OECD Factbook 2011-2012: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics
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branch Education
branch Outcomes
    branch How many students study abroad?

As national economies become more interconnected, governments and individuals are looking to higher education to broaden students' horizons. It is through the pursuit of high level studies in countries other than their own that students may expand their knowledge of other cultures and languages, and to better equip themselves in an increasingly globalised labour market. Some countries, particularly in the European Union, have established policies and schemes that promote such mobility to foster intercultural contacts and help build social networks.


Students are classified as “international” if they left their country of origin only for the purpose of study. Students are classified as “foreign” when they are not citizens of the country where they are enrolled. This includes some students who are permanent residents, albeit not citizens, of the countries in which they are studying as young people from immigrant families. Consequently, foreign graduation rates are not comparable with data on international graduation rates and are therefore presented separately.  


Data on international and foreign students refer to the academic year 2008/2009, based on data collected on education statistics, annually by the OECD. Additional data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics are also included. Data on the impact of international students on tertiary graduation rates are based on a special survey conducted by the OECD in December 2010.


Over the past three decades (particularly since the late 1990s) the number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship has risen dramatically, a more than fourfold increase (from 0.8 million in 1975 to almost 3.7 million in 2009) that exceeds that for global tertiary enrolment. This trend mirrors the globalisation of economies and societies, universities' expanded capacity and a substantial increase in global access to tertiary education .

Language as well as cultural considerations, quality of programmes, geographic proximity and similarity of education systems are determining factors driving student mobility. The destinations of international students highlight the attractiveness of specific education systems, whether because of their academic reputation or because of subsequent immigration opportunities.

Foreign students enrolled in G20 countries account for 83% of total foreign students, and students in the OECD area represent 77% of the total foreign students enrolled worldwide. European countries in the OECD were the destination for 38% of foreign students in 2009 followed by North American countries (23%). Despite the strong increase in absolute numbers, these proportions have remained stable during the last decade. In the OECD area, the number of foreign students in tertiary education is nearly three times as high as the number of national citizens enrolled abroad. In the 21 European countries who are OECD members there is a ratio of 2.6 foreign students per each citizen from an European country studying abroad.

More than 9 out of 10 OECD students enrol in another OECD country when pursuing tertiary studies outside their country of citizenship. Students from other G20 countries not in OECD also prefer to study in OECD countries, with 84% of them enroled in an OECD country. European citizens from OECD countries are also mostly enrolled in another European country (72%), while in North America a large majority of students are citizens of a country in a different region.

Tertiary-type A programmes (largely theory-based) are far more internationalised than tertiary-type B (shorter, and vocationally oriented) programmes in most OECD. The large presence of international students also has a significant impact on graduation rates in some countries. When international students are excluded, Australia's first time tertiary-type A graduation rate drops by 15 percentage points and New Zealand's rate drops by 9 percentage points. This effect is also evident in second-degree programmes, such as master's degrees, in Australia and the United Kingdom, where graduation rates drop by 11 and 7 percentage points, respectively, when international graduates are excluded.



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Evolution by region of destination in the number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship Figure in Excel
Evolution by region of destination in the
number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship
The impact of international/foreign students on graduation rate at tertiary-type A level Figure in Excel
The impact of international/foreign
students on graduation rate at tertiary-type A level