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Understanding imbalances in international student mobility

3 FEB 2014

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International student mobility has grown strongly over the past decade. The OECD reports that 4.3 million students enrolled in tertiary education outside of their country of citizenship in 2011, more than double the 2.1 million students doing so in 2000.

Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada attract large numbers of international students, enrolling more than two million international students combined. At the same time, new international study destination countries have appeared – ranging from China to Malaysia to Saudi Arabia – which enrol more than 100,000 international students each.

But an increasingly salient dynamic among many leading destination countries is the push for more outgoing mobility of domestic students. This is not necessarily new for countries such as Germany that sends many students abroad with the support of the German Academic Exchange Service.

On the other hand, recently developed international education strategies or policy statements from Canadathe UK, and Australia all make explicit calls for augmenting the numbers of their students pursuing educational experiences abroad.

Within Europe, where bi-directional student mobility is enshrined through the Bologna Process, Erasmus, and other European Union programmes, an emerging area of consideration is “balanced mobility”, that is, the cultivation of equal student flows between countries.

This has been a particular challenge for countries such as UK which has tended to attract disproportionally more international students than it sends abroad. In 2011, around 420,000 international higher education students studied in the UK, while only around 22,000 UK tertiary students studied abroad.

Data limitations

While imbalances are a policy concern, another and in many ways more basic issue is the difficulty of properly accounting for student in and out-flows. Often, different agencies are in charge of capturing data and, in the case of out-bound mobility, at times no systematic, central data collection exists.

Definitions of mobility vary, including short-term visits or full degree studies, and levels of data completeness vary even more. Specifically, the largest obstacle to effectively mapping the balance of international student mobility is the inconsistency of data available on international students.

Root issues include the very terminology of “international student” (widely defined as a student moving to another country for the express purpose of study) versus the use of “foreign student” (a non-citizen of the country the student is studying in).

Countries that produce and publish statistics on international student enrolments vary in their choice of definition, if data is systematically collected at all. Differences in data definition and data collection methodology aside, available data are often not directly comparable, given the structure of a given country’s education system.

For example, many comparisons tend to use higher and tertiary education interchangeably which in the case of the United States might be benign, but in countries such as Germany or Australia would be quite imprecise. More often than not, only information on international students in higher education is consistently available.


Read full article: University World News