Statistics Explained

Learning mobility statistics


Data extracted in June 2022.

Planned article update: July 2023.

Highlights

1.46 million students from abroad were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU in 2020.

In 2020, students from abroad who were studying in Germany accounted for 25 % (368 700) of the EU total; the next largest shares were 17 % in France and 9 % in the Netherlands.

More than two fifths (43 %) of the students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU in 2020 were from Europe, 26 % were from Asia and 16 % were from Africa.

Share of tertiary education students from abroad by continent of origin, 2020
(% of all tertiary education students from abroad)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobs02)

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.

Tertiary students are degree mobile if they completed secondary education somewhere (regardless of whether this was in another EU Member State or in a non-member country) other than the EU Member State where they are studying. They are credit mobile if they spend a short-term study or work-related time abroad while being enrolled in their home country’s tertiary institution. 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 presentation of data on credit mobile graduates.

The article provides information on students and graduates analysed by level of education, with a focus on country of origin for degree mobile students and country of destination for credit mobile students. As well as the information provided in this article, data is available for degree mobile students and graduates by field of study.

Full article

Students from abroad

Number and share of students from abroad

Table 1: Tertiary education students from abroad by sex and level of education, 2020
(number)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobs02)

There were 1.46 million students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU in 2020. 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 (42.2 %) or a master’s degree (45.1 %), while 10.4 % were studying for doctoral degrees and 2.4 % followed short-cycle tertiary courses.

In 2020, a total of 368 700 tertiary education students from abroad (25.2 % of the total number of students from abroad in the EU) were studying in Germany. The next largest populations of tertiary education students from abroad were recorded in France (252 400; 17.3 % of the EU total) and the Netherlands (124 900; 8.6 % the EU total).

Figure 1: Share of tertiary education students from abroad within each level of education, 2020
(% of all students)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobs02) and (educ_uoe_enrt01)

Relative to the overall number of tertiary education students in each EU Member State (in other words, the sum of local students and students from abroad), Luxembourg had the highest proportion of students from abroad in 2020, at 48.4 %, followed by Cyprus (27.2 %). There were 13 other Member States where at least one tenth of all tertiary education students were from abroad. By contrast, students from abroad made up a relatively small proportion of the tertiary education student population in Poland (4.5 %), Spain (3.8 %), Croatia (3.0 %), Italy (2.9 %) and Greece (2.8 %).

Figure 1 provides a more detailed analysis of the share of students from abroad in each stage of tertiary education in 2020, ranked on the share for the whole of tertiary education. In relation to the total number of 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. For the EU as a whole, the shares in 2020 ranged from 2.6 % for short-cycle tertiary courses to 23.3 % for doctoral degrees.

  • In 20 of the EU Member States, the highest share of students from abroad was observed for doctoral degrees.
  • In Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania, the highest share of students from abroad was for master’s degrees.
  • Greece recorded its highest share of students from abroad for bachelor’s degrees.
  • Cyprus recorded its highest share of students from abroad for short-cycle tertiary courses.

Within each education level, some of the smaller EU Member States recorded particularly high shares of tertiary students from abroad in 2020.

  • The highest share of students from abroad studying for short-cycle tertiary courses was recorded in Cyprus, at 50.0 %; for comparison, the next highest shares were 17.0 % and 13.0 % in Malta and Portugal.
  • More than one third of all students studying for bachelor’s degrees in Cyprus (35.5 %) were from abroad, as were nearly one quarter in Luxembourg (24.4 %). In five other Member States, more than 1 in 10 students at the bachelor level were from abroad.
  • Close to three quarters (74.6 %) of master’s students in Luxembourg were from abroad; for comparison, the next highest share was 26.7 % in Latvia. Shares between one fifth and one quarter were observed in five other EU Member States, while there were five Member States where the share of master’s students from abroad was below 1 in 10.
  • For doctoral students, Luxembourg again reported the highest share of students from abroad (89.0 %), followed by the Netherlands (47.9 %). A further 11 Member States reported shares of doctoral students from abroad of at least 25.0 %. In six Member States, the share of doctoral students from abroad was below 1 in 10.

Origin of students from abroad

Figure 2: Share of tertiary education students from abroad by continent of origin, 2020
(% of all tertiary education students from abroad)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobs02)

Figure 2 reflects how factors like language, cultural and historical ties, and geographical proximity can influence learning mobility, while the establishment of the European higher education area may also be an influencing factor on mobility.

  • For 13 of the EU Member States for which data are available (incomplete data for the Netherlands), a majority of students from abroad in 2020 were from elsewhere in Europe. This share exceeded 90.0 % in Slovenia (92.2 %). The proportion of tertiary students from elsewhere in Europe was below one third in Finland, below one quarter in Ireland, and below one fifth in France (16.7 %) and Portugal (14.7 %).
  • In Cyprus, more than half (58.4 %) of all tertiary students from abroad came from Asia, as was also the case in Latvia and Ireland.
  • In France, half (50.0 %) of tertiary students from abroad in 2020 were from Africa, while this share was just over one third (34.6 %) in Portugal.
  • The share of foreign students from the Caribbean, Central and South America was particularly high in Spain (45.5 %) and Portugal (43.9 %).
  • Ireland (15.9 %) was the only Member State where more than 5.0 % of tertiary education students from abroad originated from North America.
  • The share of tertiary education students from abroad that originated from Oceania was small in all Member States, peaking at 0.7 % in Denmark.
Table 2: Share of tertiary education students from abroad by country of origin for the three largest partner countries, 2020
(% of all tertiary education students from abroad)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobs02)

A more detailed analysis for the origin of students from abroad is presented in Table 2. For 12 of the EU Member States, the principal country of origin for students from abroad in 2020 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 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 (Croatia and Luxembourg) and the third largest group in Bulgaria, Greece and Latvia.

Across the whole of the EU, China (including Hong Kong) was the most common country of origin for tertiary students from abroad in 2020, accounting for 7.0 % of the total. There were more students from China (than any other foreign country) studying in Germany, Italy and Sweden, while Chinese students accounted for the second or third largest population of foreign students within the tertiary education sectors of five other EU Member States. The only other non-member countries that appeared multiple times in the rankings were India and several countries neighbouring the EU – Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Graduates from abroad

There were 327 600 tertiary students from abroad that graduated in the EU during 2020. The largest share wase graduates from master’s degree courses (47.5 %), while more than one third (37.4 %) graduated from bachelor’s degree courses, 5.5 % from doctoral courses and 2.0 % from short-cycle tertiary courses.

Share of graduates from abroad

Figure 3: Share of tertiary education graduates from abroad within each level of education, 2020
(% of all graduates)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobg03)

Like for students, Eurostat also publishes data on degree graduates from abroad by sex, level of education, country of origin and field of education. Figure 3 presents some of this information and provides an analysis of the share of graduates from abroad within each level of tertiary education, ranked on the share for tertiary education as a whole. Relative to the overall number of tertiary graduates in 2020, Luxembourg had the highest proportion (46.5 %) of graduates from abroad, followed by the Netherlands (18.7 %). In 10 other EU Member States the share of tertiary education graduates who originated from abroad was also above 10.0 %. By contrast, students from abroad made up a relatively small proportion (1.6 %) of the total number of tertiary graduates in Greece.

In relation to the total number of graduates at each level, the share of graduates from abroad generally increases as a function of the level of education. For the EU, the share ranged in 2020 from 1.9 % for graduates of short-cycle tertiary courses to 24.4 % for graduates of doctoral degrees. This is a similar pattern to that observed for students from abroad – see Figure 1.

Among the EU Member States, the highest shares of graduates from abroad in 2020 in each of the levels of tertiary education were observed in Luxembourg, ranging from 19.4 % for short-cycle tertiary courses to 84.0 % for doctoral degrees. Relatively high shares of graduates from abroad were also observed in:

  • Cyprus, Denmark and Malta for short-cycle tertiary education, at least 10.0 %;
  • Cyprus, Austria, the Netherlands and Czechia for bachelor’s degrees, at least 10.0 %;
  • the Netherlands, Malta, Austria, Ireland, Estonia, Denmark and Sweden, at least 20.0 %;
  • Belgium and the Netherlands for doctoral degrees, at least 40.0 %.

Tertiary students and tertiary graduates from abroad compared

Table 3: Ratio of tertiary education graduates to students, 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_enrt01), (educ_uoe_grad01), (educ_uoe_mobs02) and (educ_uoe_mobg02)

The number of graduates may be expected to be smaller than the number of students for each level of tertiary education, as the duration of most tertiary education courses is longer than one year. Furthermore, some students do not graduate as they change courses or drop out before completing their studies.

Table 3 presents the ratio of the number of tertiary graduates to the corresponding number of tertiary students; this is presented for all students/graduates (local and from abroad combined) as well as for students/graduates from abroad. The ratio of graduates to students for those from abroad in the EU in 2020 was 21.8 % for all tertiary levels together; this was slightly lower than the 23.2 % ratio for students/graduates from all origins. For short-cycle degrees and for bachelor’s degrees, the ratio for students/graduates from abroad was lower than that from all origins; for master’s degrees and for doctoral degrees, the reverse was observed, with slightly higher ratios for students/graduates from abroad.

The ratio of graduates from abroad to students from abroad in the EU (excluding Czechia) for short-cycle degrees was 25.3 % in 2020, while the ratio for master’s degrees was slightly higher, at 27.6 %. Both of these ratios are relatively high, reflecting the short length of most courses; master’s degrees typically last one or two years (if taken after having already obtained a bachelor’s degree). Considerably lower ratios were recorded for doctoral degrees (13.9 %) and for bachelor’s degrees (17.4 %), where it is typical for students to spend at least three years researching or studying before they graduate.

  • For short-cycle courses, particularly high ratios of graduates to students from abroad were observed in Ireland and Luxembourg, close to 80.0 %.
  • Given that bachelor’s degrees normally last at least three years, relatively high ratios were observed for such degrees in France (32.8 %), Ireland (30.1 %) and Denmark (29.9 %).
  • For master’s degrees, which typically last one or two years, the highest ratio was in Ireland, at 80.1 %. This was by far the highest ratio among the EU Member States, as the next highest was 43.7 % in Spain.
  • The highest ratio for doctoral degrees was observed in Malta, 30.5 %; the next highest ratios were in the Netherlands (25.3 %) and Italy (24.0 %).

Credit mobile graduates

Table 4: Number of credit mobile tertiary graduates from abroad, 2020
(number)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobc01)

The previous sections of this article have focused on degree mobile students and graduates – students from abroad enrolled as a regular student with the intention of graduating from the course/study in the country of destination. The last section of this article concerns credit mobile graduates. Credit mobility is defined as temporary tertiary education or/and study-related traineeship abroad within the framework of enrolment in a tertiary education programme at a home institution (usually) for the purpose of gaining academic credit. The analysis concerns credit mobile students who were mobile for either a period of study or for a work placement, or both combined.

The number of credit mobile graduates from the EU in 2020 was approximately 440 000, although this is likely to be an underestimate as coverage is not complete. In particular, data for credit mobile graduates for doctoral or equivalent studies are not available for several Member States, including Germany. Based on the available data, approximately half of credit mobile graduates had followed master’s or equivalent studies and most of the rest had followed bachelor's or equivalent studies; relatively small numbers of credit mobile graduates were recorded for short-cycle tertiary studies or doctoral or equivalent studies.

Among the EU Member States, the largest number of credit mobile graduates in 2020 were from France, at 165 300. The second highest number of credit mobile graduates, 68 900 (excluding doctoral or equivalent studies) was from Germany.

  • The largest number of credit mobile graduates in short-cycle tertiary studies (10 400), bachelor’s or equivalent studies (42 300) and master’s or equivalent studies (111 800) were from France.
  • Within doctoral or equivalent studies, the largest numbers of credit mobile graduates were from Italy (4 100) and Spain (3 100).
Table 5: Share of credit mobile graduates for the three largest partner countries, 2020
(% of all credit mobile graduates)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobc02)

As for degree mobile students/graduates, credit mobile graduates within EU Member States went to many different countries, because of similar language, cultural and historical ties, and geographical proximity. For the EU as a whole (excluding Belgium, Estonia, Ireland and Slovenia), the largest number of credit mobile graduates in 2020 went to Spain (10.8 %) and the United Kingdom (10.1 %). The third largest share went to the United States (7.4 %). Together, these three partners accounted for 28.3 % of all credit mobile graduates from the EU.

An analysis of the destinations of credit mobile graduates is presented in Table 5. For 19 of the EU Member States, the principal destination for credit mobile graduates in 2020 had been another Member State. Several of these were neighbouring Member States (such as graduates from Luxembourg who had been in Germany) or countries with the same or similar languages (for example, graduates from Cyprus who had been in Greece). Looking across the top three destinations for all Member States together, Spain and Germany were the most common destinations. Among non-member countries, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia were the only ones to appear among the top three destinations for graduates from any of the EU Member States.

Figure 4: Distribution of type of mobility scheme among credit mobile graduates (at least three months abroad for a study period and/or work placement) at bachelor’s or equivalent level, 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_mobc01)

The final analysis in this article also concerns credit mobile graduates but focuses on people who had graduated from bachelor’s or equivalent programmes.

Data are presented for three types of credit mobility programmes in Figure 4:

  • 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.

Around three fifths of EU credit mobile graduates from bachelor’s or equivalent programmes in 2020 had participated in EU programmes (59.6 %). Other international/national programmes had a share of 10.8 %, while other programmes made up the remaining 29.6 %.

  • In 21 of the 26 EU Member States for which data are available (no data for Ireland), a majority of credit mobile graduates from bachelor’s or equivalent level studies in 2020 had participated in EU programmes, with this share reaching 100.0 % for graduates from Cyprus. Aside from Cyprus, there were a further 10 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 close to half of its credit mobile graduates participated in other international or national programmes (49.1 %); the next highest share was two fifths (40.5 %) for graduates from Sweden, which was considerably higher than the next share, just over a quarter (25.9 %) for graduates from Austria.
  • There were three Member States – the Netherlands, Germany and France – where the residual category of ‘other programmes’ accounted for the highest share of credit mobile graduates; a majority of credit mobile graduates from the Netherlands participated in other programmes (58.0 %).

Source data for tables and graphs

Excel.jpg Learning mobility statistics: tables and figures

Data sources

Source

The standards for international statistics on education are set by three international organisations:

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.

More information about the joint data collection is available in an article on the UOE methodology.

Classification

The international standard classification of education (ISCED) is the basis for international education statistics, describing nine different levels of education.

Data by fields of education are classified according to the ISCED-F 2013 classification. 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 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.

Key concepts

The UOE data collection covers domestic educational activity. In other words, it concerns 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 under Table 1 for degree mobile students, Figure 3 for degree mobile graduates and Table 4 for credit mobile graduates.

More information on the concepts used for these statistics can be found in the Methodological manual on learning mobility in tertiary education.

Context

Bologna process

Since the introduction of the Bologna process (see the article on Education and training statistics introduced) a major expansion in higher education systems has taken place, accompanied by significant reforms in degree structures and quality assurance systems.

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.

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.

Erasmus+

In 2014, the Erasmus programme was superseded by the EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to as ‘Erasmus+’. The programme currently covers the period 2021–2027 and has an overall budget of €26.2 billion. This is nearly double the funding compared to its predecessor programme (2014–2020).

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). The programme currently covers all EU Member States, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, North Macedonia, Serbia and Türkiye.

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