2012/13 World University Rankings: More students than ever studying abroad

One of the most notable trends in the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings is the massive increase in the number of international students in the world’s highest ranked universities. The total figure has increased by 10 percent at the top 100 universities. This is the biggest rise in the history of the rankings.

And it’s not just the top 100 either. On average, universities in the top 700 now play host to nearly 4% more international students. And when you consider that a record 72 countries are represented, you can really see that, quite simply, more students are studying in more countries.

The rankings can only cover a fraction of the world’s universities, however. For a fuller picture we can look at data released by the OECD (an international trade and research organization), which reveals that in 2010 4.1 million students were studying abroad. This is a rise of 0.4 million since 2009, and truly stunning increase of 99% since 2000. It is predicted that the figure could rise to seven million by 2020.

Why are students going abroad?

So what is behind this increase? Steve Woodfield, a senior researcher in higher education policy at the UK’s Kingston University, suggests it’s simply down to students looking for a better education: “There is continuing unmet demand for good quality higher-education in many countries, particularly in Asia, combined with a willingness amongst potential students to travel and to pay for high-quality overseas study.”

Elizabeth Shepherd, Research Director for the British Council’s Education Intelligence, agrees: “There are an increasing number of relevant aged young people whose families have an increasing disposable income that they are willing to spend on higher education overseas to give their children an opportunity to progress in their future careers. Students are looking for a ‘value add’, beyond the qualification they obtain to help them stand out from the crowd when it comes to employment.”

OECD research reveals that over 50% of international students studying in countries which provided statistics came from Asia. China, India and Korea send the most, with the US, UK and Australia the most popular destinations. However, looking at QS data, we can see that Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and even Malaysia also play host to large numbers of international students.

New forms of international study

Mobility is also beginning to take new forms. Branch campuses are an example – today, you can study at Texas A&M in Qatar, Newcastle University in Malaysia or Monash University in South Africa. “More than half of the UK’s international education activity and a third of Australia’s is through some form of offshore provision,” explains Professor Keith Mahoney, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy. “That’s 400,000 enrolments for UK institutions and 100,000 in Australian institutions.”

And the countries in which these campuses are based can themselves become destinations, adds Mahoney: “Malaysia, for example, recently announced that it received 25 applications from foreign universities to set up branch campuses as it attempts to reach a goal of enrolling 150,000 international students by 2015.”

Branch campuses could even result in a reversal of the typical East-to-West movement, Mahoney speculates, with high fees in places like the US and UK encouraging students to look to big name universities in foreign countries.

The advantages of mobility

So what does increased international mobility mean? Woodfield names ‘brain circulation’ as one of the positive effects, pointing to the global perspectives, intercultural experience and language skills gained by students who study abroad. He warns, however, of low quality institutions trying to take advantage and emphasizes the importance of making sure courses are accredited.

Mahoney also points to the advantages of a global mindset, adding that this is something policy-makers are aware of: “Governments understand the desirability for students to develop a ‘global mindset’ and the benefits that this brings to both the individual, the economy and society.” It is this awareness is reflected in the efforts of countries like Germany, Canada and Australia to attract students through advertizing or favorable policies involving things like post-study work opportunities.

He also sounds a note of caution on the subject of quality. “Students need to know that by attending a course in one country they will benefit from the same excellent teaching they would expect to receive anywhere else in the world.”
But if the right precautions are taken, it’s easy to see the benefits of student mobility; to the student, to the host country, to employers, to universities themselves and to the student’s home country, which profits from the global perspective of its overseas-educated graduates. In this light, it is clear to see why more and more students are heading abroad to study – and why so many countries are opening their arms to welcome them.

International faculty numbers also on the rise

The QS World University Rankings also look at the proportion of international faculty members at university (learn more about the methodology here). MIT’s rise to top of the rankings was partly down to its improved proportion of international faculty.

Data collected to compile the rankings reveals that increasing international mobility is not limited to students, but also applies to those who work in academia. In terms of percentages, the proportion of international faculty members in ranked universities increased from 12.3% by the 13.3%. In the top 100, this is more pronounced, with the percentage increasing from 24.7% to 26.2%.


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