Learning mobility statistics
Data extracted in October 2019.
Planned article update: October 2020.
There were 1.7 million students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU-28 in 2017.
Across the EU-28 in 2017, some 436 000 students from abroad (25.5 % of the total) were studying in the United Kingdom, far more than in any other EU Member State.
More than one third (37.8 %) of the students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU in 2017 were from Europe, 30.1 % were from Asia and 13.0 % were 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 than the EU Member State where they are studying (regardless of whether this was in another EU Member State or in a non-member country); 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.
There were 1.71 million students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU-28 in 2017: 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 highest shares of these students were studying for either a bachelor’s degree (45.6 %) or a master’s degree (41.9 %), while 9.3 % were studying for doctoral degrees and 3.1 % followed short-cycle tertiary courses.
In 2017, a total of 436 000 students from abroad (25.5 % of the total number of students from abroad in the EU-28) were studying in the United Kingdom, far more than the number in any other EU Member State. The next largest populations of students from abroad were recorded in Germany (259 000) and France (258 000), both equivalent to 15.1 % of the EU-28 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 2017, at 17.9 %, surpassed only by Cyprus (23.1 %) and Luxembourg (where as many as 46.7 % of all tertiary education students were from abroad). There were six additional EU Member States where at least one tenth of all tertiary education students were from abroad: Austria (17.2 %), Czechia (12.5 %), the Netherlands (11.0 %), Denmark (10.8 %), France (10.2 %) and Hungary (10.0 %). By contrast, students from abroad made up a relatively small proportion of the tertiary education student population in Slovenia (3.9 %), Greece (3.4 %), Spain (3.2 %) and Croatia (2.9 %).
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 2017, the highest shares of students from abroad studying for short-cycle tertiary courses were recorded in Cyprus and Denmark, with their shares 48.9 % and 14.6 % respectively. More than one quarter of all students studying for bachelor’s degrees in Cyprus (28.0 %) and Luxembourg (25.8 %) were from abroad, while Austria (18.9 %), the United Kingdom (14.4 %) and Czechia (11.1 %) were the only other EU Member States where more than 1 in 10 students at this level were from abroad. Around three quarters (75.8 %) of master’s students in Luxembourg were from abroad, as were more than one third (33.9 %) in the United Kingdom and around one fifth in Austria, Ireland and Denmark; there were 15 further Member States that reported double digit shares of students from abroad at this level. For doctoral students, Luxembourg again reported the highest share (85.2 %), followed by the Netherlands (43.1 %), the United Kingdom (42.1 %), France (39.7 %), Denmark (35.2 %) and Sweden (35.1 %). By contrast, less than 5.0 % of all doctoral students in Lithuania, 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, cultural or historical 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 16 of the Member States for which data are available (incomplete data for Germany and Slovenia), a majority of students from abroad in 2017 were from elsewhere in Europe, with this share exceeding 90.0 % in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Croatia (where a peak of 92.3 % was recorded), while the proportion of tertiary students from elsewhere in Europe was close to one quarter (25.1 :%) of the total in Ireland, one fifth (21.5 %) in France and reached a low of 17.8 % in Portugal.
In Cyprus and the United Kingdom, more than half (55.7 % and 50.4 % respectively) of all tertiary students from abroad came from Asia; the share of Asian students was above one third of the total in four additional EU Member States (Ireland, Latvia, Finland and Germany). In France, 43.4 % of tertiary students from abroad in 2017 were from Africa, while this share was just over one third (33.6 %) in Portugal; Malta, Belgium, Italy and Romania recorded the next highest shares (each within the range of 11.6 % to 13.2 %). The share of foreign students from the Caribbean, Central and South America was particularly high in Spain (46.3 %), with Portugal once again recording a relatively high share (38.2 %); each of the remaining Member States reported less than 10 % of their tertiary students from abroad originating from the Caribbean, Central and South America. Ireland was the only Member State where more than one tenth (16.2 %) of tertiary education students from abroad originated in North America, the next highest share being recorded in the United Kingdom (5.2 %).
A more detailed analysis for the origin of students from abroad is presented in Table 2. For 15 of the EU Member States, the principal country of origin for students from abroad in 2017 was another Member State. These were often neighbouring countries (such as Czechia and Slovakia) or countries that may be reached by a relatively short water crossing (for example, students from Finland studying in Estonia). In four of the EU Member States — Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands (2015 data) 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 three other Member States (Greece, Latvia and Luxembourg) and the third largest group in three more (Croatia, Lithuania and Sweden).
Across the whole of the EU, China (including Hong Kong) was the most common country of origin for tertiary students from abroad in 2017, accounting for 11.2 % of the total. There were more students from China (than any other foreign country) studying in Germany (excluding doctoral studies), Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom, while Chinese students accounted for the second largest population of foreign students within the tertiary education sectors of France, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. Alongside the neighbouring countries of Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine, the only other non-member country that appeared multiple times in the rankings was India.
Field of education for students from abroad
Table 3 provides an analysis of students from abroad according to their field of education. Among the fields of education shown in the table — which is based on the ISCED-F 2013 classification (see the section on Data sources for more information) — the most popular field for tertiary students from abroad in the EU-28 (excluding the Netherlands and Slovenia) was business, administration and law (24.8 % of all students from abroad), followed by engineering, manufacturing and construction (17.3 %) and arts and humanities (14.0 %). By contrast, students from abroad following education, services, or agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary fields of study accounted for a relatively small share of the total number of students from abroad (each less than 3.0 %).
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 (24.8 %) of all students from abroad studying in Italy in 2017 followed a course in the arts or humanities, while 29.6 % of the students from abroad studying in Germany followed a course in engineering, manufacturing or construction.
Business, administration and law was the most common field of study for tertiary students from abroad in 11 of the 27 EU Member States for which data are available (no data for the Netherlands). Health or welfare was the most common field of study for students from abroad in nine of the EU Member States (this field of education accounted for more than half of all tertiary students from abroad studying in Bulgaria and Slovakia), while engineering, manufacturing and construction was the most popular field in four of the Member States.
Relative to the overall number of tertiary graduates in each country, Luxembourg had the highest proportion (49.7 %) of students from abroad who graduated in 2017, followed by the United Kingdom where more than one quarter (25.6 %) of all tertiary graduates were from abroad. In six other EU Member States — the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Cyprus, Belgium (2015 data) and Ireland — the share of all graduates who originated from abroad stood at between 10 % and 16 %. By contrast, students from abroad made up a relatively small proportion (1.8 %) of the total number of tertiary graduates in Greece, the only Member State where this share was below 3.0 %.
Based on available data (see Table 4), there were 483 000 tertiary students from abroad that graduated in the EU-28 during 2017. The majority of these graduated from master’s degree courses (55.0 %), while just over one third (34.3 %) graduated from bachelor’s degree courses, 6.7 % from doctoral courses and 4.0 % from short-cycle tertiary courses.
A total of 201 000 students from abroad graduated in the United Kingdom in 2017, which equated to more than two fifths (41.6 %) of the total number of graduates from abroad across the whole of the EU. The next largest numbers of graduates from abroad were 78 000 in France (16.0 % of the EU total), 42 000 in Germany (8.7 % of the EU total) and 24 000 in the Netherlands (5.0 %); note that only partial data are available for Spain and Poland.
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 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.
Across all levels of tertiary education (ISCED levels 5-8), almost half (49.7 %) of all tertiary graduates in Luxembourg originated from abroad; this was, by far, the highest share among the EU Member States, with the second highest value recorded in the United Kingdom (26.2 % in 2016). The high share of tertiary graduates from abroad in Luxembourg was present for each of the individual levels of tertiary education, while there was :
- a relatively high share of short-cycle tertiary education graduates originating from abroad in Croatia and Denmark;
- a relatively high share of graduates with bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees originating from abroad in the United Kingdom (2016 data);
- a relatively high share of graduates with master's and doctoral degrees originating from abroad in the Netherlands.
Among the non-member countries, there was a relatively high share of graduates with master's and doctoral degrees originating from abroad in Switzerland and Iceland, with more than half (56.4 %) of the doctoral graduates in Switzerland from abroad, as were around two fifths (40.6 %) of doctoral graduates in Iceland.
Origin of graduates from abroad
The distribution by continent for the origin of tertiary graduates from abroad is presented in Figure 4 for 26 EU Member States (no data for Spain and Poland). In 2017, there were 15 Member States where a majority of the tertiary graduates from abroad originated from Europe, with this share reaching as high as 93.7 % in Slovakia and 94.8 % in Croatia. By contrast, in Belgium (2015 data), the United Kingdom, Ireland and Portugal, tertiary graduates from other European countries accounted for between one quarter and one third of all tertiary graduates from abroad, while this share was lowest (17.9 %) in France.
In 2017, more than a half (57.0 %) of all tertiary graduates from abroad in the United Kingdom originated from Asia. Asian graduates also accounted for more than one third of all graduates from abroad in Ireland, Latvia, Germany and Finland. In Turkey, almost two thirds (65.6 %) of tertiary graduates from abroad originated from Asia.
In 2017, more than one third (35.5 %) of all tertiary graduates from abroad in Portugal 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 was also relatively high in Portugal (26.1 %), although this was below the share recorded in France (40.8 %); Malta, Romania and Italy were the only other Member States to record double-digit shares of tertiary graduates from abroad coming from Africa.
A more detailed analysis of graduates from abroad by country of origin is available (see Table 5). In 2017 (based on information for the 26 EU Member States shown), the three principal origins of graduates from abroad were China (including Hong Kong), Germany and India. Among half of these 26 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), Turkey accounted for the highest share of graduates from abroad in Bulgaria, Morocco for graduates from abroad in France, Bosnia and Herzegovina for graduates from abroad in Croatia, Albania for graduates from abroad in Italy, Uzbekistan for graduates from abroad in Latvia, Belarus for graduates from abroad in Lithuania, Brazil for graduates from abroad in Portugal, Moldova for graduates from abroad in Romania and Russia for graduates from abroad in Finland.
Field of study for graduates from abroad
Table 6 provides an analysis according to the field of education which is similar to that shown in Table 3, but it presents information on the share of graduates from abroad rather than the share of students from abroad who were still attending education courses. A comparison between the two tables shows there were nine EU Member States (out of 24 for which a complete set of data are available) where the overall share of graduates from abroad in 2017 was higher than the share of students from abroad. The largest difference was in the United Kingdom where the share of tertiary graduates from abroad was 25.6 % compared with a share of 17.9 % for students from abroad. By contrast, while some 10.9 % of tertiary graduates in Cyprus were from abroad, the share of tertiary students from abroad studying in Cyprus was much higher, at 23.1 %.
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 (based on those EU Member States for which data are available) was 36.4 % in 2017, while the ratio for master’s degree courses was slightly higher, at 38.8 %; both of these ratios are relatively high, reflecting the short length of most courses (especially for master’s degrees if these are taken after having already obtained a bachelor’s degree). Considerably lower ratios were recorded for doctoral degrees (22.2 %) and for bachelor’s degrees (23.0 %), where it is typical for students to spend at least three years studying or researching 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 19 out of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available, a majority of credit mobile graduates from bachelor’s or equivalent level studies in 2017 had participated in EU programmes, with this share reaching 100.0 % in Cyprus, as was also the case in North Macedonia (2016 data). There were a further nine Member States where the share of credit mobile graduates that had participated in EU programmes was higher than 90.0 %. Denmark was the only Member State where the highest share of credit mobile graduates participated in other international or national programmes (46.9 %); this was also the case in Norway (84.2 %). Finally, there were four Member States — Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden — where the residual category of ‘other programmes’ accounted for the highest share of credit mobile graduates.
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 were published in 2015 starting with data for the 2013 reference period.
Eurostat data by fields of education are classified according to the ISCED-F 2013 classification; this classification has been used for Eurostat data from reference year 2016 onwards (and is therefore the basis for the information presented within this article). The fields of education — as classified by ISCED-F 2013 — are broad domains, branches or areas of content covered by an education programme or qualification. The classification was designed principally to describe and categorise fields of education and training at the secondary, post-secondary and tertiary levels of formal education. It has a three-level hierarchy based on broad fields (the highest level), narrow fields (the second level) and detailed fields (the third level) of education. The 11 broad fields include: generic programmes and qualifications; education; arts and humanities; business, administration and law; natural sciences, mathematics and statistics; information and communication technologies; engineering, manufacturing and construction; agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary; health and welfare; and services.
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 subnational 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. Information on the definitions currently used by countries is available in a specific set of footnotes for learning mobility statistics.
The Bologna process put in motion a series of reforms to make European higher education more compatible, comparable, competitive and attractive for students. One of the operational goals of the Bologna process was to remove obstacles to student mobility across Europe, and more broadly support the mobility of students, teachers and researchers. It established a European Higher Education Area to facilitate student and staff mobility, to make higher education more inclusive and accessible, and to make higher education in Europe more attractive and competitive worldwide.
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.
The European Higher Education Area has brought about far-reaching changes which make it easier to study and train abroad. Both the three tier bachelor-master-doctorate degree structure and advances in quality assurance have facilitated student and staff mobility, while the use of mobility and quality assurance tools (such as the European credit transfer and accumulation system (ECTS) or the European quality assurance register (EQAR)) have facilitated mutual trust, academic recognition and 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 academic staff the opportunity 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
- Summaries of EU Legislation: 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