Learning mobility statistics
Data extracted in September 2018.
Planned article update: October 2019.
There were at least 1.6 million students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU in 2016.
A total of 432 thousand students from abroad (26 % of the total number of students from abroad in the EU) were studying in the United Kingdom in 2016, far more than the number in any other EU Member State.
More than two fifths (42.6 %) of the students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU in 2016 were from Europe, 29.7 % from Asia and 12.2 % from Africa.
This article presents statistics on the mobility of tertiary education students in the European Union (EU) and forms part of an online publication on education and training in the EU. It focuses on tertiary education students who are internationally mobile. In theory, this concerns students who completed their secondary education somewhere other (regardless of whether this was in another EU Member State or in a non-member country) than the EU Member State where they are studying; in practice, a number of different criteria are used, notably the country of usual or previous residence, or citizenship. The first part of the analysis focuses on tertiary students, the second part on tertiary graduates, followed by an analysis comparing the number of students with the number of graduates. The article concludes with a brief presentation of data on credit mobile graduates, in other words, students who are temporarily abroad (for study or work placement) for the purpose (usually) of gaining academic credit within the framework of enrolment in a tertiary education programme at a home institution.
Based on available data (see Table 1 for data coverage), there were at least 1.6 million students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU-28 in 2016: in other words, foreign students studying in a country other than that where they completed their secondary education. As is the case for all students, not just those from abroad, the vast majority of these students were studying for Bachelor’s degrees (46 %) or Master’s degrees (41 %), while around 10 % were studying for Doctoral degrees and 3 % followed short-cycle tertiary courses.
A total of 432 thousand students from abroad (26 % of the total number of students from abroad in the EU-28) were studying in the United Kingdom in 2016, far more than the number in any other EU Member State. The next largest populations of students from abroad were 245 thousand each in France and Germany (each 15 % of the total).
Relative to the overall number of tertiary education students in each Member State (in other words, the sum of indigenous students and students from abroad), the United Kingdom had the third highest proportion of students from abroad in 2016, at 18.1 %, surpassed slightly by Cyprus (19.1 %) and also — by a much greater margin — by Luxembourg (where as many as 47.0 % of all tertiary education students were from abroad). There were five additional EU Member States where more than one tenth of all tertiary education students were from abroad: Austria (16.3 %), Belgium (12.0 %), the Czech Republic (11.5 %), Denmark (10.8 %) and the Netherlands (10.7 %). By contrast, students from abroad made up a relatively small proportion of the tertiary education student population in Poland (3.4 %), Greece (3.3 %), Slovenia (3.3 %), Spain (2.7 %) and Croatia (0.4 %).
Figure 1 provides a more detailed analysis of the share of students from abroad in each stage of tertiary education, ranked on the share for Bachelor’s degrees as this level of education generally had the largest number of students from abroad. In relation to the total number of tertiary education students at each level, the share of students from abroad generally increases as a function of the level of education, from relatively low shares for short-cycle tertiary courses to much higher shares for Doctoral degrees.
In 2016, the highest shares of students from abroad studying for short-cycle tertiary courses were recorded in Cyprus and Denmark, with their shares 36.7 % and 15.8 % respectively. More than one quarter (26.6 %) of all students studying for Bachelor’s degrees in Luxembourg were from abroad, while Cyprus (22.8 %), Austria (18.2 %), the United Kingdom (14.1 %) and the Czech Republic (10.2 %) were the only other EU Member States where more than 1 in 10 students at this level were from abroad. Around one fifth of Master’s students in Austria and Belgium were from abroad, and this share rose to more than one third (36.1 %) in the United Kingdom and a high of 73.1 % in Luxembourg, while there were 12 additional Member States that reported double digit shares of students from abroad at this level. For Doctoral students, Luxembourg again reported the highest share (84.8 %), followed by Belgium (44.2 %), the United Kingdom (43.2 %), the Netherlands (40.1 %) and France (39.5 %), while a majority of the remaining Member States had double-digit shares. By contrast, less than 5.0 % of all Doctoral students in Lithuania, Croatia, Romania, Poland and Greece were from abroad.
Origin of students from abroad
For several of the EU Member States, the distribution by continent of their tertiary education students from abroad reflects a common language or cultural ties, for example with countries that were formerly colonies. This may be balanced against the fact that many students who study abroad do so in neighbouring (European) countries, and so the share of students from Europe in some of the EU Member States is often very high. Indeed, for 15 of the Member States (no data for Germany or Slovenia), a majority of students from abroad in 2016 were from elsewhere in Europe, with this share exceeding 90 % in Bulgaria and Slovakia (where a peak of 91.9 % was recorded), while the proportion of tertiary students from elsewhere in Europe fell below 25 % in France and reached a low of 19.2 % in Portugal.
In the United Kingdom, more than half (50.8 %) of the tertiary students from abroad were from Asia, with the share of Asian students above one third of the total in five additional EU Member States (Cyprus, Ireland, Germany, Finland and Latvia). In France, 42.0 % of tertiary students from abroad in 2016 were from Africa, while this share was just over one third (34.7 %) in Portugal. The share of students from the Caribbean, Central and South America was particularly high in Spain (45.1 %), with Portugal once again recording a relatively high share (35.1 %); each of the remaining Member States reported fewer than 10 % of their tertiary education students from abroad originating from the Caribbean, Central and South America. Ireland was the only Member State where more than one tenth (15.9 %) of tertiary education students from abroad originated in North America, the next highest share being recorded in Croatia (5.8 %).
A more detailed analysis for the origin of students from abroad is presented in Table 2. For 16 of the EU Member States, the principal country of origin for students from abroad in 2016 was another Member State. These were often neighbouring countries (such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia or Greece and Cyprus) or countries that may be reached by a relatively short water crossing (for example, students from Finland studying in Estonia). In five of the EU Member States — Denmark, Latvia, Hungary, the Netherlands and Austria — students from Germany made up the largest share of students from abroad, while German students were the second largest group of students from abroad in two other Member States and the third largest group in two more.
Across the whole of the EU, China (including Hong Kong) was the largest country of origin for tertiary students from abroad in 2016, accounting for 10.5 % of the total. There were more students from China (than any other foreign country) studying in Germany (excluding Doctoral studies), Ireland, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom, while Chinese students accounted for the second largest population of foreign tertiary students in France, the Netherlands and Finland. Alongside the near neighbour of Norway, other non-member countries that appeared multiple times in the rankings included Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Russia and Ukraine, while 19 other countries featured once.
Field of study for students from abroad
Table 3 provides an analysis of students from abroad according to their field of study. Among the fields of study shown in the table, social sciences, journalism and information, business, administration and law had the largest share of students from abroad in 20 EU Member States, while at an aggregated level of detail more than one third of tertiary students from abroad across the EU studied these subjects. More than half of all tertiary education students from abroad were studying social sciences, journalism and information, business, administration and law in Cyprus (74.1 %), Luxembourg (55.5 %) and Estonia (52.8 %). At the other end of the range, the share of all tertiary education students from abroad studying social sciences, journalism and information, business, administration and law was 13.6 % in Croatia, while there were four other eastern Member States where less than one fifth of foreign students were studying these subjects.
Across the EU, the next most common subjects for students from abroad included engineering, manufacturing and construction (16.8 % of all tertiary education students from abroad), the arts and humanities (14.2 %), natural science, mathematics and statistics, information and communication technologies (13.7 %) and health and welfare (11.7 %). By contrast, students from abroad following agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary, services or education fields of study accounted for a relatively small share (each less than 3.0 %) of the total number of students from abroad.
Among the EU Member States, there was a high degree of variation concerning the share of tertiary students from abroad studying each field of education, reflecting at least to some degree, the specialisations of each country. For example, nearly one quarter of all students from abroad studying in Italy in 2016 followed a course in the arts or humanities. This could be contrasted with 23.4 % of students from abroad in Finland studying natural science, mathematics and statistics, information and communication technologies, or an even higher share (29.1 %) of students from abroad in Germany studying engineering, manufacturing and construction.
Based on available data (see Table 4), there were at least 383 thousand tertiary education students from abroad that graduated in the EU during 2016. The majority of these graduated from Master’s degree courses (55 %), while just over one third (36 %) graduated from Bachelor’s degree courses, 7 % from Doctoral courses and 3 % from short-cycle tertiary courses.
A total of 197 thousand students from abroad graduated in the United Kingdom in 2016, which equated to more than half (52 %) the total number of graduates from abroad across the whole of the EU. The next largest numbers of graduates from abroad were 39 thousand in Germany (10 % of the EU total) and 23 thousand in the Netherlands (6 %); note there are no data available for France and that only partial data are available for Spain and Poland.
Relative to the overall number of tertiary education graduates in each country, Luxembourg had the highest proportion (49.9 %) of students from abroad who graduated in 2016, followed by the United Kingdom where more than one quarter (26.2 %) of all tertiary graduates were from abroad. In four other EU Member States — the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Belgium (2015 data) — the share of all graduates who originated from abroad stood at between 10 % and 15 %. By contrast, students from abroad made up a relatively small proportion of the total number of tertiary education graduates in Lithuania, Slovenia, Poland (Bachelor’s and Master’s graduates only), Greece and Croatia, all below 3.0 %.
Figure 3 provides a more detailed analysis of the share of graduates from abroad in each stage of tertiary education, ranked on the share for Master’s degrees as this level of education generally has the largest number of graduates from abroad. In relation to the total number of tertiary education graduates, the share of graduates from abroad generally increases as a function of the level of education, from relatively low shares for short-cycle tertiary courses to much higher shares for Doctoral degrees.
For short-cycle tertiary courses the highest shares of graduates from abroad in 2016 among the EU Member States were recorded in Luxembourg and Denmark, the only Member States where foreign graduates accounted for more than one tenth of the total.
Luxembourg also featured among the five EU Member States which reported graduates from abroad accounting for at least 1 in 10 of their total number of graduates with a Bachelor’s degree. Indeed, Luxembourg recorded the highest share in 2016, at three tenths (30.1 %), followed by the United Kingdom (16.9 %), Austria (16.5 %), Cyprus (13.1 %) and the Netherlands (10.0 %).
Close to three quarters (73.8 %) of all the Master’s graduates in Luxembourg were from abroad, while foreign graduates accounted for close to half (47.2 %) of all the Master’s graduates in the United Kingdom. The next highest shares for Master’s graduates were 23.7 % in the Netherlands and 20.7 % in Austria, with a relatively large group of Member States — Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Malta, Germany, Finland and Estonia — reporting that between one fifth and one tenth of their Master’s graduates were from abroad.
For Doctoral graduates, again Luxembourg and the United Kingdom reported the highest shares of graduates from abroad, 86.08 % and 44.3 % respectively, followed by the Netherlands (42.0 %), Belgium (40.1 %) and Sweden (38.6 %), while Doctoral graduates from abroad accounted for close to one third of all graduates in Denmark and Austria. Note also that more than half (57.0 %) of the Doctoral graduates in Switzerland were from abroad.
Origin of graduates from abroad
The distribution by continent for the origin of tertiary graduates from abroad is presented in Figure 4 for 24 EU Member States (no data for Spain, France, Poland and Slovakia). In 2016, there were 15 Member States where a majority of the tertiary graduates from abroad originated from Europe, with this share reaching as high as 90.0 % in Croatia (Slovenian data for Europe not available). In Belgium, the United Kingdom and Portugal, tertiary graduates from other European countries accounted for less than one third of all tertiary graduates from abroad.
In 2016, more than a half (56.4 %) of all tertiary graduates from abroad in the United Kingdom originated from Asia. Asian graduates also accounted for more than 3 out of every 10 graduates from abroad in Ireland, Finland, Germany and Latvia. In Turkey, almost two thirds (64.7 %) of tertiary graduates from abroad originated from Asia.
In Portugal, almost one third (33.0 %) of all the tertiary graduates from abroad in 2016 originated from the Caribbean, Central and South America; Portugal was the only EU Member State to record a double-digit share for graduates from this continent (note that there are no data available for Spain). The share of tertiary graduates from abroad originating from Africa also peaked in Portugal, reaching a high of 27.0 %, while Malta and Italy were the only other Member States to record double-digit shares (note that there are no data available for France).
A more detailed analysis of graduates from abroad by country of origin is available. In 2016 and based on information for the 24 EU Member States in Table 5, the four principal origins of graduates from abroad were China (including Hong Kong), Germany and Italy. Among 10 of these 24 Member States, the principal country of origin for tertiary graduates from abroad was another Member State, while there were four Member States where Chinese students accounted for the highest share of graduates from abroad. In the remaining Member States for which data are available (where neither another EU Member State nor China was the principal origin of foreign graduates), Russia accounted for the highest share of graduates from abroad in Latvia and Finland, Albania for graduates from abroad in Italy, Belarus for graduates from abroad in Lithuania, Bosnia and Herzegovina for graduates from abroad in Croatia, Brazil for graduates from abroad in Portugal, Moldova for graduates from abroad in Romania, Norway for graduates from abroad in Denmark, Turkey for graduates from abroad in Bulgaria, and the United States for graduates from abroad in Malta.
Field of study for graduates from abroad
Table 6 provides a similar analysis to that shown in Table 3, but it presents information on the share of graduates from abroad according to their field of study, rather than the share of students from abroad who were still attending education courses. A comparison between the two tables shows there were seven EU Member States (out of 24 for which data are available in 2016) where the overall share of graduates from abroad was higher than the share of students from abroad. The highest difference was in the United Kingdom where the share of tertiary graduates from abroad was 26.2 % compared with a share of 18.1 % for students from abroad. By contrast, while some 8.7 % of tertiary education graduates in 2016 in Cyprus were from abroad, the share of tertiary education students from abroad studying in Cyprus was much higher, at 19.1 %.
Tertiary students and tertiary graduates
Figure 5 compares the number of tertiary graduates from abroad with the corresponding number of tertiary students from abroad, with an analysis by ISCED level. The number of graduates may be expected to be smaller than the number of students for each level of tertiary education, as most tertiary education courses take more than one year to complete and some students do not graduate as they change courses or drop out before completing their studies. Furthermore, students from abroad who only undertake part of their studies abroad may be registered as students from abroad in their host country, but may not graduate there.
Based on available information (as shown in Figure 5), the ratio of graduates from abroad to students from abroad for short-cycle degrees in the EU-28 (excluding France) was 38.0 % in 2016; this was the highest ratio among the four different levels of tertiary education and reflects the relatively short average length of such courses. The next highest ratio was recorded for Master’s degree courses, at 37.3 %; these courses may also be relatively short if they are taken after students have already obtained a Bachelor’s degree. Considerably lower ratios were recorded for Doctoral degrees (21.7 %) and for Bachelor degrees (20.3 %), where it is typical for students to spend at least three years studying before they graduate.
Credit mobile students
The final analysis presented in this article is for credit mobile graduates, focusing on those who had graduated from Bachelor’s or equivalent level programmes and been abroad for at least three months for study and/or work placement. Data are presented for three types of credit mobility programmes in Figure 6: EU programmes are those financed via programmes such as Erasmus+; other international/national programmes are other bi- or multilateral programmes, for example partnerships between universities; other programmes concern students who organise their mobility which is credited by their home institution. Note that mobility which is not recognised in a student’s home institution and therefore falls outside the student’s programme at their home institution (so-called bridge mobility) is excluded.
In two thirds (18 out of 24) of the EU Member States for which data are available a majority of credit mobile graduates from Bachelor’s or equivalent level studies had participated in EU programmes, with this share in Greece and Cyprus reaching 100.0 %, as was also the case in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In Germany and Finland, the shares having participated in EU programmes were just below half (49.5 % and 49.0 % respectively), but higher than for the two other types of programmes shown in the figure. In a similar manner, in the Netherlands just under half (49.0 %) of credit mobile graduates had participated in other programmes, but this was more than for the two other types of programmes. In France, Denmark and Sweden a majority of credit mobile graduates had participated in other programmes rather than EU, other international or national programmes and this was also the case in Serbia.
Source data for tables and graphs
The standards for international statistics on education are set by three international organisations:
- the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) institute for statistics (UIS);
- the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD);
- Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
The source of data used in this article is a joint UNESCO/OECD/Eurostat (UOE) data collection on education statistics and this is the basis for the core components of Eurostat’s database on education statistics; in combination with the joint data collection Eurostat also collects data on regional enrolments and foreign language learning.
Regulation (EC) No 452/2008 of 23 April 2008 provides the legal basis for the production and development of the EU’s statistics on education and lifelong learning. Two European Commission Regulations have been adopted concerning the implementation of the education and training data. The first, Commission Regulation (EU) No 88/2011 of 2 February 2011, concerned data for the school years 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 while the second, Commission Regulation (EU) No 912/2013 of 23 September 2013, concerns data for school years from 2012/2013 onwards.
More information about the joint data collection is available in an article on the UOE methodology.
The international standard classification of education (ISCED) provides the basis for the classification of education statistics, describing different levels of education; it was first developed in 1976 by UNESCO and revised in 1997 and 2011. ISCED 2011 distinguishes nine levels of education: early childhood education (level 0); primary education (level 1); lower secondary education (level 2); upper secondary education (level 3); post-secondary non-tertiary education (level 4); short-cycle tertiary education (level 5); bachelor’s or equivalent level (level 6); master’s or equivalent level (level 7); doctoral or equivalent level (level 8). The first results based on ISCED 2011 have been published in 2015 starting with data for the 2013 reference period.
The UOE data collection covers domestic educational activity, in other words education provided within a country’s own territory regardless of ownership or sponsorship of the institutions concerned (whether public or private, national or foreign) or of the education delivery mechanism (whether face-to-face or at a distance). In particular, all students studying within a country, including internationally mobile students from abroad, should be included in the statistics of the reporting country. Students who have left the reporting country to study abroad should not be included by the reporting country even where such students are partially or fully-funded by national or sub-national authorities. Concerning short exchange programmes (of at least three months but shorter than one academic year), students who remain enrolled in their home institution and where credits for successful completion of the study abroad are awarded by the home institution should be reported by the country of the home institution in which they are enrolled.
By contrast, educational activities which take place abroad — for example, in institutions run by providers located in the reporting country — should be excluded.
In cases of cross-border distance learning/e-learning, students should be reported by the country of the institution providing the service, not the country of residence of the student. Equally, students who commute across borders should be reported by the country where they are enrolled rather than where they are resident.
The country of origin for learning mobility data should, in principle, refer to the country of prior secondary education. However, countries might use the country of prior residence or citizenship or another concept instead up until the 2016 reference year (not yet available at the time of writing). Information on the definitions currently used by countries is available in a specific set of footnotes for learning mobility statistics.
|Tables in this article use the following notation:|
|Value in italics||data value is forecasted, provisional or estimated and is therefore likely to change;|
|:||not available, confidential or unreliable value.|
The Bologna process put in motion a series of reforms to make European higher education more compatible, comparable, competitive and attractive for students. Its main objectives were: the introduction of a three-cycle degree system (Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees); quality assurance; and recognition of qualifications and periods of study. One of the operational goals of the process was to remove the obstacles to student mobility across Europe, and more broadly support the mobility of students, teachers and researchers.
ET 2020 strategic framework
The strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (known as ET 2020), was adopted by the Council in May 2009. It set out four strategic objectives for education and training in the EU including making mobility a reality. Two benchmarks on learning mobility were adopted by the Council in November 2011, supplementing a set of benchmarks laid down in ET 2020:
- by 2020, an EU average of at least 20 % of higher education graduates should have had a period of higher education-related study or training (including work placements) abroad, representing a minimum of 15 European credit transfer and accumulation system (ECTS) credits or lasting a minimum of three months;
- by 2020, an EU average of at least 6 % of 18 to 34 year-olds with an initial vocational education and training (VET) qualification should have had an initial VET-related study or training period (including work placements) abroad lasting a minimum of two weeks, or shorter if documented by Europass.
In November 2012, the European Commission presented ‘Rethinking education: investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes’ (COM(2012) 669), an initiative to encourage EU Member States to ensure that young people develop the skills and competences required by the European labour market. The Communication paid particular attention to combatting youth unemployment and promoted educational mobility.
The Erasmus programme was one of the most well-known European programmes and ran for just over a quarter of a century; in 2014 it was superseded by the EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to as Erasmus+. In the field of higher education, Erasmus+ gives students and staff opportunities to develop their skills and boost their employment prospects. Students can study abroad for up to 12 months (during each cycle of tertiary education). During the period between 2014 and 2020, some four million people are expected to benefit from Erasmus+, including around: two million higher education students (including 25 thousand students on joint Masters’ programmes); 650 thousand vocational training and education students; 800 thousand lecturers, teachers, trainers, education staff and youth workers.
In May 2018, the European Commission adopted proposals for the Erasmus programme for 2021-2027, involving a doubling of the budget to EUR 30 billion which it is expected should enable 12 million people to participate in the programme.
- Participation in education and training (educ_part)
- Pupils and students - enrolments (educ_uoe_enr)
- Learning mobility (educ_uoe_mob)
- Mobile students from abroad (educ_uoe_mobs)
- Degree mobile graduates from abroad (educ_uoe_mobg)
- Credit mobile graduates (educ_uoe_mobc)
- Education and training outcomes (educ_outc)
- Graduates (educ_uoe_grad)
- Participation in education and training (educ_part)
- Education administrative data from 2013 onwards (ISCED 2011) (ESMS metadata file — educ_uoe_enr_esms)
Manuals and other methodological information
- UOE: Regulation (EC) No 452/2008 of 23 April 2008 concerning the production and development of statistics on education and lifelong learning
- From school year 2012/2013 onwards: Commission Regulation (EU) No 912/2013 of 23 September 2013 as regards statistics on education and training systems
- School years 2010/2011 and 2011/2012: Commission Regulation (EU) No 88/2011 of 2 February 2011 as regards statistics on education and training systems