In This Article International Student Migration

  • Introduction
  • Theorizing ISM
  • Directions and Patterns of Student Flows
  • Future Plans for Mobility and Experiences upon Return

Geography International Student Migration
Yvonne Riaño, Etienne Piguet
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0141


The number of international students has grown considerably in the early 21st century. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2000 the global number of students enrolled in tertiary education outside their country of citizenship was two million; by 2012 that had increased to four and a half million, representing an average annual growth of almost 7 percent. Among all groups of migrants—including labor migrants, family migrants, and refugees—international students are the fastest-growing group. International students are generally defined as having left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study, and are usually divided into two groups: those who move abroad to complete a degree (degree mobility), and those who move for a short-term study exchange (credit mobility). The multifaceted question of why students move abroad has been of considerable interest to researchers in recent years, and three main reasons have been advanced in order to answer this question. For a start, universities in many countries take an entrepreneurial approach to higher education, and several use global strategies to attract international students in the interest of increasing revenue. This phenomenon is known as the globalization of international education. Secondly, several governments view international students as valuable future skilled migrants and devise measures encouraging them to remain after completion of their studies. Finally, students and their families recognize the labor-market value of obtaining foreign qualifications. Unfortunately, despite their importance as a distinct migrant population, and also in terms of the topic’s potential for enriching our understanding of contemporary forms of mobility, there has been relatively little research on international student mobility (ISM) in comparison to other forms of migration. The decision by an individual to move abroad for the purpose of acquiring international education has traditionally been explained from the perspective of human capital theory. According to this perspective, an individual will choose to migrate if (and only if) this means acquiring an experience or diploma (=human capital) that will improve future earnings. This rather simplistic cost-benefit model has recently been challenged by new theories. The literature on international student migration is multidisciplinary, incorporating notions of geography, sociology, higher education, migration studies, and international law. This article offers a foundation for gaining a comprehensive understanding of ISM and identifying research gaps. It proposes classifying the scientific literature according to six main questions: (1) How to theorize ISM? (2) What are the directions and patterns of student flows? (3) What are the students’ reasons for moving, and what are their subsequent experiences abroad? (4) What are the regulations, policies, and strategies of supranational bodies, national governments, and universities regarding ISM? (5) What are the outcomes and effects of ISM? (6) What are the students’ plans for future mobility, and what are their experiences upon return?

Theorizing ISM

Efforts at providing a solid empirical foundation to understand international student mobility (ISM) have increased in recent years. However, efforts to theorize are less abundant. The papers presented in this section propose a set of explanatory theories. Major recent theoretical advances include adopting a more contextual approach as well as acknowledging the role of university policies and government on student mobility. Four main theories have been advanced: (1) Findlay 2010 brings supply and demand-side theories together, thus explaining student mobility as a complex interplay between the financial interests of higher education institutions in the United Kingdom and the motivations and actions of international students and their families; (2) Findlay 2010 and Findlay, et al. 2012 put forward class reproduction approaches by arguing that student mobility should be understood as part of a broader process of transnational class reproduction; (3) Raghuram 2013; King and Raghuram 2013; and Madge, et al. 2014 suggest global knowledge theory to understand international students not simply as individuals moving between physical locations, but as key agents in transforming and constituting new global spaces of academic knowledge; and (4) Murphy-Lejeune 2002 suggests that international students be understood as a new migratory elite. The majority of theories pertaining to student mobility have been formulated by British scholars focused on the United Kingdom. Since there exists a long history of international student migration to other countries, the next step is to expand this geographical scope and examine the empirical validity of theories outside the United Kingdom, leading to a more robust and differentiated understanding of international student mobility.

  • Findlay, Allan M. “An Assessment of Supply and Demand-Side Theorizations of International Student Migration.” International Migration 49.2 (2010): 162–190.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2435.2010.00643.xE-mail Citation »

    Understanding student mobility as knowledge migration, Findlay argues for examining the contexts of decision making, and questions the adequacy of previous theorizations of international student mobility. Widening the cost-benefit/economic perspective, the author argues that researchers need to give more attention to “demand-side” theories that examine the choice of students to move abroad to improve their cultural capital, and “supply-side” theories that investigate the financial interests of academic institutions to attract international students.

  • Findlay, Allan M., Russell King, Fiona M. Smith, Alistair Geddes, and Ronald Skeldon. “World Class? An Investigation of Globalisation, Difference and International Student Mobility.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37.1 (2012): 118–131.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00454.xE-mail Citation »

    Analyzing a questionnaire survey and interviews with international UK students, this article shows that class reproduces itself through international study: students from private schools are more likely to gain access to international universities and to accrue social and cultural capital during the experience. Furthermore, analysis of international students should integrate broader life-course aspirations. Finally, the “reputations” of educational destinations are structured by individuals, universities, and states.

  • King, Russell, and Parvati Raghuram. “International Student Migration: Mapping the Field and New Research Agendas.” Population, Space and Place 19 (2013): 127–137.

    DOI: 10.1002/psp.1746E-mail Citation »

    King and Raghuram highlight the tensions and contradictions inherent in viewing international students as both “desired” (fulfilling the needs of a highly skilled labor market) and “unwanted” (due to the politics of migration control). Future research needs to produce greater theoretical insight, more in-depth ethnographic research, further quantitative research, more attention to gender and race, and stronger attention to links between student mobility and how scientific knowledge is produced.

  • Madge, Clare, Parvati Raghuram, and Pat Noxolo. “Conceptualizing International Education: From International Student to International Study.” Progress in Human Geography (2014): 1–21.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues two main reasons for a shift in conceptual focus from international student to international study. First, given the great diversity of international students, it is timely to problematize “the international student” as a singular category. Second, it is necessary to widen the focus of international students as simple maximizers of financial and human capital in order to acknowledge that they also produce academic knowledge.

  • Murphy-Lejeune, Elizabeth. Student Mobility and Narrative in Europe: The New Strangers. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Bringing together case studies and theory, Murphy-Lejeune produces the first in-depth qualitative study of student migration within Europe. Drawing on the theory of “the stranger” as a sociological type, the author suggests that the travelling European students can be seen as a new migratory elite. The book presents the narratives of travelling students; explains their motivations, the effects of movement into a new social and cultural context and, the problems of adaptation; and describes the construction of social networks and the process of adaptation to new cultures.

  • Raghuram, Parvati. “Theorising the Spaces of Student Migration.” Population, Space and Place 19.2 (2013): 138–154.

    DOI: 10.1002/psp.1747E-mail Citation »

    Raghuram views student migration as a key component of knowledge migration, arguing that student migrants are also involved in labor and family migration, and it raises the question of what distinguishes student migrants. The paper reviews theories of student mobility and suggests extending the dominant scope from primarily analyzing the spatialities of migration to examining how students become agents in configuring the constitution, power, and sustainability of academic knowledge.

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