The numbers of internationally mobile students are increasing and destinations diversifying. “Internationally mobile students” typically hold a non-resident visa status (sometimes called a student’s visa) to pursue a tertiary degree (or higher) in the destination country. These individuals are also called “degree-mobile students”, to emphasize the fact that they would be granted a foreign degree, and to distinguish them from “credit-mobile students” on short exchange or study-abroad trips.
“An internationally mobile student is an individual who has physically crossed an international border between two countries with the objective to participate in educational activities in a destination country, where the destination country is different from his or her country of origin.” (UNESCO, 2015)
There are many overlapping definitions of “international students.” Since 2015, UNESCO, OECD and EUROSTAT, the European Union’s statistical office, have agreed upon this definition of “internationally mobile students.”
This definition captures the most important group of international students: those in a foreign country for education purpose (UNESCO, 2015). This definition also focuses on students who are enrolled for a tertiary degree (or higher), therefore the length of stay is typically more than one year, and up to 7 years.
Internationally mobile students are different from two other common definitions of international students, namely “foreign students” and “credit-mobile students.”
- Foreign students - refers to non-citizens who are currently enrolled in higher education degree courses. This definition does not distinguish between students holding non-resident visas and those with permanent resident status. The former usually arrive and stay independently, while the latter usually migrate because their parents moved, making them 1.5-generation immigrants.
- Credit-mobile students - refers to “study-abroad” or exchange students, such as those in the EU’s Erasmus programme. These students remain enrolled in their home countries while receiving a small number of credits from foreign institutions (Van Mol and Ekamper, 2016). Due to their fluid enrollment status, most statistics on international students do not include credit-mobile students.
While the agreed-upon definition of internationally mobile students has been used since 2015, data on international students reflect the long-standing differences between the three definitions.
In 2017, there were over 5.3 million international students, up from 2 million in 2000 (UNESCO, 2019). More than half of these were enrolled in educational programmes in six countries: The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany and the Russian Federation. Prominent sending countries of international students include China, India, Germany, South Korea, Nigeria, France, Saudi Arabia and several Central Asian countries (ibid.).
The volume of official development assistance flows for scholarships in 2016 stood at USD 1229 million (UNDESA, 2018). This data can be used to monitor SDG commitments on student mobility, by measuring money spent on global scholarships.
Studies of internationally mobile students tend to focus on the conditions (push and pull factors) that motivate students to study overseas; but policymakers are also interested in international students because they can become highly skilled immigrants in the future.
UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS) provides the most comprehensive data to date on international student inbound and outbound flows for more than 100 countries, which could be combined into a bilateral database of international student flows. Countries, by responding to an annual UIS questionnaire, report the number of internationally mobile students they are hosting and information on the students’ countries of origin. Annual data are available from 1999 to 2016.
OECD provides the number of international students from various origins who are enrolled in each OECD country. This data source is available from 1998 to 2012. Between 2003 and 2012, the reported number can be further disaggregated into “non-citizen” students and “non-resident” students. The latter category aligns more closely with UIS’s definition of internationally mobile students.
Project Atlas - While UIS and the OECD rely on reports from destination countries, Project Atlas partners with country-specific data providers to obtain both inbound and outbound flows. The data are available from 2005 to 2016, covering 25 countries. It is important to note that the number reported by Project Atlas includes exchange and study-abroad students, and as such, the number is likely higher than those reported by UIS or OECD.
Prominent destination countries that host a large share of international students, such as the United States, are increasingly better at maintaining data on international students. These data could provide further breakdowns of international students by sex or age. Such data might be requested from relevant statistical agencies. The United States, for instance, maintains the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) database which contains detailed records of international student visas from 2001 to present.
Many studies of international students rely on surveys of potential students to understand their motivations for studying overseas (e.g., Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002), and surveys of current international students to examine their intentions to stay or to leave after graduation (e.g. Han et al., 2015). These surveys typically lack a sampling frame, and therefore could not be treated as representative samples.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Includes many origin and destination countries
Some numbers are indirect estimates
Includes many origin countries
Includes only OECD destination countries
Data prior to 2003 count all non-citizen students. This category is broader than internationally mobile students
Includes both inbound and outbound student flow estimates
Contains information for only 25 countries
Data are not official statistics. Sometimes data comes from a sample of schools, which might not be nationally representative
|Data from specific destination countries||
Includes other characteristics such as age, sex, city of origin
Difficult to obtain
|Surveys of potential or current international students||
Rich information provided by survey questionnaires
Lack sampling frame, therefore samples are typically not representative
|2015||Facts and Figures, Mobility in higher education.|
|2006||Globalisation and Internationalisation of Tertiary Education. Population Division, United Nations Secretariat.|
|Beine, M., R. Noël, and L. Ragot|
|2014||Determinants of the International Mobility of Students. Economics of Education Review 41:40–54.|
|Han, X., G. Stocking, M. Gebbie, and R. Appelbaum|
|2015||Will They Stay or Will They Go? International Graduate Students and Their Decisions to Stay or Leave the U.S. upon Graduation. PLOS ONE 10(3):e0118183.|
|Macready, C. and C. Tucker|
|2011||Who Goes Where and Why?: An Overview and Analysis of Global Educational Mobility. New York: Institute of International Education.|
|Mazzarol, T. and G. Soutar|
|2002||‘Push‐pull’ Factors Influencing International Student Destination Choice. International Journal of Educational Management 16(2):82–90.|
|2005||Academic Mobility and Immigration. Journal of Studies in International Education 9(3):196–228.|
|Van Mol, C. & Ekamper, P.|
|2016||Destination cities of European exchange students. Geografisk Tidsskrift - Danish Journal of Geography 116 (1): 85-91.|