Students Are Learning To Move Worldwide

As demand for education rises, internationally mobile students are exploring 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, according to a report by UNESCO. 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 2012, at least four million students went abroad to study, up from two million in 2000, representing 1.8% of all tertiary enrolments or two 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 156,600 in 2012, with the outbound mobility ratio more than doubling from 3.5% to 7.5%. 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, 288,200 students studied abroad in 2012, up from 204,900 in 2003. But, in this period the outbound mobility ratio in the region dropped from 6% in to 4.5%. 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% of tertiary students studied abroad), Latin America and the Caribbean (0.9%), and North America (1.4%).


Regional Hubs

While traditional destination countries, such as the United States, 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 2012, five destination countries hosted nearly one-half of total mobile students: the United States (hosting 18%), United Kingdom (11%), France (7%), Australia (6%), and Germany (5%). But the top five also saw their share of international enrolment decline from 55% in 2000 to 47% in 2012.

Australia and Japan, traditional destinations in East Asia and the Pacific, are rivalled by newcomers China, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and New Zealand, which hosted 6% of the global share of mobile students in 2012.

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.


Closer To Home

Regional hubs not only attract a share of the global population of mobile students but are becoming favoured 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 26% between 1999 and 2012. The increase in Central and Eastern Europe is from 25% to 37%, and that in sub-Saharan Africa is from 18% to 28%.

The United Arab Emirates (especially Dubai) now outpaces the United Kingdom in attracting students from the Arab States and has become the third most popular destination (followed by France, the United States) for students from the region.

South Africa attracted 22% of mobile students from sub-Saharan Africa in 2012. Ghana and Uganda host more students from the region than ever before.


Top Ten Destinations Of Mobile Students

United States (18% of total mobile students)

United Kingdom (11%)

France (7%)

Australia (6%)

Germany (5%)

Russian Federation (4%)

Japan (4%)

Canada (3%)

China (2%)

Italy (2%)



Top Ten Countries Of Origin Of Mobile Students

China (694,400 students studying abroad)

India (189,500)

Republic of Korea (123,700)

Germany (117,600)

Saudi Arabia (62,500)

France (62,400)

United States (58,100)

Malaysia (55,600)

Viet Nam (53,800)

Iran (51,600)