We all know that the whole world is our classroom and different countries have their own particular areas of expertise, so to speak, in terms of what they can offer the global learners. But there are other factors that determine why international students go to a particular destination to study, the foremost of which are: quality of education, cultural accessibility, safety or law and order, affordability in terms of cost of living, and, most importantly, school fees. Over the years, certain countries have consistently attracted international students primarily due to their advantage over the others based on the above factors.
To get a clearer picture of which countries lead the global education scene, we take a deep dive into international education issues and insights and talk about the top five countries that have the most number of international students in their midst.
Based on the latest data from UNESCO and the Institute of International Education, there are over 5.3 million international students across the globe, with a predominant concentration on wealthy nations.
Looking at the figures, it can easily be inferred that the top academic destinations for international students are also the world’s largest economies. With education quality being the prime consideration, it is without a doubt that wealthy nations are leading this arena.
Checking on academic programs and infrastructure dedicated to education and research, affluent countries have so much to offer to global learners. As these nations recognize the benefits of being host to international students, these countries leverage the value of having high-quality education as their main bargaining chip for interested students outside their locale.
Over the last two academic years, the Top 5 Countries with the Most International Students are:
From 2018 to 2019, both the United States and China recorded a minimal increase in international enrollment, and only the UK experienced a decline. Meanwhile, Canada and Australia both recorded double-digit percentage increases.
With only a few thousand students separating the them, the countries ranked 2nd to 5th in the list can potentially vary in order in subsequent years while the US, with over one million international students, is expected to maintain its lead in the global ranking.
Given the data relative to the students’ top choice of countries, MSM looks at each country to gain a clearer picture of why international students are consistently selecting these host destinations.
1. United States
The United States remains to be the powerhouse destination for international students. This is why student recruitment for that country is high. One of the main reasons why students choose to study in the US is the country’s reputation for renowned top-quality higher education programs. Famous for small class sizes, highly accredited professors, and advanced technology and research capabilities, US schools continually draw international students to their communities.
Approximately half of the world’s top 50 universities are located in the US and these well-known institutions offer courses featuring many different majors. The US is also known for its flexible academic system and a multicultural environment.
The distinction vested on the American education system is proven to be accurate as many of its universities consistently land in the world rankings. In 2019, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was hailed as the best university in the prominent QS World Rankings.
With four out of five schools on the list, it is undeniably that US schools provide first-rate academic programs.
To get a deeper insight into the US International Student Demographics, here is a list of the countries that send the most students to US schools.
Source: IIE, Project Atlas 2019
It is noticeable that international recruitment of students are mostly from Asian countries and this is mainly attributable to the fact that many Asians view US education as prestigious and which paves a clear path to career fortune.
But how does the current international student market in the US look like amid the pandemic? Just like what is expected, there had been a decline in international enrollment but it is not alarming as the US maintains over one million students from foreign shores. Given all the travel restrictions and other challenges caused by the global health crisis, the 1.8 percent decrease does not make a huge dent on the US’ reputation as the top academic destination of choice by global learners.
2. United Kingdom
Ranked second after the United States, the United Kingdom is home to nearly 500,000 international students. According to IIE Project Atlas 2019, there are currently 496,570 international students pursuing their studies in the UK.
Similar to the US, schools across the United Kingdom have a positive reputation for having high-quality programs. Some of the most famous universities in the UK among international students are:
- University of Oxford
- University of Cambridge
- University College London
- Durham University
Popular to students from within the European Union and Non-EU countries, the UK has most students coming from the following nations:
Source: IIE, Project Atlas 2019
According to the records of Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, China sent more international students to the UK than in any other overseas country and in Academic Year 2018/19, around 35 percent of all non-EU students were from China. The number of students from China was also 34 percent higher in 2018/19 than in 2014/15, increasing from 89,540 to 120,385 in the last five years.
Astoundingly, the UK’s main competitor as the top destination of international students, the United States is the second-largest source of international enrollees. Meanwhile, student numbers from India increased from 18,325 in 2014/15 to 26,685 in 2018/19.
With the rise in the number of students looking to pursue education and, in some cases, immigration opportunities overseas, Canada fast became one of the most desired study destinations. Bearing an image of a place of peace matched by high-quality education, many foreign students enjoy studying in the country making it the world’s third-leading destination for international students, especially those planning to immigrate there in the future.
Based on the report of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), some 60 percent of international students are interested in becoming permanent residents of Canada after their studies.
With the high interest in immigration opportunities, according to date from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Canada’s international student population grew by 13 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year, marking yet another year of double-digit growth. In 2019, there were 642,480 international students in Canada and over 404,000 international students saw their study permits take effect the same year.
International students are also allowed to live and work in Canada for up to three years after graduation, under Canada’s Post Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) Program. Moreover, students are also allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during a semester. And now during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada even announce that it will accept applications for study permits and post-graduate work permits even if some documents are missing.
With adequate support from the government in aspects of immigration and study permits, international students not only have shown tremendous interest but are actually taking the leap to enter Canadian schools.
Where do inbound students come from?
Source: IIE, Project Atlas 2019
Some 56 percent of Canada’s international students are from India and China.
One-third of the country’s foreign students come from India and the group has placed a major contribution to the growth of the global learners’ population. China is the second-largest source, accounting for 22 percent of Canada’s international students.
The number of international students in China started to rise in the mid-1990s, making it one of the leading study destinations in the world.
In 2018, data showed that there were around 490,000 international students pursuing studies in Chinese universities who were nationals of nearly 200 different countries and regions worldwide. According to Project Atlas data, the number has increased in the past year with a total of 492,185 international students.
One of the main factors encouraging global students to enter Chinese universities is the affordability of education in the country. Chinese universities also offer partially and fully funded scholarships, most of which are allocated for language studies, for both Masters and Ph.D. levels. In fact, there were 63,041 international students (12.81 percent) who received Chinese government scholarships in the past year.
Moreover, China has also been consciously striving to make its universities some of the top institutions in the world by undertaking different initiatives, which have resulted in Chinese universities significantly improving their performance, positioning higher than ever in university world rankings in recent years.
The following list shows the countries that contribute the most number of international students in China:
Source: IIE, Project Atlas 2019
All reflected data is from 2019. Currently, international students are still not allowed to return to the country since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in January this year. Given the ban, it is anticipated that China’s standing in the top academic destinations list will go down as its counterparts continue to work on coming up with policies allowing the re-entry of international students.
Aside from being one of the most popular study destinations among English-speaking countries, Australia is the 5th leading destination for international students. In the academic year 2019/20, the number of international students in Australia was 463,643.
Students prefer to study in Australia due to its renowned quality of education and the sterling reputation of its universities, lower fees, and the multicultural environment where students get to meet people from all over the world. Moreover, international students in Australia are also allowed to work 20 hours per week to cover their expenses during their stay in the country.
Source: IIE, Project Atlas 2019
According to Australia’s Education Department, 59 percent of the total international students from these five countries.
The Pandemic Situation
As the world grapples with the pandemic and how it has disrupted international education for almost a year now, the top five nations in this review continue to monitor how their enrollment numbers are affected. With most countries still implementing mitigating measures against the spread of the deadly virus, it is expected that global institution partnerships will be affected and the return of the dynamic international education scene will not happen any time soon.
Despite this, there is a growing acceptance of the present situation among international students. Over 90 percent of students are now willing to quarantine upon arrival at their host destinations. Students are also increasingly willing to commence their studies online before transitioning to face-to-face classes later on.
We will revisit the data and help assess the changes in international education trends post-pandemic in the coming months. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)
Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities.
She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.
Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.
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