Indicator B6. What is the profile of internationally mobile students?

Many factors at the individual, institutional, national and global levels drive patterns of international student mobility. These include personal ambitions and aspirations for better employment prospects, a lack of high-quality higher educational institutions at home, the capacity of higher education institutions abroad to attract talent and government policies to encourage cross-border mobility for education (Bhandari, Robles and Farrugia, 2018[12]). The needs of increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies have spurred demand for tertiary education worldwide, while increasing wealth in emerging economies has prompted the children of the growing middle classes to seek educational opportunities abroad. At the same time, economic (e.g. costs of international flights), technological (e.g. the spread of the Internet and social media enabling contacts to be maintained across borders) and cultural factors (e.g. use of English as a common working and teaching language) have contributed to making international study substantially more affordable and easier to access than in the past.

The perceived quality of instruction abroad and the perceived value of host institutions are key criteria for international students when choosing where to study (Abbott and Silles, 2016[13]). The top destinations for internationally mobile students include a large number of top-ranked higher educational institutions. Students worldwide are increasingly aware of differences in quality among tertiary education systems, as university league tables and other international university rankings are widely disseminated. At the same time, institutions’ ability to attract international students has become a criterion for assessing their performance and quality. As governments seek to encourage the internationalisation of higher education, they have revised performance agreements with domestic institutions, for example by taking into account inflows of international students in university funding formulas. In Finland, for example, the internationalisation of higher education is one of the dimensions considered for the funding of tertiary institutions, along with quality and impact measures (Eurydice, 2020[14]). Similarly, in Estonia and Norway, the share of foreign or international students is an indicator used to determine the level of block grant funding allocated to tertiary institutions (OECD, 2019[15]).

Most countries have implemented reforms aiming to lower the barriers to migration of highly skilled individuals, beyond the purposes of education, and most countries operate funding programmes to support inward, outward or return mobility. While the conditions of migration differ (e.g. short-term versus long-term settlement), the most common target for these programmes are pre-doctoral students and early-stage researchers (both doctoral and postdoctoral).

Although setting appropriate tuition fees remains one of the most debated topics in education policy, setting higher fees for international students is less politically controversial and often constitutes an important revenue stream for higher educational institutions. In some countries, international students in public universities pay twice as much for tuition as national students, attracted by the perceived quality of the education and potential labour-market prospects in their host country. However, the existence of large gaps in tuition fees for national and international students may become a cause for concern if funding for places becomes an issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Russell Group collective of universities recently warned that universities in England are facing increasing deficits, which have led to fears that institutions may prioritise the enrolment of international students in order to cover their costs (Russell Group, 2022[16]).

In contrast, some countries may seek to promote international mobility within a region by reducing or eliminating fees. Students from the European Economic Area can study in any other country within this area, paying the same tuition fees as national students (see Indicator C5).

Gender differences among internationally mobile tertiary students are small across the OECD but, on average, a higher proportion of male students (7%) are internationally mobile than female students (6%). There are only a few countries in which there is a larger share of international students among women at tertiary level, and even in these the gender gaps are fairly small. In Belgium, Korea and the Netherlands, the share of female students who are internationally mobile is only higher than the share of male students by 1 to 2 percentage points. There are more pronounced gender differences in several countries where a higher proportion of male students are mobile. In Australia and Latvia, for example, the share of male students who are mobile is at least 10 percentage points higher than the share of female students (Figure B6.1).

Gender differences may be partly explained by the fact that mobile students tend to be more likely than national students to enrol in STEM-related programmes, which tend to enrol more male students than female ones (Myers and Griffin, 2019[17]). The predominance of mobile student enrolments in STEM fields in some countries, such as Germany, may contribute to the higher share of men among mobile students in these countries compared to others, such as the United Kingdom (Donkor et al., 2020[18]). However, many countries are making concerted efforts to attract more women to STEM-related fields, as well as to higher levels of education (see Indicator B4).

There may also be social and cultural reasons behind the gender differentials between mobile and national students, depending on the countries of origin and destination. In some contexts, men are much more likely than women to study abroad, which reflects differing societal expectations for women (Findlay, 2011[19]). Qualitative research suggests that in some patriarchal societies, men are more likely to be able to use the cultural capital from studying abroad to succeed in the labour market back home (Holloway, O’Hara and Pimlott-Wilson, 2012[20]).

In all but a few countries, the share of international students enrolled in tertiary programmes increases with the level of tertiary education. In total across OECD countries, international students account for 7% of total enrolment in tertiary programmes in 2020. International enrolment in bachelor’s or equivalent programmes remains relatively low (under 5% in nearly 40% of the countries for which data are available). However, a few countries have a more international profile at this level. In Australia, Austria, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom, 15% or more bachelor’s students are international (Figure B6.2).

International enrolment increases substantially at master’s or equivalent level. In total across the OECD, international students account for 14% of total enrolments at this level. The proportion of mobile students at least doubles between bachelor’s and master’s levels in nearly two-thirds of OECD countries. In Chile, Spain and Sweden, the share of mobile students at master’s level is at least four times higher than at bachelor’s level. Greece is the only OECD country where the share of mobile students at master’s level is slightly lower than at bachelor’s level (Figure B6.2).

At doctoral or equivalent level, mobile students represent 24% of enrolled students. The share of mobile doctoral students is roughly equal to that of national students in the Netherlands and New Zealand (Table B6.1). In Luxembourg and Switzerland, there are more international students in doctoral programmes than national students (89% in Luxembourg and 57% in Switzerland). Most countries have higher shares of mobile students at doctoral level than at master’s level. However, in Australia and Latvia, the share of international students at doctoral level is at least 15 percentage points lower than at master’s level (Figure B6.2).

Most OECD countries are net “importers” of students; that is, they have more students coming into the country to study than those leaving to study abroad. In total across OECD countries in 2020, there were four mobile students for each national student studying abroad, but this ratio exceeds ten in Australia and the United Kingdom. However, a number of countries are net “exporters” of students; that is, more students travel abroad to study than those coming in to study. Colombia, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic are among the OECD countries with the lowest ratios of mobile students to national students abroad, where there were less than 0.5 mobile students per national student abroad. Among partner countries, the People’s Republic of China and India, who together are responsible for more than 30% of the pool of mobile students, are also net exporters of students (Table B6.1).

The pools and flows of mobile talent remain very geographically concentrated worldwide, and mobility pathways are deeply rooted in historical patterns. Identifying the determinants of international student mobility is key to designing efficient policies to encourage the movement of skilled labour. Student migration is mainly driven by differentials in education capacity (a lack of educational facilities in the country of origin or the prestige of educational institutions in the country of destination). It is also driven by differences in the returns to or rewards for education and skills in the origin and destination countries (see Indicators A3 and A4). Economic factors include better economic performance in the host country, exchange rates, more affordable mobility (due to lower tuition fees or higher education subsidies, for instance) and higher-quality education in the host country. In addition, the decision to study abroad may be determined by non-economic factors, such as political stability or cultural and religious similarities between the origin and destination countries, as well as the desire to improve foreign language skills or gain a better understanding of other societies (Guha, 1977[26]; UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific, 2013[27]; Weisser, 2016[28]; Wu, 2014[5]).

English is the lingua franca of the globalised world, with one in four people using it worldwide (Sharifian, 2013[29]). Not surprisingly, English-speaking countries are the most attractive student destinations overall, For instance, the top five destination countries in the OECD are Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, four of those countries are English-speaking countries. Together, these four countries receive more than 35% of all internationally mobile students in OECD and partner countries. The United States is the top OECD destination country for mobile tertiary students. Of the 4.39 million internationally mobile students in OECD countries, 957 000 are enrolled in the United States. Among the English-speaking countries, after the United States, the United Kingdom accounts for 551 000 international students, Australia 458 000 and Canada 323 000. As a destination country, the United States alone takes 15% of the global education market share, i.e. 15% of all international students in the world enrolled in the United States, while Australia and the United Kingdom each have 7% and 9% of the global market share respectively, and Canada has 5%. Among non-English speaking countries, Germany (6%), France and China (both 4%) have substantial shares of the global market (Table B6.1).

International mobility patterns demonstrate the importance of cultural, linguistic and physical proximity to students’ choice of host country. For instance, the average share of Latin American international students in OECD countries is only 6% (Table B6.2). However, in Latin American OECD countries, students from the region accounted for over 75% of all mobile students on average, ranging from 43% in Mexico to 91% in Chile (Table B6.2). Similarly, in Austria, Colombia, Costa Rica, Greece, Indonesia, Poland and the Slovak Republic, more than 55% of international or mobile students in 2020 came from neighbouring countries (Table B6.2).

Students from Asia form the largest group of international students enrolled in tertiary education programmes at all levels, totalling 58% of all mobile students in OECD countries in 2020. In total, over 30% of mobile students in OECD countries come from China and India. Around two-thirds of Chinese and Indian students are concentrated in only four countries: Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Beyond these four, a substantial share of Chinese students are enrolled in Japanese programmes (9%), and Indian students in German programmes (5%). Europe is the next largest region of origin, with European international students making up 21% of all mobile students enrolled in OECD countries. European students prefer to stay in Europe, accounting for 41% of mobile students enrolled in the EU22 countries. At least 8 out of 10 mobile students in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia come from other European countries (Table B6.2, and Tables B6.5 and B6.6, available on line).

Fields of study are a key consideration for students choosing to pursue a tertiary degree abroad. Some countries devote more resources to research in certain fields and therefore benefit from strong international recognition, particularly at higher levels of tertiary education. Across OECD countries, the distribution of national and mobile students across fields of study differ considerably in education; health and welfare; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The field of education attracts only 3% of mobile students, compared to 7% of national students, while the field of health and welfare attracts 10% of mobile students compared to 14% of national students. In contrast, internationally mobile students are more likely to enrol in STEM-related fields than national students in total across the OECD: 31% of mobile students chose a STEM subject, but only 23% of national students (Table B6.3).

There are also striking differences between countries. For instance, in about one-third of OECD countries with available data, STEM-related fields are more popular among national students than among mobile students. This may imply that these countries are less attractive for international students wanting to specialise in these fields. However, the difference is small and does not exceed 6 percentage points in any of these countries except Korea, where the difference is 18 percentage points (Figure B6.3). Meanwhile, nearly 40% of all foreign students in the Slovak Republic entered a health and welfare programme, more than double of the share of national students who chose that field. In the field of education, there were only three countries in which mobile students were more likely to enrol in the field of education than their national peers, and even in those countries the difference was no more than 1 percentage point (Table B6.3).

On average, the distribution of mobile students across various fields of study did not change substantially between 2015 and 2020 across the OECD. In education and health and welfare, the share of mobile students enrolled remained constant at the OECD level, and the share of mobile students enrolled in STEM increased by only 2 percentage points, from 29% in 2015 to 31% in 2020 (Table B6.3). In the field of education, there was little variation across OECD countries, with 21 out of 35 countries with available data recording no change in the share of mobile students enrolled in education. However, there were considerable cross-country differences in health and welfare and STEM. The share of mobile students enrolled in health and welfare rose by over 5 percentage points in Lithuania and New Zealand between 2015 and 2020, but fell by 5 percentage points or more in Ireland, the Slovak Republic and Spain. Meanwhile, the share of mobile students enrolled in STEM rose by at least 9 percentage points in Latvia, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic in the same period, but fell by 6 percentage points in Korea (Table B6.3).

Foreign students are those who are not citizens of the country in which they are enrolled and where the data are collected. Although they are counted as internationally mobile, they may be long-term residents or even be born in the “host” country. While pragmatic and operational, this classification may be inappropriate for capturing student mobility because of differing national policies regarding the naturalisation of immigrants. For instance, Australia has a greater propensity than Switzerland to grant permanent residence to its immigrant populations. This implies that even when the proportion of foreign students in tertiary enrolment is similar for both countries, the proportion of international students in tertiary education will be smaller in Switzerland than in Australia. Therefore, for student mobility and bilateral comparisons, interpretations of data based on the concept of foreign students should be made with caution. In general, international students are a subset of foreign students.

International students are those who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study. The country of origin of a tertiary student is defined according to the criteria of “country of upper secondary education”, “country of prior education” or “country of usual residence” (see below). Depending on country-specific immigration legislation, mobility arrangements (such as the free mobility of individuals within the European Union and the European Economic Area) and data availability, international students may be defined as students who are not permanent or usual residents of their country of study, or alternatively as students who obtained their prior education in a different country.

Mobile students are students who are either international or foreign.

National students are students who are not internationally mobile. Their number is computed as the difference between the total number of students in each destination country and the number of international or foreign students.

The country of prior education is the country in which students obtained their upper secondary qualification (upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary completion with access to tertiary education programmes) or the qualification required to enrol in their current level of education. Where countries are unable to operationalise this definition, it is recommended that they use the country of usual or permanent residence to determine the country of origin. Where this too is not possible and no other suitable measure exists, the country of citizenship may be used.

Permanent or usual residence in the reporting country is defined according to national legislation. In practice, this means holding a student visa or permit, or electing a foreign country of domicile in the year prior to entering the education system of the country reporting the data.

Country-specific operational definitions of international students are indicated in the tables as well as in Annex 3 (

Defining and identifying mobile students, as well as their types of learning mobility, are a key challenge for developing international education statistics, since current international and national statistical systems only report domestic educational activities undertaken within national boundaries (OECD, 2018[30]).

Data on international and foreign students are therefore obtained from enrolments in their countries of destination. This is the same method used for collecting data on total enrolments, i.e. records of regularly enrolled students in an education programme. Students enrolled in countries that did not report to the OECD or to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics are not included and, for their countries of origin, the total number of national students enrolled abroad may be underestimated.

The total number of students enrolled abroad refers to the count of international students, unless data are not available, in which case the count of foreign students is used instead. Enrolment numbers are computed using a snapshot method, i.e. counting enrolled students at a specific day or period of the year.

This methodology has some limits. OECD international statistics on education tend to overlook the impact of distance and e-learning, especially fast-developing massively online open courses (MOOCs), students who commute from one country to another on a daily basis, and short-term exchange programmes that take place within an academic year and are therefore under the radar. Other concerns arise from the classification of students enrolled in foreign campuses and European schools in host countries’ student cohorts.

Current data for international students can only help track student flows involving OECD and partner countries as receiving countries. It is not possible to assess extra-OECD flows and, in particular, the contribution of South-South exchanges to global brain circulation.

For more information, please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018 (OECD, 2018[30]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (

Data refer to the 2019/20 academic year and are based on the UNESCO-UIS/OECD/Eurostat data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2021 (for details, see Annex 3 at: (

The UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) provided data 1) for Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa; 2) for all countries beyond the OECD and partner countries; and 3) for OECD countries for the period not covered by OECD statistics (2005 and 2010-20).


[13] Abbott, A. and M. Silles (2016), “Determinants of international student migration”, World Economy, Vol. 39/5, pp. 621-635,

[9] Appelt, S. et al. (2015), Which factors influence the international mobility of research scientists?, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[12] Bhandari, R., C. Robles and C. Farrugia (2018), “International higher education: Shifting mobilities, policy challenges, and new initiatives”, Background paper prepared for the 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (accessed on 7 June 2021).

[7] Canmac Economics (2020), Economic Impact of International Education in Canada - 2020 update. Final Report., (accessed on 7 July 2022).

[21] Council of the European Union (2011), Council Conclusions on the Modernisation of Higher Education, 3128th Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council Meeting, Brussels, 28 and 29 November 2011, Council of the European Union, Brussels.,

[2] Crossman, J. and M. Clarke (2010), “International experience and graduate employability: Stakeholder perceptions on the connection”, Higher Education, Vol. 59/5,

[18] Donkor, F. et al. (2020), “A user-centric design approach to understand international education in the contemporary world: Motivations and gender preferences for studying in Europe”, Journal of Research in International Education, Vol. 19/1, pp. 54-68,

[10] EMN/OECD (2020), “Impact of COVID-19 on international students in EU and OECD member states”, Inform, No. 2, European Migration Network, Brussels and OECD, Paris,

[22] Eurostat (2018), Learning Mobility Statistics, Eurostat Statistics Explained website, (accessed on 4 June 2022).

[14] Eurydice (2020), Finland: Higher Education Funding, Eurydice website, (accessed on 8 June 2021).

[19] Findlay, A. (2011), “An assessment of supply and demand-side theorizations of international student mobility”, International Migration, Vol. 49/2, pp. 162-190,

[24] Gabriels, W. and R. Benke-Aberg (2020), Student Exchanges in Times of Crisis: Research Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Student Exchanges in Europe, Erasmus Student Network,

[26] Guha, A. (1977), “Brain drain issue and indicators on brain-drain”, International Migration, Vol. 15/1, pp. 3-20,

[6] Halterbeck, M. and G. Conlon (2021), The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy, London Economics, (accessed on 1 July 2022).

[8] Hawthorne, L. (2008), The Growing Global Demand for Students as Skilled Migrants, Migration Policy Institute, Washington DC, (accessed on 7 July 2022).

[20] Holloway, S., S. O’Hara and H. Pimlott-Wilson (2012), “Educational mobility and the gendered geography of cultural capital: The case of international student flows between central Asia and the UK”, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 44/9,

[1] King, R. and G. Sondhi (2018), “International student migration: a comparison of UK and Indian students’ motivations for studying abroad”, Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol. 16/2,

[17] Myers, R. and A. Griffin (2019), “The geography of gender inequality in international higher education”, Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. 23/4,

[15] OECD (2019), Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance, Higher Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[30] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[11] QILT (2020), 2020 International Student Experience Survey, Quality Indicators of Teaching and Learning.

[25] Rannis (2020), Nordplus, The Nordic Council of Ministers,

[16] Russell Group (2022), A new funding package for high-quality education, Russell Group, (accessed on 7 July 2022).

[4] Sánchez, C., M. Fornerino and M. Zhang (2006), “Motivations and the intent to study abroad among U.S., French, and Chinese students”, Journal of Teaching in International Business, Vol. 18/1,

[29] Sharifian, F. (2013), “Globalisation and developing metacultural competence in learning English as an international language”, Multilingual Education, Vol. 3,

[27] UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific (2013), The International Mobility of Students in Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris and UNESCO Bangkok, (accessed on 7 June 2021).

[23] UNESCO-UIS/OECD/Eurostat (2018), UOE Data Collection on Formal Education: Manual on Concepts, Definitions and Classifications, UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Montreal, OECD, Paris and Eurostat, Brussels, (accessed on 4 June 2022).

[28] Weisser, R. (2016), “Internationally mobile students and their post-graduation migratory behaviour: An analysis of determinants of student mobility and retention rates in the EU”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 186, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[3] Wintre, M. et al. (2015), “Are International Undergraduate Students Emerging Adults? Motivations for Studying Abroad”, Emerging Adulthood, Vol. 3/4,

[5] Wu, Q. (2014), “Motivations and Decision-Making Processes of Mainland Chinese Students for Undertaking Master’s Programs Abroad”, Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. 18/5,

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

© OECD 2022

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at