Migration and Education: International Student Mobility

by Julia Reinold


International student mobility (ISM) and the internationalisation of higher education (IoHE) receive increasing attention for some time already, especially since they relate to sensitive topics of public concern including education, migration and development.

Migration for education is not a new phenomenon. However, the number of foreign students enrolled in tertiary education worldwide rose significantly during the past decades, from 0.8 million in 1975 to 4.6 million in 2015, with the US, the UK and Australia being the top destination countries. The share of international students remained relatively stable over time as it went hand in hand with a general increase in higher education enrolment rates. These developments are linked to globalisation, resulting in an increased demand for international students from host countries and students’ desire to study abroad.

This article provides a general overview of the determinants of ISM and summarises the potential benefits of the IoHE for different stakeholders focusing on students, higher education institutions (HEIs), and host countries. In addition, it identifies remaining challenges related to ISM.

Determinants of international student mobility

The determinants of ISM are complex and interrelated.ii They can be divided into economic, cultural, political, and social factors. In addition, students’ personal characteristics, including socio-economic background and previous mobility, play a role in explaining ISM. Students’ personal motivations are subject to external influences from family, other networks, media, policy and available infrastructure to pursue education abroad (e.g. financial support systems offered by national governments and HEIs; bilateral and multilateral frameworks to facilitate ISM between countries).

One should distinguish between different forms of ISM, namely vertical and horizontal, as well as degree and credit mobility, which are arguably subject to different determinants. Vertical mobility takes place between two countries with differences in the development of higher education systems. Usually, it refers to mobility from developing to developed countries where the quality of higher education is perceived as superior or more prestigious. Horizontal mobility happens between countries with approximately equally developed higher education systems (e.g. mobility between developed countries or intra-EU mobility). Degree mobility refers to movements for the completion of entire degree programmes (e.g. Bachelor or Master) and credit mobility refers to a temporary stay abroad as part of a degree course (e.g. semester abroad).

What is in it for whom?

Determinants of ISM are closely linked to its potential benefits for various stakeholders, including students, HEIs, companies, home and host countries. This article discusses the benefits for students, HEIs and host countries only since it is beyond its scope to include all stakeholders.


International education can benefit students’ personal and career development by increasing their human, social and cultural capital. By studying in another country, students gain international experience, get to know different cultures, improve their language skills, and develop a more cosmopolitan identity (i.e. cultural capital), contributing to their personal development. This applies to all forms of ISM. Studying abroad can also be a career advancement strategy. This is especially important in explaining vertical mobility. International education can be a way of accumulating human capital in the form of knowledge and skills, which cannot be obtained in the home country as easily, leading to improved job opportunities. Moreover, degrees from universities with excellent reputation can improve career prospects for students. International classrooms can lead to improved learning outcomes and intercultural skills for both international and domestic students. Additionally, they foster international networks between students and hence build social capital, which can be beneficial for their future lives and careers. Finally, ISM can be a strategy to migrate permanently as visas and residence permits seem easier to obtain for international students, despite often being strictly limited to the duration of study.

Higher Education Institutions

For HEIs four main benefits of the IoHE can be identified, which include both financial and academic aspirations. First, since international students often pay higher tuition fees compared to domestic students, they form an additional funding opportunity, which is especially important in the context of declining financial contributions of governments. Second, internationalisation can positively contribute to the reputation of HEIs. Third, it advances the quality of education programmes for instance because of increased competition between HEIs for the most talented students and academics worldwide. Finally, if students and graduates are satisfied with their institution’s quality of education as well as other factors, they can become ambassadors and help attract more students.

Many HEIs employ active strategies to recruit international students and increasingly offer double degree programmes, online courses and programmes taught in English, where the official language is not English. Their success heavily depends on financial resources.ii

Host countries

ISM and the IoHE can be beneficial for the economic development of host countries in the short and long term. In the short term, international students bring additional revenue to the host country through paying higher tuition fees and their general living expenses, which can add up to billions.ii In the long term, retaining international students contributes to expanding the domestic pool of highly-skilled workers on which the contemporary knowledge-based economy depends.

Many developed countries experience demographic change and negative population developments, which are expected to result in labour shortages. In this context, international students are regarded as ideal individuals to retain since it is assumed that they are familiar with the host country’s economic, cultural, political and social context. Therefore, some host countries actively encourage international students to stay after graduation, for example by introducing ‘orientation years’, during which international students can remain living in the host countries to find work. Additionally, international students can help advance certain sectors if they study related subjects. Their human capital can contribute to maintaining economic growth, increasing productivity, boosting innovation and remaining competitive globally. International students can become ambassadors and contribute to strengthening international cooperation between host and home countries in trade and business, whether they decide to stay in the host country or not.

For these reasons, countries apply certain strategies to facilitate ISM for instance by signing bilateral and multilateral agreements. Among the most prominent of such frameworks is the Bologna Process, which aimed at creating a European higher education area through the harmonisation of degree structures, quality standards and the recognition of diplomas between participating countries. Other national strategies to attract international students include simplified immigration procedures and the provision of scholarships. While development in home countries is not the focus of this article, one should note that supporting the international education of students from developing countries (e.g. through scholarships) is seen as a form of development assistance. While ISM often raises concerns about brain drain, the focus lies increasingly on brain circulation. Through expanded networks, knowledge transfer, and social remittances, ISM can contribute to the development of students’ home countries if close ties are maintained. For more detailed explanations of migration, knowledge transfer and development, see Charlotte Mueller’s and Inez Roosen’s contributions to this issue.

Remaining challenges for international students

Despite the numerous potential benefits, ISM and the IoHE also come with many challenges. In the following section, three of these challenges will be highlighted. Dealing with these issues will allow all stakeholders to potentially benefit even more from ISM and the IoHE.

Adjustment and integration

Upon arrival in the host country, international students often experience a culture shock and difficulties in meeting expectations from host institutions and families. Furthermore, they have to deal with administrative and bureaucratic challenges, which are often exacerbated by language barriers. It is important to prepare international students for these challenges and to show them ways to overcome these to ensure their well-being. Positive experiences during the stay abroad are important for international students’ educational outcomes to be successful. Good experiences are also a prerequisite for students to become ambassadors for their host institutions and countries and for them to remain living in the host country after graduation. It is therefore also important to reduce their experiences with discrimination or racism and to make them feel welcome.


International students are often confronted with additional costs, which domestic students (or students who move within the EU) do not have to bear. Examples of additional costs are fees for processing applications including visas and residence permits as well as tuition fees. Furthermore, some countries require that international students (or in the case of the EU, students from outside the EU) have a certain amount of money (up to a few thousand Euros) in their bank accounts to obtain and extend residence permits. While most of these requirements are in place to protect domestic students, workers and taxpayers, they mean a double financial burden for international students compared to domestic students disregarding that some might be even expected to support their families back home financially. If international students are not eligible for scholarships or other financial support systems, this could result in ISM being reserved to individuals from richer families. Consequently, high costs of ISM could stop some of the most talented students to become mobile, which implies that they are restricted in their personal and career development and that the development potentials of ISM for host institutions, host and home countries are reduced. In addition, higher costs and the commodification of ISM could further increase competition between host institutions and countries by influencing international students’ destination choice.

Access to the labour market

Given the high financial costs of ISM, many international students depend on additional income through part-time jobs. Not only could they benefit financially from working, but it is also a good opportunity for them to gain work experience, build professional networks and improve their language skills. However, international students’ access to the labour market in the host country is often restricted to a few hours a week, and obtaining work permits is difficult and time consuming. Consequently, students cannot accept interesting side jobs spontaneously. This raises concerns about international students being pushed into working illegally, which is especially problematic in relation to issues of social security and insurance. Furthermore, the economic benefits for the host country are being reduced.


In conclusion, the rise of ISM and the IoHE during the past decades is a result of globalisation, which simultaneously increases the demand for international students from host countries and students’ desire to study abroad. Various factors explain students’ decisions to study abroad and the form of ISM (vertical mobility, horizontal mobility, degree mobility, credit mobility), which can be broadly divided into economic, cultural, political, and social factors. ISM is also shaped by the student’s characteristics and external influences (e.g. family, media, networks, available support systems, mobility frameworks).

The IoHE has many different benefits for different stakeholders. For students, it is a way to develop personally and to improve their career prospects. HEIs can increase revenue, improve their reputation and the quality of education, and expand cooperation with other universities for academic benefits. For host countries, attracting international students is also a way of increasing revenue. In the long term, the host-country’s economy can furthermore benefit from the IoHE, especially when students decide to remain living in the respective country and to enter the workforce. In countries with growing skills shortages, this is especially important to foster economic growth, innovation and global competitiveness. Nevertheless, international students are confronted with many challenges upon arrival in the host country, including issues of adjustment, integration, discrimination, financial costs, restricted access to the labour market and other administrative and legal hurdles. These challenges can impede economic benefits of ISM in the short and long term. They need to be dealt with to increase the benefits of ISM and the IoHE further.

Julia Reinold

Julia Reinold

  • PhD Candidate at Maastricht University’s Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross border cooperation and Mobility (ITEM)
  • Part of the Migration Research Group at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance/ UNU-MERIT spezialising in research on highly-skilled migration



  1. OECD (2017). Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  2. Riemsdijk, M. and Wang, Q. (2017). Rethinking International Skilled Migration. New York: Routledge.