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Modern migrants – Global trends in student mobility

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has published an interactive infographic, allowing users to visualize international student flows. It shows that the number of students leaving home to pursue tertiary education programmes has risen sharply in recent years. In 2010, according to UIS figures, the global stock of internationally mobile tertiary students reached 3.6 million, up from 2 million in 2000. This increase corresponds with rapidly increasing demand for tertiary education worldwide; since 2000, the global stock of tertiary students has risen by over 75%.


The changing supply and demand dynamics of tertiary education are particularly relevant to the Asia-Pacific Region.  Earlier this year, UNESCO Bangkok and the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), jointly held a seminar titled “Education Policy-Making in the Age of Migration in Asia and the Pacific.” Commenting on the increasing numbers of international students, Mr. Gwang-Jo Kim, Director of UNESCO Bangkok said: “These issues are particularly pertinent in the Asia-Pacific region. In sheer human terms, these numbers are considerable, and the patterns are changing. It is clear that they will continue to shape the region.”

UNESCO’s focus on international education in the Asia Pacific is long-standing. Since 2006, UNESCO and the Asia Pacific Quality Network (APQN) have been working together to regulate the region’s steadily growing cross-border education industry. Together the two organizations strive to promote the ideals expressed in the 2005 “Guidelines for Quality Provision in Higher Education,” a document which seeks to promote mutual trust and international cooperation between providers and receivers of cross-border tertiary education. Going forward, UIS data will support these efforts by providing an evidence base for decision makers at the international and national levels. 

The UIS infographic demonstrates how heavily the East Asia and the Pacific region influences global trends in student migration. The region is the largest supplier of international students, representing 28% of the global total.

Students from China make up one-half of this figure, or 17% of all students. The United States, Australia, and Japan are the most popular destinations for Chinese students. In relative terms, students from one of Asia’s sub-regions, Central Asia, are the most mobile in the world. There, 6 out of 100 tertiary students cross national borders in order to pursue their studies. 

As students become more mobile in their search for tertiary degrees, education hubs are forming in the developing world, drawing some demand away from established education providers in North American and Western Europe.  Indeed, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, are emerging contenders in the drive to attract international students. In 2010, each of the three countries hosted roughly 50,000 international students. 

The case of Malaysia offers valuable lessons for policy makers concerned with attracting international students. The recent influx of internationally mobile students to the country is not a coincidence. Representatives at a 2009 UNESCO conference on the international mobility of students reported that: “Malaysia is aiming to expand its [international student] services by actively implementing strategic policy designed to transform itself into regional educational leader beyond the region.” Throughout the 1990’s the country was an example of the so-called brain-drain, triggered when high performing individuals emigrate in search of quality education. In the past 3 decades, however, leaders have managed to transform Malaysia into a net importer of international students. The UIS figures from 2010 show the country hosting 57,824 tertiary education students, while sending 53,884 students abroad. 

For additional information see:

UIS Infographic

UNESCO Guidelines for Quality Provision in Cross-border Higher Education


Written by Carey Neill