28.06.2009 -

Albert Motivans who heads Education Statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics based in Montreal, talks to EduInfo about global trends in student mobility


What are the main reasons that students move to study?
There are various ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that influence students’ decisions to study abroad. Some students are ‘pushed’ to study abroad because they don’t have similar opportunities outside of their home country to pursue tertiary studies or specific academic programmes. Others may have opportunities in their home country but seek to broaden their cultural and intellectual horizons.

One of the factors that can ‘pull’ students to pursue educational opportunities outside of their home countries is the draw of world-renowned academic institutions that tend to attract students from around the world. In addition, certain countries aim to attract and retain highly-skilled immigrants by making it easier to enter and remain in the host country. As well, some host institutions facing economic constraints actively recruit students from abroad to bring in additional tuition and fees (often at rates higher than those for local students).

Why is it important to know about how many students move and where?
From a policymaking perspective, it is useful to know what types of programmes attract mobile students. Essentially, these host countries are looking to better understand the preferences of mobile students. Are they more likely to go abroad for an undergraduate degree or for post-graduate studies? Are certain fields of study more popular than others?

On the other side, for countries where these students originate, this information helps policymakers better identify unmet demand in their own tertiary systems. Moreover, it allows them to monitor the skills acquired by their students abroad and to design labour market initiatives or efforts to reduce the impact of ‘brain drain’ at home.

Are there established patterns of movement? If so have these changed and how?
Yes, historically there are specific patterns of flow for mobile students. These flows are influenced by a range of factors, including proximity, common languages and other links that result from prior colonial rule and ongoing political ties. These factors add to the push and pull factors at the individual level.

An emerging trend that we have identified is that mobile students are more likely to stay within their region of origin. The region of Latin America and the Caribbean has seen its share of mobile students rise from 11 per cent in 1999 to 23 per cent in 2007. In East Asia and the Pacific, two out of every five mobile students (42 per cent) remained within the region in 2007 compared to 36 per cent in 1999. In keeping with the trend, Western Europe (79 per cent) and North America (39 per cent), which have the highest share of mobile students who remain in the same region, showed little change in comparison to 1999.

Another new trend is that mobile students are now expanding their range of destinations. In 1999, one in four mobile students went to the United States while, in 2007, this was true for only one in five students. In contrast, the following countries which have been popular destinations saw their shares of mobile students grow: Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and South Africa. Other countries that emerged as new popular destinations include China, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand.

The case in India is particularly illustrative of this trend. In 1999, more than 71 per cent of mobile students went to the United States while a small proportion went to the United Kingdom (8 per cent) and Australia (8 per cent). Since 1999, the absolute number of Indian mobile students has tripled while the proportion of students going to the United States has declined to 56 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of Indian students going to Australia, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom has increased.

On the sending side, China accounts for the greatest number of students abroad (almost 420,000). The other major countries of origin are: India, the Republic of Korea, Germany, Japan, France, the United States, Malaysia, Canada and the Russian Federation. These ten countries account for 38 per cent of the world’s mobile students among 153 host countries reporting data.

Overall, the United States hosts the largest number (600,000) and share (21 per cent) of the world’s mobile students followed by the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Germany, Japan, Canada, South Africa, the Russian Federation and Italy in that order. These 10 countries host 71 per cent of the world’s mobile students, with 62 per cent of them studying in the top six countries.

Is it possible to quantify how the internet and e-learning have impacted student mobility?
This issue is not addressed in the report. It is difficult to judge the impact but one can assume that it has an effect on student mobility trends. Certainly, distance education via e-learning has made an impact on the rapidly growing numbers of tertiary students in the world. At present however, in statistics, distance students are counted as students in the country of the education provider even if their situation may also represent a type of student mobility facilitated by new technologies.

What are the pros and cons of a student studying outside his or her home country?
On the pro side, a clear advantage is that demand unmet locally for higher education in general or specific educational programmes can be obtained in another country. This is a crucial connection to higher learning, especially in small states. At the individual level, studying abroad provides an opportunity to exchange ideas and ways of viewing the world. It also helps to forge cross-national links and academic networks that extend beyond borders.

On the con side, mobile students can often feel isolated and unprepared for the educational programme or different academic, linguistic or cultural expectations in a foreign country. While efforts are made to support students abroad, there is anecdotal evidence that host countries can fall short of the mark in this regard.

Is there a pattern as to what people want to study where? Are there any surprises here?
The fact that there are broad trends (e.g., students from the Latin America and the Caribbean region gravitate towards Business and Administration) suggests a link between student preferences and the needs of labour markets in sending countries (and perhaps host countries that retain tertiary graduates).

For instance, in the United States in 2007, a fairly high proportion of mobile students from South and West Asia (77 per cent) enrolled in post-graduate programmes (2nd+ degree at ISCED 5A or ISCED 6 level) yet only 30 per cent of mobile students from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean were enrolled in these programmes.

In terms of what people study globally, in 2007, almost one in four mobile students (23 per cent) was enrolled in Business and Administration programmes in countries reporting data. Science is the second most popular field, attracting 15 per cent of mobile student enrolment, followed by Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (14 per cent) and Humanities and Arts (14 per cent).

In the United States, as many as 53 per cent of mobile students from South and West Asia studied Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction or Mathematics and Computer Science programmes in 2007. In contrast, mobile students from Latin America and the Caribbean chose Business and Administration programmes (29 per cent). A similar proportion of mobile students from sub-Saharan Africa studied Business and Administration (26 per cent).

Are there patterns suggesting women study different subjects or in different countries than men?
First, it should be noted that the number of women mobile students has grown at a faster rate than for men. The estimated proportion of female mobile students rose from 46 per cent in 1999 to 49 per cent in 2007. However, a caveat should be noted – most countries do not report mobile students by sex. These estimates are based on a small group of countries at different levels of development that do report the breakdown.

Information is much more detailed for gender differences in participation and completion of tertiary studies as well as field of study. Although these generally show an improvement in the position of women globally, there are still clear divisions by field of study (i.e., women are underrepresented in fields such as Science and Engineering). Unfortunately, this information is not available for mobile students at present.

What can be done to encourage more women to study abroad?
This issue is a very broad and multi-faceted topic and, as such, is not addressed in the report.

How would you summarise the changes in cross-border student mobility since the last World Conference (1998)?
The headline stories are the sharp increase in the number of mobile students and the rapid growth in tertiary students globally since 1998. It is also interesting to see the changing patterns in where students choose to study and what subjects they prefer. Clearly, there is a growing diversity in the choices that students make.

It is also important to note that the information that is now available differs significantly from what was previously available. In the past, the information focused on the host countries’ perspectives and the market for tertiary students. While this is still of great interest to many countries, the current data reveals a wealth of information from the sending country perspective. For example, France counts how many students from Senegal pursue tertiary studies in France, but until now, information on where Senegalese students study across the world has not been widely available.

What will be the main use of this study?
One of the main purposes of this analysis is to show how comparative data can help inform key education policy issues – in this case, by providing a global picture of the provision of higher education. It aims to show how basic trends have changed since 1999 and where some of them may lead in the near future.

What are the limitations of data on mobile students?
There are a few limitations that need to be taken into account when looking at the data. For one, data gaps limit the generalisation of findings to represent all regions. Data on the origin of mobile students are not available in countries such as China and Egypt, which play an increasingly important role in hosting students from other countries. Information from private institutions and differences between women and men are also missing for many countries.

Another data issue relates to how mobile students are defined. Countries still use different criteria to report data on mobile students. The UIS defines internationally mobile students using the permanent residence and prior education criteria. Non-citizenship is also commonly used as a defining characteristic, especially in European Union (EU)/OECD countries, but for the purpose of international comparison, this approach should be reconsidered.

What is the UIS doing to improve data on mobile students?
To improve data on mobile students, the UIS has sought to advance the measurement agenda in different ways. One is by developing indicators that take into account the perspectives of both hosting and ‘sending’ countries. By going beyond simple headcounts, inbound and outbound mobility ratios enable one to compare the growth and distribution of mobile students with tertiary enrolment ratios in both the ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ countries.

Also, the Institute is working towards providing a more precise definition for the term “internationally mobile student”. Currently, the UIS defines internationally mobile students as those who study in a foreign country of which they are not a permanent resident. This marks a departure from the traditional understanding of ‘foreign students’, which is generally based on the criterion of citizenship. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of mobile students, the UIS – in conjunction with the OECD and EU – is also testing the introduction of the “prior education” criterion (i.e., students can be considered as mobile students if they obtained the entry qualification to their current level of study in another country. This is in addition to permanent residency and citizenship criteria.

Albert Motivans heads Education Statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics based in Montreal. He has led work in the use of comparative indicators to improve education and child welfare for over 20 years for UNESCO, UNICEF and the U.S. Census Bureau. He has published widely on education data and policy, especially in measuring and monitoring education quality and inequalities.

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