Where In the World Are International Students?


According to UNESCO (2012), there are approximately 3.6 million students choosing to study in countries different than their homeland. This is an increase of about 50% since 2004, which leads one to wonder where the new influx of international students is going. This article intends to explore these geographical trends, as well as the mindset and motivation behind today’s average international student.

Geographic Trends

The Institute of International Education reports that the largest concentrations of international students are in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. Top exporting countries of international students include China, India, and South Korea. Saudia Arabia has experienced an increase of their students studying abroad while Japan, once a top exporter of students, has dropped to just 20,000 students studying outside of Japan this past academic year. This is not to suggest that other countries do not host foreign college and university students. Even geographically smaller nations, such as Costa Rica, host international students. However, more often than not, students want to study in primarily English-speaking countries. Although teaching and the cultural experience might be bi-lingual, the primary language of destination countries is the English language.

Students Studying Internationally

Research shows that it is not just the romantic notion of studying in a foreign land that motivates people to study internationally. A huge contributing factor to this trend is the pursuit of the English language, which is the prevailing business language of the world. Although some students leave their home country hoping international study will lead to employment in the foreign country, many students choose an international education in hopes the foreign education and intercultural experience will provide for better job opportunities back home by increasing their marketable skills.

Today’s international student is younger, more technical savvy, and financially able to participate in international study. In the United States, a rising middle class, an increase in available funding and more extensive English language programs all contribute to the trend of studying overseas. Funding from both the exporting country as well as the host country that supports enrollment in undergraduate programs has opened up educational opportunities worldwide. Study abroad is no longer the purview of graduate students. Undergraduate degree programs are widely available and are expanding due to cross-country university collaboration. The desire to obtain a degree from a prestigious university continues to be a primary reason to seek education abroad.

Challenges for International Students

Students choosing to pursue education abroad typically feel excitement about the idea of living in a new country, making new friends, and embracing an unfamiliar culture. These same novelties; however, can quickly turn into a source of uncertainty, inducing apprehension, anxiety, and disorientation.  Starting school at a new college or university already takes a huge adjustment. Add to that starting school in a new country, and things can quickly become overwhelming.

One major challenge students seeking education abroad face is adjusting to new teaching methods. Students coming from Asia to the West, for example, will need to adjust from an Eastern way of learning that is more passive to the more interactive, problem-based instruction of the West. Those who have grown up with lecture-based learning may find it difficult to adapt to a Western higher education environment, where classes are much more interactive, often with expectations to participate in class discussions, question the professor and exercise critical thinking, work in groups on case studies, and do multimedia presentations. It is expected that, especially in the beginning, international students will go through a period of academic, as well as social adjustment.

Although many students attend college or university in countries with better quality of life conditions than their home country, expectations and the amount of financial investment in terms of academic and residential facilities can fall short. Moreover, students studying in other countries may experience isolation in terms of only interacting with other international students. Those students who tend to be introverted may not be comfortable with conversing with others outside their own international student group and after a half of a semester may find themselves eating and studying alone. Students who seek out others with similar interests, such as sports (e.g., soccer) or music/performing arts, tend to fair a bit better, leading to a more engaging cultural experience.

Changing Nature of International Students

As the research indicates, there does not seem to be a slowing of the growth in the number of college and university students studying in other countries. Across the world, students are seeking the experience of learning in a foreign country. It is to be noted that not all countries in which universities offer international study opportunities are created equal. Top country destinations, such as the U.K., the U.S., and Australia provide excellent educational programs, most of which are under some form of quality control, such as being accredited by a national professional association. Other destinations without quality checks and balances, such as India and China, do not provide the type of teaching and learning expected by those seeking the higher education experience abroad. As the increase in studying overseas is predicted to rise, at least in the near future, it is anticipated that countries without quality controls in place will adjust this deficit in order to remain relevant in a very competitive market.

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