As more students travel abroad to study, their destinations are becoming less predictable, reports David Jobbins
The collapse of last week's trade talks in Cancun seems unlikely to halt higher education's progress as a globally traded service. Mobility between industrialised countries is increasing and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts a growing impact on countries' balance of payments.
Although student flows into OECD countries increased by only 1.1 per cent between 2000 and 2001, comparison with 1998 data shows that the number of foreign students enrolled in member countries increased by 16 per cent in four years.
Overseas students are concentrated in a small number of OECD countries: five territories account for more than 70 per cent of those studying abroad. The UK has the second-highest proportion of foreign students (14 per cent) after the US (28 per cent) - with Germany (12 per cent), France (9 per cent) and Australia (7 per cent) the other major host countries.
Of these, Australia is growing most quickly, with a 0.8 percentage point increase year on year - an extra 15,000 students. The attraction of the US, UK and Australia for English-language tuition is being challenged by a number of new players offering courses in English, especially in the Nordic region.
Students from Japan (4.3 per cent) and Korea (3.4 per cent) comprise the largest foreign groups in OECD countries. Chinese students are the largest group from outside the OECD at 8 per cent (excluding another 1.4 per cent from Hong Kong).
Significant increases in the proportion of foreign students to total enrolments have been recorded in Germany, Italy, Spain, the Nordic states and Asian-Pacific OECD countries since 1998. The OECD predicts that Australia, Germany and New Zealand will play a greater role in the internationalisation of higher education in the future.
Exports of educational services were estimated at $30 billion (£19 billion) in 1998, about 3 per cent of total OECD trade in services. In 2000-01, exports of educational services by Australia were the country's third largest service-sector export earner at almost 12 per cent of the total.
Because of the way it collects data, the OECD says its figures underestimate the real numbers.