International Migration Outlook: Lessons and Experiences for International Education

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its annual edition of “International Migration Outlook” last week, which provides a good and detailed analysis of major trends in migration in the most developed economies of the world. Especially interesting is that in this year’s edition a new section of the report is devoted to a brief analysis of the contribution of international students to migration and to the review of a variety of relevant policies being implemented in various countries.

As is widely discussed by many scholars, although an ancient phenomenon, worldwide migration is and will continue to be of even more significance in the knowledge-based economy. The reality of the contemporary world is that the temporary or permanent migration of people is here to stay, and as such it has become the subject of a more careful consideration on the part of governments and institutional decision makers. This topic is especially intriguing in light of the graying of the population in developed countries, the development of communications infrastructure, and the acute economic disparities in the world, among other factors.

In today’s world, according with UNESCO, more than 200 million people live in a country other than the one in which they were born. A small but growing proportion of this number is made up of higher education students. In certain circumstances, some of them will at a certain point consider staying abroad after their studies, but an overwhelming majority sooner or later return to their country of origin. (This phenomenon is often referred to as “brain drain,” although the issue is more complex than merely a one-way movement of talent. As a result variations of this analysis explore “brain gain,” “brain circulation,” “brain exchange” and even “reverse brain drain” perspectives.)

It is well known that the international mobility of students continues to rise, and, consequently, the more “mobile” learners are, more “mobile talent” will exist. Although the accuracy and consistency of data is still a major challenge, UNESCO and OECD estimate that the number of foreign higher education students has at least doubled between 2000 and 2007. Conservative figures indicate that more than 3 million students attend college abroad–either as short-term or as degree-seeking students.

The United States continues to be the principal recipient of international students, although its share of the worldwide enrollment of foreign students has been diminishing while other countries have been making impressive advances. For example, Australia, the Czech Republic, Korea, Spain, and Chile have doubled their international enrollment since 2000, while the U.S. only grew by 25 percent. In the year 2000, the U.S. attracted 29 percent of international higher education students while by 2007 this was reduced to only 19.7 percent.

A combination of factors influence the attraction of more or fewer international students by a given country, including the perceived quality and prestige of institutions and academic programs, affordability of tuition in the host country, availability of scholarships and loans for mobility in both host and home countries, language of instruction, effectiveness of outreach and marketing efforts carried on by institutions and governments, perception surrounding the degree of friendliness and openness of the country, among many others. In addition, increasingly students take into consideration how difficult and costly is the visa process, and how flexible the migratory policies are regulating their opportunities to conduct further practical training and eventually to work. According to Nafsa–Association of International Educators, talented students and skilled workers will go to the places that welcome them and offer the best opportunities. Unfortunately the U.S. has been “slow to appreciate and adjust to a paradigm shift in global mobility.” The title of the policy briefing authored by Nafsa couldn’t be more eloquent: “A Visa and Immigration Policy for the Brain-Circulation Era: Adjusting to What Happened in the World While We Were Making Other Plans.”

But what are other countries doing on this matter? Let’s take, for instance, the case of Canada where a major government-sponsored campaign entitled “Education au/in Canada” is being paired with the initiative known as “The Canadian Experience Class” which makes it possible for international students once they graduate to stay and work, and eventually to obtain permanent resident status. Other countries, like Germany, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic have removed regulations in order to make it easier for international students to gain practical experience.

An interesting case of a somewhat different orientation is the one of Australia. In the past decade, Australia was probably one of the most aggressive countries in successfully attracting international students. Seven percent of worldwide international students reported by OECD are enrolled in Australia, making it the fifth largest recipient of international students. Proportionally, the importance of international students is much greater than in the U.S. considering that about 20 percent of the total enrollment in Australian higher education is composed of international students (in comparison with only 3.5 percent in the U.S.). One of the alluring components of the educational opportunities offered by Australia was the easy process that international students could follow in order to stay and work after graduation. However, relaxed enforcement of regulations led to abuse of this policy. Now, the Australian government has decided to establish stricter regulations for international education providers although remaining a hub for international education continues to be an important government priority.

Although context matters and the reality in the U.S., like that in other countries, is unique, it is time to get serious about analyzing the interconnectedness of international education, the needs of the knowledge-based economy and the global migratory patterns, and addressing the implications of this relationship. Or do we want to continue making other plans?

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