Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students

Where do students go to study? Where do they come from? UIS data on the mobility of students shed light on the shifting demand for higher education, particularly in the developing world.




To explore the data select a country from the menu, or click on the map.

As demand for tertiary education rises, mobile students explore new destinations

The number of students pursuing studies abroad continues to surge as higher education institutions around the world vie for the best and brightest minds. But there is growing competition for students from emerging regional destinations that may offer more affordable and culturally-relevant programmes of study.

The rise in internationally mobile students* reflects growing university enrolment around the world. In 2013, over 4.1 million students went abroad to study, up from 2 million in 2000, representing 1.8% of all tertiary enrolments or 2 in 100 students globally.

Central Asia, home to the most mobile student population, has experienced a steady rise in the number of students studying abroad. This group grew from 67,300 in 2003 to 165,542 in 2013, with the outbound mobility ratio more than doubling from 3.5% to 7.6%. These figures suggest that domestic tertiary enrolment has not kept pace with the growing demand for higher education.

In contrast, students from sub-Saharan Africa, who are the second most mobile, are staying closer to home. According to the latest data, 264,774 students studied abroad in 2013, up from 204,900 in 2003. But, in this period the outbound mobility ratio in the region dropped from 6% in to 4.0%. The shift suggests that domestic higher education systems are expanding steadily.

Three regions have relatively low outbound mobility ratios: South and West Asia, where 1.0% of tertiary students studied abroad), Latin America and the Caribbean (0.9%), and North America (0.5%).

Regional hubs attracting a greater share of the global student population

While traditional destination countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, remain strong magnets for students seeking a high-quality education, new destination countries and regional hubs are competing for a share of the revenue and intellectual capital of internationally mobile students.

In 2013, six destination countries hosted nearly one-half of total mobile students: the United States (hosting 19% of global internationally mobile students), United Kingdom (10%), Australia (6%), France (6%), and Germany (5%) and Russian Federation (3%). But the top five also saw their share of international enrolment decline from 56% in 2000 to 50% in 2013.

Australia and Japan, traditional destinations in East Asia and the Pacific, are rivaled by newcomers China, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and New Zealand, which hosted 7% of the global share of mobile students in 2013.

In the Arab States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are making efforts to recruit students from abroad. These three countries hosted 4% of the global share of mobile students.

More students staying closer to home

Regional hubs not only attract a share of the global population of mobile students but are becoming favored destinations for students within regions. Lower travel costs and cultural familiarity are part of the appeal.

In the Arab States, the share of mobile students studying within the region increased from 12% to 30% between 1999 and 2013. The increase in Central and Eastern Europe is from 25% to 40%, and that in sub-Saharan Africa is from 18% to 22%.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) now outpace the United Kingdom in attracting students from the Arab States and both have become the third most popular destination (followed by France, the United States) for students from the region.

In some countries there are more studying abroad than at home**

In four microstates countries with data, more than one-half of students go abroad to study. In Luxembourg, for example, where 19% of the population of tertiary education age was enrolled in its domestic higher education system in 2012, with another 25% of its tertiary education population studied abroad.

Quick Facts

Top 10 destination countries:

United States (19% of total mobile students)
United Kingdom (10%)
Australia (6%)
France (6)
Germany (5%)
Russian Federation (3%)
Japan (3%)
Canada (3%)
China (2%)
Italy (2%)

Top 10 countries of origin of mobile students:

China (712,157 students studying abroad)
India (181,872)
Germany (119,123)
Republic of Korea (116,942)
France (84,059)
Saudi Arabia (73,548)
United States (60,292)
Malaysia (56,260)
Viet Nam (53,546)
Nigeria (52,066)

Regions that host the largest number of mobile students:
North America and Western Europe (57% of total mobile students )
East Asia and the Pacific (19%)
Central and Eastern Europe (10%)

Countries and territories that have more students studying abroad than at home:
San Marino

For more statistics on students flows into and out of more than 100 countries, please visit the UIS Data Centre.

* The term “internationally mobile students” refers to students who have physically crossed an international border between two countries with the objective to participate in educational activities in the country of destination, where the country of destination of a given student is different from their country of origin”.

The country of origin can be defined in several different ways (e.g. based on usual residence, citizenship or the country in which specific educational qualifications have been obtained).  UNESCO, OECD and Eurostat have agreed that for measuring international mobility in education, the preferred definition should be based on students’ education prior to entering tertiary education. Where countries are unable to report data according to this definition, they can use the country of usual or permanent residence to determine students’ country of origin. Where this too is not possible and no other suitable measure exists, students’ country of citizenship can be used as a last resort.

By comparison, foreign students are students who do not have citizenship in the destination (host) country.

Data presented here are drawn from the UIS, as well as the OECD and Eurostat data collections on internationally mobile students. These data cover only students who pursue a higher education degree or diploma outside their country of origin (so-called “degree mobility”) and exclude students who are under short-term, for-credit study and exchange programmes that last less than a full academic year (so-called “credit mobility”).

**Data on the number of outbound mobile students have limitations. When host countries do not specify the country of origin of mobile students, the number of students from a given country studying abroad is underreported. The problem is magnified when countries that host a large number of students from abroad, such as China, Lebanon, Singapore and Uganda, do not report where these students come from.

Published on 03/02/2016

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