International tertiary numbers up 200% in two decades

The number of international students in higher education programs worldwide has more than doubled in less than two decades – rising from two million in 1998 to five million in 2016 – with a strong focus on STEM and doctoral programs, according to OECD’s latest Education at a Glance report.

The 2018 edition, which examines education systems across 35 OECD countries and various partner countries, found that advanced degrees continue to attract more international students than bachelor’s or equivalent degrees.

It found that while international students accounted for only 6% of total enrolment in tertiary education in 2016, they represented more than a quarter (26%) of enrolment in doctoral programs in OECD counties.

International enrolment was also significant at master’s level (17%) where on average across the OECD there is more than one international student for every 10 students at this level.

However international enrolment in bachelor’s programs was shown to remain relatively low (below 5%) in many countries, with exceptions including Austria, Luxembourg and New Zealand where more than 15% of students at bachelor’s level are international.

The report suggested several factors that could account for these trends, including capacity constraints in the student’s countries of origin at advanced levels of education, the availability of narrow specialisations in host countries or post-migration programs.