3. International mobility of the highly skilled

Internationally mobile students enrolled in tertiary education, 2015
Total and breakdown by field of education

Source: OECD, based on OECD (2017), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. See chapter notes.


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In the United States, NSE & ICT subjects are pursued by less than one-quarter of domestic students, compared to nearly 70% of internationally mobile doctoral students.

International mobility among highly educated individuals at different stages of their personal development and professional careers constitutes a key driver of knowledge circulation worldwide. The United States attracts the largest number of international tertiary students (close to 1 million), followed by the United Kingdom with close to 400 000. The field distribution of international students is indicative of each country’s perceived strengths. For example, relatively high shares are found in Finland for ICTs, the United Kingdom for social sciences and humanities, Switzerland for the natural sciences and mathematics, and Germany for engineering.

At the doctorate level, international students in the OECD area are generally more attracted to the natural sciences, engineering and ICT (NSE & ICT) than their domestic counterparts. This is particularly the case for Canada, the United States and Switzerland.

The extent of international mobility after the completion of tertiary education is also significant in a number of cases. In several OECD countries, such as Canada and Israel, the share of the working-age population educated at tertiary level is higher among the foreign-born population than among the native-born. These countries often shape their immigration policies to attract highly skilled individuals. In the case of France, Germany, Japan, Italy and the United States, the native population exhibits higher or comparable educational attainment rates.


International students are students that have crossed borders expressly with the intention to study. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the OECD and Eurostat define international students as students who are not residents of their country of study or students who received their prior education in another country.

The natural sciences, engineering and ICT (NSE & ICT) correspond to specific fields in the International Standard Classification of Education ISCED-2013: 05 Natural sciences, mathematics and statistics; 06 Information and Communication Technologies; and 07 Engineering, manufacturing and construction.

Tertiary education comprises Levels 5 to 8 of the ISCED-2011 Levels classification. Highly educated individuals in immigrant and native-born populations have completed education at the tertiary level. Doctorate holders are individuals that have received an advanced research qualification at Level 8 of ISCED-2011.

International and domestic doctoral students in natural sciences, engineering and ICT (NSE & ICTs), 2015
Share of NSE & ICT students within each group by mobility status

Source: OECD calculations based on OECD Education Database, September 2017. See chapter notes.


Highly educated individuals in the working-age population, by place of birth, 2015
As a percentage of relevant group, 15-64 year-old population

Source: OECD calculations based on Eurostat Labour Force Survey and national sources, July 2017. See chapter notes.



The UNESCO-OECD-Eurostat (UOE) collection of education statistics is the primary source of data on tertiary enrolment and graduation by source and destination country. The concept of international students is more directly relevant for the analysis of student mobility. When data on international students are not available, data on foreign students are used to obtain a more complete picture.

The Database on Immigrants in OECD Countries provides the most comprehensive and comparative information on the characteristics of immigrants living in OECD countries. Its main data sources are population censuses and registers, complemented by labour force surveys, which are less precise for small populations. Since most censuses take place on a ten-year-cycle, timely data were not available to provide a detailed picture at the doctorate level of educational attainment.