Study Abroad: an Old Idea Taking on New Growth

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Last week I had the privilege of taking part in a conference in Berlin sponsored by the European Association for International Education (EAIE). The theme of the conference was “Innovation in Higher Education: What Research Agenda is Needed?” Speakers included Marijk van der Wende of the Netherlands, Simon Marginson of Australia, Barbara Kehm of Germany, and Phil Altbach of Boston College, to name a few.

The growth of international education and study abroad programs has spiked in recent years. According to the DC-based Institute for International Education (IIE), over 580,000 foreign students studied in the United States in 2006-07, the first real increase in students since 911. India sends the most students to the US (83,833), followed by China (67,723) and Korea (67,723). Alternatively, 223,534 American students studied abroad in 2005-06. These data are illustrated in IIE’s Open Doors report released in November of last year.

Figure 1. Number of foreign students studying in the United States, by year (IIE).SOURCE: Institute of International Education

The foreign market for students in Europe appears to be even greater. In 2001-02, there were 894,000 foreign students in Europe ( While the US, as a single country, attracts by far the most students to its postsecondary campuses, Europe as a group attracts more students.

In 2005, Australia and New Zealand had by far the highest percentage of international students studying within their countries (17.3 and 17 percent of all tertiary students, respectively; SOURCE: OECD). Those down under were followed by the UK (13.9 percent) and then a host of other EU countries, including Switzerland (13.2 percent), Austria (11 percent), France (10.8 percent), Ireland (6.9 percent), Belgium (6.5 percent), Netherlands (4.7 percent), Sweden (4.4 percent), Denmark (4.4 percent), and Finland (3.6 percent). The United States was listed at 3.4 percent of all tertiary students were international (Canada data was unavailable in this analysis).

Of perhaps greatest interest is the growth since 2000. According to the OECD, the average growth among all OECD countries in international students (that is, those studying abroad) was 192 percent, with a 161 percent growth in EU countries. The US gained 124 percent, by comparison. New Zealand’s growth was a modest 845 percent.

Virtually every country saw the number of international students within their borders increase during the first half of this decade, and if expectations hold, these increases will not serve as an anomaly. There is a genuine push toward freer student flow around the world, and especially within and beyond the EU. The growth in trade and sharing of resources in EU countries includes students, and today’s university student population (the ‘Tertiary A’ definition by OECD) is both a unique and important part of those resources.

At the EAIE conference, Simon Marginson of the University of Melbourne said that national borders are no longer the “ultimate horizon of imagination or policy,” and nations are becoming global-citizen states.

But what is pushing or propelling this increase in international exchange at the Tertiary A level? This question was posed at the EAIE conference, and, in fact, Barbara Kehm of the University of Kassel raised that as an important question for research. However, only anecdotal evidence currently exists. Participants, including myself, suggested that the increase of international students is based in part on the increased appetite of students to study abroad and to take in different cultures. And this makes sense. Today’s youth have a definite zeal of the world. The Internet and entertainment culture has opened doors to an entirely new “world” of opportunities for students. While The Beatles may have helped break open the entertainment industry with the British Invasion of the US, the Internet has figuratively busted the door completely down. The development of the EU and Erasmus Mundus program has spurred interest in Europe, and we know that public policies in Australia and NZ have fueled a huge demand for international students to fund higher education.

Still, I want to know who is really pushing the study abroad programs. Students, or institutions? I posit that institutions are the major “pushers” on this for a number of reasons, building on a national interest on behalf of their student populations. The most primary being that there is a definite sense of prestige associated with study abroad programs and links between universities. Universities look good when their students study abroad for a semester or a year. And it looks good when foreign students come to their campuses.

The biggest difference in the American experience and others is that American students tend to do just that: study abroad for a small period of time. Students from the EU and beyond are tending to go away for their complete tertiary experience. This is a much difference phenomenon that has different outcomes and challenges for public policy. As with the American student, they come back and tend to lead their American lives, however one may construe that comment. For other students, they may never return to their respective homelands, escalating the impact of brain drain and brain gain. As Marginson stated, there is a serious global competition for mature researchers that is especially prevalent among nations and institutions that want to increase their global rankings. So it returns to prestige…

I’ve mentioned before that the US has always led the world in its ability to attract the best and brightest. Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, and Sikorski to name a few. These and other scientists served as a definite brain gain for America, and to a degree, the brain drain to their respective nations. The US Ivy League and other Research I institutions continue to comb the world for the best and brightest, with a fair-to-good chance that those students will remain in the US. But more students continue to look beyond the US.

On US campuses, there exists a bonafide push toward study abroad programs. I know I would like my children to consider those opportunities. I spent last Saturday touring Berlin, and every time I come back from Europe or some other part of the world I can’t help but think that there are marvelous opportunities to blossom in the world that don’t possess a North American stamp. Foreign cultures are rich and the joie de vivre of people different than what we possess. But I do worry, to a certain degree, that the study abroad programs, from a US perspective, are more of a filter for institutions rather than students. Institutions are pushing these programs to continue to differentiate themselves from other institutions. It is free-market competition at its best, I guess, but is it adding yet another level of the strata of higher education. From those who go to Ivy League or private institutions, to selective land-grant institutions, to those that have residential opportunities, to commuter institutions, and on and on and on.

The growth of study abroad programs is interesting, and I, like others, will look at them very carefully for my sons, and it could have an impact on where we look at for undergraduate programs. But I also hope that these opportunities will be provided to others; those who can’t afford a study abroad program or to attend an institution that has a $2.5 billion endowment. That will be the ultimate litmus test for higher education in the next quarter century, for sure.

Without doubt, the world continues to close in on us. Partnerships between university systems around the world and treaties and agreements between nations, and global competition and conglomerate mergers are helping reduce the scope of the world. I just hope that we are doing these things for the best reasons, and not just to up the ante in the higher education arms race.

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