International students’ role in migration must be better recorded

Better policy would result from improved global scrutiny of student migration, says Rajika Bhandari

February 1, 2018

Although the number of internationally mobile students pursuing higher education has grown exponentially in recent years, such students are strikingly absent from larger conversations about migration.

Controversy about international students’ inclusion in immigration figures may be prominent in the UK, but students received only a passing mention at the recent inaugural International Forum on Migration Statistics in Paris last month. The forum brought together more than 400 statisticians, researchers, policymakers and representatives from key sectors to discuss how data can be improved to provide a better understanding of global migration trends. However, neither tertiary education as a driver of migration nor the broader impacts of such migration garnered much attention, with the exception of a single session on international students and temporary skilled workers.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which co-organised the forum, includes international students in its definition of “temporary migrants”, but its analysis of this type of migration has limited connections to international education policy. Further, while the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants acknowledges that “higher education serves as a powerful driver for change [and] shelters and protects a critical group of young men and women by maintaining their hopes for the future”, it is not clear whether international students as migrants fit within the six thematic areas of the United Nations’ resulting Global Compact for Migration, which aims to develop a set of principles to facilitate “safe, orderly and regular migration”.

Given the scale of student migration and its impact on both sending and receiving countries, it is imperative that such omissions are redressed. According to current estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), 4.6 million students are globally mobile, compared with 2.1 million in 2001. The OECD believes that this growth might flatten in the near future, but bear in mind that the 4.6 million figure undercounts the shorter-term mobility that is the cornerstone of many flagship scholarship programmes designed to encourage student mobility. These include the European Union’s Erasmus+, which, between 2014 and 2020, will have provided global education opportunities for almost 2 million post-secondary students.

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From a receiving country’s perspective, key policy considerations surrounding the inflows of student migrants include their significant financial impact (nearly $40 billion, or £28 billion, for the US, for instance); their role in internationalising both higher education institutions and society more generally; and attracting the global talent critical for innovation and entrepreneurship. It is crucial that we improve our understanding of the links between student migration and skilled migration.

Then there are the implications for the home countries of globally mobile students. While in absolute numbers China and India “lose” thousands of their post-secondary students to other countries, proportionally these students make up just a fraction of the tertiary aged cohort in these nations – less than 1 per cent for India and 2 per cent for China. At the other end of the spectrum are African and Caribbean countries, where a large proportion of the higher education cohort is overseas, resulting in a brain drain.

But regardless of the relative scale of outbound student migration, all sending countries need to consider the implications for their labour markets and universities, and do all they can to turn brain drains into “brain circulations”, via international higher education partnerships that involve two-way exchanges. And global trends in student and talent migration have implications for both sending and receiving countries; a report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that by 2020 there will be a global shortfall of 38 to 40 million workers with higher education (as well as a deficit of 45 million workers with secondary education in developing countries).

A final imperative for including student mobility in discussions of global migration is that the very notion of an international student is evolving to reflect the global migration crisis and the fact that many tertiary aged students have lost access to their higher education institutions due to forced migration. As countries open and close their doors, many are grappling with whether and how to include populations such as refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants in their student mobility statistics. The “how” question may be debatable, but the “whether” question is not. The movement of students must be accounted for. 

Rajika Bhandari is head of research, policy and practice and director of the Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact at the Institute of International Education, New York.


Print headline: Tracing their steps

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Reader's comments (1)

Tracing this mobility can begin at the institution level. See a recent study in Nature Biotechnology that includes global migration patterns of NIEHS postdoctoral scholars upon becoming employed after their fellowships: