Life Abroad
10 min

International Mobility: Students’ Flows and New Destinations

One of the most serious worries regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and higher education has been how it would change international student mobility.

Various research shows that the flow of international students will not dry out in the near future, and new destinations will appear on the ‘study abroad’ map.

There are several major trends in international student higher education that have been going for a while and are likely to continue in the future.

Emerging, developing countries consistently demonstrate high demand for higher education

According to UNESCO’s most recent data, in 2017 there were over 5.3 million international students in the world (2 million in 2000). The greater part of these were enrolled in six countries: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, and the Russian Federation. 

China, India, Germany, Republic of Korea, Nigeria, France, Saudi Arabia, and several Central Asian nations are among the countries sending most students to study abroad.

China is by a long shot the main wellspring of international students. In 2018, according to UNESCO, China sent almost a million students abroad (993,367), a third of which went to the USA (333,935). Other popular destinations for Chinese students are Australia (143,323), UK (107,813), Japan (84,101), Canada (70,877), Republic of Korea (51,345), Hong Kong, Germany, France, and New Zealand.

India as well is a significant sending country. In 2018, India was a source of r 375,055 international students. The most popular destinations are the USA (135,940), Australia (73,316), Canada (34,806), UK (19,599), Germany (15,473), and New Zealand (11,604).

Last year, students coming from India and China constituted almost half (47%) of all foreign students in the U.S.

Other Asian nations include Vietnam, from where the students also go to Australia and South Korea. However, Asia is not the only part of the world from which students travel to other countries to study. European countries, such as Germany, Netherlands, UK, Austria, and Switzerland, are also the major sources of students going abroad.

Students’ mobility can be related both to the county’s prestige as a study destination, the international flavor of its universities, and its immigration policies, as well as to social or linguistic ties between the sending and the receiving countries. A lot of students from France go to Quebec, Canada, students from former French colonies go to France, Brazilian students go to Portugal, and Slovakian students go to the Czech Republic (Slovakia is the other piece of what was some time ago Czechoslovakia).

The US is not a typical ‘study destination’ any more

Just before the coronavirus pandemic, in the year 2019-2020, about 1.1 million foreign students were enrolled in the U.S. universities, which was 20.000 less than the year before, following a time of steady development. The key factors of the decline, according to the experts, are the rising cost of U.S. higher education, high numbers of student visa delays and denials, and a difficult political environment for immigrants under the Trump administration, along with the expanded opportunities to study in other countries. 

In 2000, 59% of Indian international students were studying in the U.S., and by 2016, this share decreased to 45%.  Many students have chosen Australia, Canada, the UK, and various European nations instead of the U.S.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased this trend: many students’ plans were complicated by limited access to U.S. embassies and travel restrictions. In the fall 2020, the total number of foreign students in the USA (both physically present and studying online from abroad) decreased by 16% as compared to the year before. The number of new students enrolled into the American higher education institutions fell by 43%.

To help international students coming for their studies to the country, the U.S. Department of State announced that they are among those whose entry to the U.S. is “of national interest.” Students in China, Iran, India, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen area, the United Kingdom and Ireland qualify for a National Interest Exception. Universities are planning a strong recovery after the pandemic, with reevaluating scholarships and developing online learning; however, experts predict that there will be a continued decrease in the number of international student applications for the near future.

Interestingly, in the 2021 World University Rankings (for nations with at least 10 institutions in the ranking), the list of countries in the top 10 for median international student score does not include the United States: the list, on the other hand, contains  Australia, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Portugal.

The study destinations are diversifying

While the U.S. is losing its status of the ‘main’ study destination, other countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Czech Republic have become the major players on the higher education arena, offering programs in English, free language courses, and many other bonuses that the United States lack – such as free universal healthcare system.

Canada won a spot in the list of top study destinations. International students have been choosing this country because of the high quality of education, the country’s reputation as a tolerant society, affordable tuition fees of Canadian universities, and more relaxed visa rules compared to the U.S. In 2020, there were 530,540 international students at all levels of education: more than 60% of them plan to continue living in Canada, and almost all of them (96%) recommend Canada as a study destination. Indian students constitute the largest part of them and enjoy various immigration programs such as Student Direct Stream.

Meanwhile, Australia was gaining a lot of popularity as a study destination and became one of the favorite countries for Asians seeking high education, good quality of life, and career opportunities. The numbers of students steadily grew by 12.6%, 11.4%, and 10% in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively, with 758,000 international students enrolled in 2019. This made Australia the world’s second-most popular destination after the U.S. However, the measures of the Australian government during the Covid-19 pandemic, that banned entry from certain countries, left a sour feeling in many. International students were no exception: at the start of July, about 158,000 student visa holders were left outside Australia, including 17,008 students from India, second only to China (88,769). As a result, 210,000 fewer international students were enrolled in Australian universities in 2021 than would normally be expected, which dramatically reduced the revenues and led to the loss of 17,000 jobs in the education industry.

The UK, on the other hand, being a prominent study destination, attempted to create better visa conditions for students and graduates, to attract them into the country despite the pandemic. The UK government has recently introduced the new Graduate Immigration Route for international students, which is a post-study 2 or 3 year work visa. This will allow graduates of the UK universities to stay legally in the country after completing their studies. Moreover, the UK aims for Indians: recently the UK and India have inked a new migration cooperation: a program that would allow young Indian (18-30 years old) and British professionals to live and work in each other's nations. 

European universities have also managed to strengthen their positions during the pandemic. International student are attracted by affordable tuition fees (Norwegian public universities are still free, even for students coming from outside of the EU), many grants and scholarship programs (such as the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship Program created by Hungarian government, or the DAAD scholarship for Germany), along with top-quality education, also in English (MBA at Spanish IESE Business School was called the best in the world by the Economist Global Ranking, MBA at ESADE Business School made it to the top 20, IE University - IE Business School – to the top 40). In the Czech Republic, the number of foreign students studying full-time degrees grew by more than 8% over the last year, despite the pandemic.

The priorities change

Student migration has been growing in the last decade, with India and especially China supplying universities around the world with not only graduates, but undergraduate students. The researchers name a few factors of student migration form these two countries, main ones being changing educational trends, rising income levels, the availability of educational loans, the widening gap in the demand for and supply of higher education, rising enrolment in higher education institutions. Student migration from India often acts as the gateway for permanent residency in the developed countries. 

While these reasons remain, the pandemic and countries’ policies have changed the perspectives for many. The latest research suggests that, with over 90% of Indian young people eager to study abroad, 71% of students chose better healthcare infrastructure as one of their key reasons to study and look at opportunities in foreign countries. 75% of Indian students call the UK their preferred study destination - largely because of their pace of vaccination, the NHS’s policies which are in the favo r of a global student, and the constant communication that universities in the UK have maintained. Pro-student policies during the pandemic became a key factor in choosing some countries over others.