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

International student mobility has been expanding quite consistently in the past twenty years. In 2018, 5.6 million tertiary students worldwide had crossed a border to study, more than twice the number in 2005. 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 education 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[2]). The needs of increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies have spurred demand for tertiary education worldwide, while rising wealth in emerging economies has prompted the children of the growing middle classes to seek educational opportunities abroad. At the same time, economic factors (e.g. costs of international flights), technological factors (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 number of international and foreign tertiary students grew on average by 4.8% per year between 1998 and 2018. Even though OECD countries welcome the great majority of international and foreign students, the number of foreign students enrolled in non-OECD countries has been rising faster: their numbers have grown by 6.2% per year on average compared to 4.3% for international and foreign students in OECD countries. In 2018, foreign students enrolled in non-OECD countries represented about 30% of the global pool of internationally mobile students, compared to 23% in 1998 (Figure B6.1).

The growth rate of international or foreign students has fluctuated greatly in the past two decades, for both groups of students, however it has varied more for students from non-OECD countries than from OECD ones. Between 1998 and 2018, the annual growth rate of mobile students in non-OECD countries varied from 0.3% in 2004 to 19% in 2008. In contrast, the annual growth in mobile students in OECD countries fluctuated between 0.7% and 8% over the same period. However, the growth of international and foreign students in non-OECD countries has been slowing down in recent years. Since 2017, their yearly growth rate dropped below 3%, the lowest rate since 2013, and less than half the yearly growth rate of international and foreign students in OECD countries over this period (Figure B6.1).

Despite strong increases in the total number of international and foreign students worldwide, their relative concentration has remained fairly stable, increasing from 5% of all tertiary students in 2014 to 6% in 2018 in total across OECD countries. While their share increased in most OECD countries over this period, there are striking differences across countries: the share of international or foreign students increased by 6 percentage points or more in Australia and Estonia between 2014 and 2018, while it declined by 1 percentage point in Belgium and Greece. In about one-third of OECD countries, international students accounted for more than 10% of enrolled tertiary students in 2018. At least 20% of tertiary students in Australia, Luxembourg and New Zealand are international or foreign, compared to 2% or less in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Turkey (Table B6.1).

The pools and flows of mobile talent remain very 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 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 origin and destination countries (Guha, 1977[3]; UNESCO Bangkok, 2013[4]; Weisser, 2016[5]).

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[6]). Top destinations for internationally mobile students include a large number of top-ranked higher education 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, the ability to attract international students has become a criterion for assessing the performance and quality of institutions. 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[7]). 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[8]).

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 education 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. 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).

In total across OECD countries, 2% of national tertiary students were enrolled abroad in 2018. Iceland, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic have the highest share of national tertiary students enrolled abroad for their degree, reaching 76% in Luxembourg (Figure B6.2). Factors such as proximity, language, historical ties, geographical distance, bilateral relationships and political framework conditions (e.g. the European Higher Education Area) are key determinants in selecting a country in which to study (Abbott and Silles, 2016[6]). For example, the largest share of mobile students from the Slovak Republic study in the Czech Republic, those from Luxembourg study in Germany or Belgium, while those from Iceland are more likely to head to Denmark (Table B6.5, available on line).

Most countries are net “importers” of students, that is, they have more students coming into the country to study than leave to study abroad. In total across OECD countries in 2018, there were three international students for each national student studying abroad, but this ratio exceeds ten in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. In contrast, a number of countries are net “exporters” of students, that is, more students travel abroad to study than they receive. Chile, Colombia, Luxembourg and Mexico are among the OECD countries with the lowest ratios of international or foreign students to national student abroad. Among partner countries, China and India, who together are responsible for more than 30% of the pool of international students, are also net exporters of talent (Table B6.3).

English is the lingua franca of the globalised world, with one in four people using it worldwide (Sharifian, 2013[9]). Not surprisingly, English-speaking countries are the most attractive student destinations overall, with four countries receiving more than 40% of all internationally mobile students in OECD and partner countries. The United States is the top OECD destination country for international tertiary students. Of the 3.9 million international students in OECD countries, 987 000 are enrolled in programmes in the United States. Among the English-speaking countries, after the United States, the United Kingdom accounts for 452 000 international students, Australia 445 000 and Canada 225 000 (Table B6.1). As a destination country, the United States alone accounts for 18% of the global education market share. Australia and the United Kingdom each have 8% of the global market share, while Germany has 6% (Table B6.3).

The European Union is another key geographical area for inward mobility, with 1.7 million mobile students enrolled in the 23 OECD countries that are also members of the EU (EU23). After the United Kingdom and Germany, France is also a major EU host country, accounting for 4% of global international students. The Russian Federation is another major destination country outside of the EU, with 5% of global mobile students (Table B6.3).

Students from Asia form the largest group of international students enrolled in tertiary education programmes at all levels, totalling 57% of all mobile students across the OECD in 2018. In total over 30% of mobile students in OECD countries come from China and India. More than two-thirds of Chinese and Indian students are concentrated in only five countries: Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Europe is the next largest region of origin, with European international students making up 23% of all mobile students enrolled in OECD countries. European students prefer to stay in Europe, accounting for 40% of mobile students enrolled in the EU23 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 (Figure B6.3 and Table B6.4, available on line)

Among OECD and partner countries, students from African countries only make up the majority of mobile students in South Africa, where 80% of mobile students are from other African countries, although they account for more than 3 out of 10 mobile students in Portugal and Saudi Arabia and about 5 out of 10 in France. Student flows from Latin America and the Caribbean highlight the importance of proximity, as they make up the majority of mobile students in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. They also highlight the importance of the language of study: more than 40% of mobile students in Portugal and Spain come from this region. Finally, North American students represent more than 10% of international enrolment only in Iceland, Ireland, Israel and Mexico, while students from Oceania are a minority of international students in all OECD and partner countries, making up less than 1% of mobile students in OECD destination countries (Figure B6.3).

Students are more likely to travel abroad for more advanced education programmes. In all but a few countries, the share of international students enrolled in tertiary programmes increases gradually with education level. In total across OECD countries, international students account for 6% of total enrolment in tertiary programmes. International enrolment in bachelor’s or equivalent programmes remains relatively low (below 5% in nearly half of the countries for which data are available). However, a few countries have a more international profile at this level. In Australia, Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, 15% or more of students at bachelor’s level are international (Figure B6.4).

International enrolment increases significantly at master’s or equivalent level. In total across the OECD, 13% of students are international or foreign at this level. The proportion of incoming students at least doubles between bachelor’s and master’s levels in nearly two-thirds of OECD countries. Among countries with more than 1% international or foreign tertiary students, the share of international students in Spain and Sweden is at least four times higher at master’s than at bachelor’s level. Greece is the only country where the inflow of foreign students at master’s level is slightly lower than at bachelor’s level (Figure B6.4).

At doctoral or equivalent level, international students represent 22% of enrolled students. The countries with the highest shares are Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, which all have 40% or more of their doctoral students coming from abroad. In Luxembourg and Switzerland, there are more international students in doctoral programmes than national students (86% in Luxembourg and 56% in Switzerland). While most countries have higher shares of international students at doctoral than at master’s level, a number of countries show the opposite pattern. This is particularly striking in Australia (53% at master’s level and 34% at doctoral level) and Latvia (20% at master’s and 10% at doctoral level) (Figure B6.4 and Table B6.1).

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. In total across OECD countries, the distribution of fields among mobile students mirrors the distribution among national ones, with in both cases the largest share entering the broad field of business, administration and law, followed by engineering, manufacturing and construction. However, there are also notable exceptions. The field of social sciences, information and journalism attracts 12% of mobile students compared to 9% of national students in total. Similarly, the field of natural sciences, mathematics and statistics attracts 8% of mobile students compared to 5% of national ones. In contrast, internationally mobile students are less likely to enrol in the fields of education and health and welfare than national students in total across the OECD (Table B6.2).

There are also striking differences between countries, highlighting potential specialisations and the attractiveness in some countries for a given field of study. More than half of foreign students in the Slovak Republic entered a health and welfare programme, three times more than the share of national students. In Denmark, Germany and Turkey, the share of international or foreign students entering engineering, manufacturing or construction is 10 percentage points higher than the share among national students. Among countries with the largest share of mobile students, such as Australia, Luxembourg, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, business, administration and law is the most attractive field for international and foreign students (Table B6.2).

While women outnumber men among entrants and graduates from tertiary education, they are about as likely as men to travel abroad for a bachelor’s or master’s degree on average across OECD countries. However, they are less likely to do so to enrol in a doctoral programme: at doctoral level, the share of women among mobile students decreases to 43% on average (Figure B6.5).

Across OECD countries, the share of women among mobile students generally decreases with higher tertiary level, and the difference between the share of women among internationally mobile bachelor’s and doctoral students exceeds 15 percentage points in about a quarter of them. Only in Latvia is the share of women among mobile doctoral students higher than among mobile bachelor’s students. The fall in the share of women among mobile students tends to be more pronounced between master’s and doctoral programmes than between bachelor’s and master’s. While the share of women among mobile students decreases by 6 percentage points between master’s and doctoral levels in total across OECD countries, the drop is 15 percentage points or more in Israel, Korea and the Slovak Republic. In contrast, the share of women among mobile students across all three levels of education is very similar in Chile, Finland and the United States although gender parity is only achieved at all three levels in Chile (Figure B6.5).

In most countries, the share of women tends to be greater among mobile students enrolled in bachelor’s programmes than in any other degree. However the share of women among mobile students also displays the greatest variation across countries at bachelor’s level. While 49% of mobile bachelor’s students are women in total across OECD countries, this varies from close to 70% in Iceland to less than 30% in Latvia. In master’s programmes, the share varies across countries, although to a lesser extent than in bachelor’s programmes. In Korea and Slovenia, women account for more than 60% of mobile students in master’s programmes, the largest share across all OECD countries, but account for less than 40% in Turkey. At doctoral level, less than half of mobile students are women in all OECD countries except Chile (Figure B6.5).

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 criterion 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[18]).

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 and the count of foreign students is used instead. Enrolment numbers are computed using a snapshot method, i.e. counting enrolled students at a given period of time (e.g. 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 contributions of South-South exchanges to global brain circulation.

For more information, please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications (OECD, 2018[18]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (

Data refer to the academic year 2017/18 and are based on the UNESCO-UIS/OECD/EUROSTAT data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2019 (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 2010-18).


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

[2] 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, Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO, (accessed on 4 May 2020).

[14] European Comission (2014), The Erasmus Impact Study: Effects of Mobility on the Skills and Employability of Students and the Internationalisation of Higher Education Institutions, European Commission, (accessed on 12 May 2020).

[7] Eurydice (2020), Higher Education Funding in Finland | Eurydice, (accessed on 22 June 2020).

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

[10] Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2020), Flexibility in post-graduation work permit rules to help international students and Canadian post-secondary institutions -, (accessed on 20 May 2020).

[12] NCES (2019), Fast Facts: Distance Learning, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, (accessed on 5 May 2020).

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

[16] OECD (2019), International Migration Outlook 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris,

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

[15] OECD (2017), “Tuition fee reforms and international mobility”, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 51, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[17] OECD (2016), International Migration Outlook 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[9] Sharifian, F. (2013), “Globalisation and developing metacultural competence in learning English as an International Language”, Multilingual Education, Vol. 3/1, p. 7,

[11] UKCISA (2020), Coronavirus (Covid-19): Info for international students, UK Council for International Student Affairs, (accessed on 12 May 2020).

[1] UNESCO (2020), COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response, UNESCO website, (accessed on 13 May 2020).

[4] UNESCO Bangkok (2013), The International Mobility of Students in Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (accessed on 3 July 2018).

[5] 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,

[13] West, A. (2000), Reasons for Studying Abroad: A Survey of EU Students Studying in the UK, Education-line, Edinburgh.

Table B6.1 International and foreign student mobility in tertiary education (2010, 2014 and 2018)

Table B6.2 Distribution of national and international or foreign students by field of study (2018)

Table B6.3 Mobility patterns of foreign and international students (2018)

WEB Table B6.4 Distribution of international and foreign students, by country of origin (2018)

WEB Table B6.5 Distribution of international and foreign students, by country of destination (2018)


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