Trends, insights and research to inform growth and innovation strategies in international higher education.

December 07, 2013

International student mobility is driven by destination country income, not university rankings

Increasing mobility of international students is a known trend. However, determinants of mobility differ by source and destination countries resulting in different patterns of enrollment. Income of destination countries has a much bigger influence than the quality of its institutions in determining where students want to study, according to a recent research. It highlights steep increase in the absolute number of international students originating in developing countries. Between 1999 and 2009, share of developing countries in globally mobile students increased from 54.8% to 69%.

The article Geographies of educational mobilities: exploring the uneven flows of international students published by Richard Perkins & Eric Neumayer, highlights the flow of international students and dominance of certain countries as sources and recipients. The chart indicates the largest dyadic (country-to-country) student flows.

The predominant pattern of mobility, at least for the largest flows, is from developing countries (and especially the newly industrializing economy (NIE) sub-grouping) to developed ones. International student flows in terms of share of the global total in 2009:
- Developing to developed  =  56%
- Developing to developing  = 18.3%
- Developed to developed   = 24.6%
- Developed to developing   = 0.9%

The newly industrializing economy (NIEs) are a subset of developing countries and includes Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey, accounted for almost 28% of international student outflows to developed countries and two-fifths of all outflows to any destination country in 2009. By comparison, the group of 35 least developed countries (LDCs)  accounted for only 4% and 6.6% of these flows, respectively.

In terms of destination countries, researchers note that the developed economies continue to maintain dominant position, however, with the some of the rapidly industrializing economies (such as the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and South Africa) are becoming important recipients of international students. This also supports the regional mobility and emergence of 'glocal' students.

The researchers conclude that destination "countries' university quality...has a comparatively small influence over student-based migration patterns. Far more important is per capita income in the destination country, together with a number of relational variables which affect the monetary and psychic costs of particular cross-border mobilities....[T]he idea that adding a few more universities to the tier of highly ranked universities, which in itself is by no means an easy task, will lead to a large surge of foreign applicants to particular destination countries is not supported by our work."

To sum up, countries like China and Russia who want to build "world class universities", in order to climb league tables and also become hub of international students, may want to rethink their polices and investments.

World Bank classifies economies as low income, middle income, or high income. Here is the classification used in the research for average incomes in 2010
Low-income economies - $1,005 or less
Lower-middle-income economies -  $1,006 to $3,975
Upper-middle-income economies -  $3,976 to $12,275
High-income - $12,276 or more (developed)

Dr. Rahul Choudaha


Get in touch with Dr. Choudaha for speaking opportunities, consulting engagements, and media inquiries.

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