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, 2020[12]). The needs of increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies have increased the global demand for tertiary education, while increasing wealth in emerging economies has prompted the children of the growing middle classes to seek educational opportunities abroad. Simultaneously, 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 rendering international study substantially more affordable and accessible than it was previously.

The perceived quality of instruction abroad and the perceived value of host institutions are a key criteria for mobile students when selecting a study destination (Abbott and Silles, 2015[13]). The top destinations for internationally mobile students include a large number of top-ranked higher educational institutions. The dissemination of university league tables and other international university rankings has led to a growing awareness among students worldwide regarding the disparities in quality among tertiary education systems. 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, 2023[14]). Similarly, in 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. Many countries also operate funding programmes to support inward, outward or return mobility. While the conditions of migration may vary (e.g. short-term versus long-term settlement), pre-doctoral students and early-stage researchers, including both doctoral and postdoctoral candidates, are the primary beneficiaries of these programmes.

Many countries set higher fees for international students as this is less politically controversial than increasing tuition fees for national students and often constitutes an important revenue stream for higher educational institutions. In some countries, international students in public universities pay twice as much for their tuition as national students, attracted by the perceived quality of the education and potential labour-market prospects in their host country. However, the presence of significant disparities in tuition fees between national and international students could potentially pose a concern in the event of funding shortages for educational opportunities. In contrast, some countries 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 (OECD, 2022[7]).

In 2021, 7% of students enrolled in tertiary level programmes held outside their home country, on average across OECD countries. Luxembourg has the highest share of mobile students at 49% due to recently promoted university system (Box B6.2). It was followed by Australia with 22% of mobile students. However, less than 2% of students in Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, and India are internationally mobile.

Moreover, mobility patterns vary by level of education. As students progress to more advanced levels of education, they are more likely to study abroad. Short-cycle tertiary programmes typically focus on specialised vocational training and tend to have a more localized appeal, which may result in fewer students opting to pursue studies abroad. Conversely, institutions of higher tertiary levels often have more international recognition, a wider range of academic programmes and research opportunities, rendering them attractive destinations for international students (Box B6.1.).

The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on international student migration in many OECD countries. Many countries implemented travel restrictions and border closures to limit the spread of the virus. The health crisis made it more difficult for international students to complete the administrative procedures necessary to enrol in a tertiary institution abroad and to travel to that country to take up their studies. Most OECD countries closed their national borders – with exceptions for some groups – in an effort to contain the spread of the virus in their territory, and many universities were also physically closed for periods during the pandemic (EMN and OECD, 2020[16]). Surprisingly, the total share of mobile students across the OECD has been stable between 2019 and 2021. The share of mobile students increased the most in Latvia and Slovenia, by more than 2 percentage points over the period 2019-21 (Table B6.1).

However, in a few countries the share of international students decreased substantially. In Australia, it fell from 28% of all tertiary students to 22% between 2019 and 2021, while in New Zealand, it fell from 21% to 12%. In both countries, most of the decline took place between 2020 and 2021, dropping by 4 percentage points in Australia and 5 percentage points in New Zealand (Table B6.1). Australia and New Zealand are among the countries in the southern hemisphere where the start of the 2020 school year (equivalent to 2019/20 for countries in the northern hemisphere) occurred at the start of the pandemic, and thus had a major impact on the arrival of mobile students. Indeed, many of the students who arrived in September 2019 continued their studies remotely.

In other countries which started that academic year in 2019, many of the students who had arrived in September 2019 continued their studies remotely. Indeed, one of the measures taken by countries to reduce the impact of the pandemic on the mobility of international students was online learning. Technological measures have been put in place so that students were able to continue their studies remotely despite travel restrictions and border closures. The pandemic pushed countries to adapt quickly and improvements in online learning technology and platforms have been made. This has made it easier for international students to access course materials, interact with their peers and communicate with their instructors (UNESCO, 2021[17]).

Another measure implemented during the health crisis was psychological support for students. Mobility restrictions and closure of social spaces resulting from the pandemic had a significant impact on the mental health of international students. Even under normal circumstances, international students were more likely to suffer from mental disorders (e.g. depression), struggle with the local medical system and be less motivated to seek psychological service than their domestic peers (Brunsting et al., 2023[18]). The pandemic has increased feelings of loneliness and international students’ anxieties about the future and their financial difficulties. In response to this emerging stress, most countries, including Germany for example, have put measures in place to communicate with international students about their health and well-being (Baer and Martel, 2020[19]).

Data on international student flows illustrate the strength of proximity factors, such as language, historical ties, geographical distance, bilateral relationships and political framework conditions (e.g.  the European Higher Education Area) as key determinants for mobility. In the majority of countries, student mobility occurs within the same region: 20% of international students come from neighbouring countries (Table B6.1).

Students from Asia form the largest group of international students enrolled in OECD tertiary education programmes at all levels, accounting for 57% of all mobile students in OECD countries in 2021. Other Asian countries are the main source of international enrolment in Asia: 95% of mobile students in Japan and Korea came from the Asian continent, while in Indonesia, 86% of mobile students were Asian in 2021. They are also very present in countries close to Asia, such as Australia and New Zealand, where they account for over three-quarters of international mobility. However, international students from Asia remain a minority in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. They accounted for 2% or less in Argentina, Chile and Colombia (Figure B6.2).

The second major region of origin of international students is Europe, with European international students making up 22% of all mobile students enrolled in OECD countries (Figure B6.2). European students represent 42% of all international students in Europe, compared with 27% in Asia, 16% in Africa and 7% in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is partly explained by the popularity of the Erasmus student exchange programme within the European Union. At least 8 out of 10 mobile students in Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia come from other European countries (Figure B6.2).

Among OECD and partner countries, students from African countries only make up the majority of mobile students in South Africa, where 84% of mobile students come from other African countries, but they make up just over 3 out of 10 mobile students in Portugal and around 5 out of 10 in France. This could be the result of the colonial past of the latter two countries and the scholarships and financial aid provided to African students, but also the language of study: Portuguese is the official language in African countries such as Angola, Cape Verde and Mozambique, while French is the official language in Benin, Burkina Faso and Morocco. Student flows from Latin America and the Caribbean highlight the importance of proximity, as they make up the majority of mobile students in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica. More than 85% of international students in these countries are from Latin America and the Caribbean. They also highlight the importance of the language of study: more than 40% of mobile students in Portugal and Spain come from this region (Figure B6.2).

However, proximity is not always a criterion for mobility for international students. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States for example, the majority of international students do not come from their home region, with more than 6 out of 10 mobile students coming from Asia (Figure B6.2). English is the lingua franca of the globalised world, used by one in four people worldwide (Sharifian, 2013[20]). Therefore, it is not surprising that English-speaking countries are the most attractive destinations for mobile students.

Fields of study are a key consideration for students choosing to pursue a tertiary degree abroad and, across OECD countries, the distribution of national and mobile students by fields of study can differ considerably (Figure B6.3). 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 15% of national students. In Australia, for instance, 25% of national students were studying in the health field compared to only 13% of international students (Figure B6.3). Some countries devote more resources to research in certain fields and therefore benefit from strong international recognition, particularly at higher levels of tertiary education. Some programmes may prepare for jobs where students’ career prospects do not depend on studying abroad or at a good university. Other programmes might only prepare students for jobs in the host country (e.g. for lawyers or accountants who have to know national law). They are then less attractive for students who are expecting to return to their home country or another country.

In contrast, internationally mobile students are more likely to enrol in STEM-related fields than national students in total across the OECD: 32% of mobile students chose a STEM subject, compared to 24% of national students. In Germany, Sweden and Türkiye, the difference between international and national students enrolled in STEM is more than 16 percentage points (Table B6.3). However, in certain disciplines, such as arts and humanities, the proportion of national and mobile students can be roughly equivalent. On average across OECD countries, around 12% of international and national students alike enrol in the art and humanities field (Figure 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. Therefore, for student mobility and bilateral comparisons, interpretations of data based on the concept of foreign students should be made with caution.

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 (OECD, 2023[11]), Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes, (

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[21]).

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 see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[21]) and Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes (OECD, 2023[11]).

Data refer to the 2020/21 academic year and are based on the UNESCO-Institute of Statistics (UIS)/OECD/Eurostat data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2022. Data for some countries may have a different reference year. For more information see Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes (OECD, 2023[11]).

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 periods not covered by OECD statistics (2005 and 2010-21).


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