to earn 58 percent more than his counterpart with no more than an upper secondary education, on average across OECD countries. By 2010, this premium increased to 67 percent. Similarly, in 2008, women with higher education had an average earnings premium of 54 percent compared to their upper secondary-educated peers. By 2010, this premium grew to 59 percent. This is no longer just a phenomenon of the industrialized world. Indeed, the country with the greatest earnings premium on higher education is now Brazil, where that advantage is about three times as high as on average across OECD countries.”
These employment statistics help explain the increased growth in overseas enrollments at a time of significant austerity in many corners of the world. Facing unemployment, or significant underemployment, people are looking for a place to ride out the recession while being proactive with regards to upgrading their skills. Where those opportunities don’t exist at home, students and their families are making the calculation that the expense of studying overseas is worth the investment given the longer-term potential for labor market pay-offs.
And on the flip side of the coin, countries and institutions are hungry for the influx of capital and innovation that skilled students bring, and as such are doing everything they can to attract them. Seizing upon the currently unchecked demand for cross-border education, countries and institutions are implementing specific and coordinated efforts to promote themselves to international students. National immigration policies are also playing a role. While some national policy choices have, or are, restricting student flow to certain countries, the emergent trend appears to be towards incentivizing foreign students, whether through easier visa procedures, more generous access to the labor market, or post-graduation residency options.