OECD Countries Receive Record-High Number of 2 Million Students

OECD Countries Receive Record-High Number of 2 Million Students

Peter Birdsall comments on what drives students to move and implications of internationalisation

The number of international students moving to countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) hit a record-high of 2 million in 2022, in around half of the organisation’s 38 member states. 

The data is contained in a study recently released by the OECD and reported by The Pie News. In addition to being the largest figure in history, this represents a 24% increase in the number of students moving to OECD countries since 2019.  

For the fourth consecutive year, the United Kingdom was the top receiving country of new international students out of all OECD countries, ahead of the United States. Canada, Australia and Japan complete the list of the top five receiving countries. 

In total, the USA currently hosts almost 20% of all international students in the OECD, followed by the UK (14%) and Australia (9%). Outside of English-speaking countries, Germany and France are the primary destination countries, jointly hosting around 15% of all international students. 

The news comes as many OECD countries attempt to tackle widespread skills shortages and the challenges related to ageing populations. At the same time, overall migration to richer countries has reached record levels. 

According to the president of Wittenborg, Peter Birdsall, the reasons why people decide to study abroad are very diverse, and also depend on where they come from. “What motivates people to migrate for study is often this drive to improve their lives. And maybe a secondary drive for a particular group of students is not only to improve their lives, but also to work in a field that they want to work in. Sometimes, they can’t find opportunities in their countries, especially for people who want to work in cutting-edge areas such as engineering, IT or healthcare.” 

In Birdsall’s view, the most important question is how many of these students are going back to their home countries to improve life there. He points out that this depends a lot on the countries these students are from, because some places provide more opportunities than others.  

“It is also connected to people’s personal circumstances and backgrounds. Some of them would like to stay abroad in order to send money to their families back home. Others would like to get five to ten years of experience abroad before going back home and being in a much better career position. Students from countries like China, Malaysia and Vietnam, which are thriving, are much more likely to go home again after graduation because they have great opportunities there.” 

Birdsall comments that, despite comprising a record number, the 2 million international students who moved to OECD countries represent a small fraction of people who immigrate globally. “A study by the UN Refugee Agency showcases that at mid-2023 there were 36.4 million refugees and 62.5 million people internally displaced due to conflict and violence. That puts the 2 million students into perspective; yet, they have become the scapegoats of conservative, anti-immigration governments because they are the easiest group to target.” 

The president of Wittenborg emphasises the need for more macro-level studies delving into these students' motivation to move to OECD countries, how it develops and what the outcome is.  

“We’re in a situation where every country is looking at the impact on its own economy, but what is the global impact and what are we going to see in the future? How are we going to move forward from this, especially as a lot of countries are starting to look very inwardly and becoming very conservative? Nowadays, it goes without saying that all countries are interconnected, which includes aspects such as their problems, economies and societies.” 

Birdsall mentions that some of the main reasons for attracting international students are to enhance the whole economy and to make higher education a mirror of the real world, especially in a country like the Netherlands. “In the United States, it may be a different story; in the Netherlands, however, we don't do business on a national scale, but rather on a global scale. Our economy is 100% dependent on the international and global economy. So, your higher education should reflect the world that you are in.” 

He concludes by affirming that education-related institutions in the Netherlands need to highlight the importance of the internationalisation of education to the government. “We live in a globally connected world, and internationalisation is crucial for this country. It’s almost impossible to envisage any people in OECD countries who are not affected by an international environment.”

WUP 22/04/2024 
by Ulisses Sawczuk 
©WUAS Press