International student populations are growing in every corner of the world. An industry once ruled by select countries has now blossomed into a competitive landscape with dozens of players.
At ApplyInsights, we often focus on the destination markets we serve, which also happen to be some of the largest in the world. Today, we’re looking at the competition that the “big four” markets aren’t always thinking about.
Which countries are driving the rise of international student populations? Which ones do we see continuing to grow? And how are these countries shifting their policies to attract more students? Let’s find out.
Key Insights at a Glance
- In 2022, there were over 6.4 million international students around the world—that’s over four times the 1.6 million international students studying in 2000.
- Destination countries from four different continents appear on the list of the top 10 fastest-growing countries for international students from 2017 to 2022.
- Germany has the second largest “stay rate” of international students in the world behind Canada, at 40%.
- Despite stagnant growth over the last few years, China is driving several initiatives that could spark its resurgence as a destination for international students in 2024.
The Distribution of International Students — 2000 vs. 2022
In 2000, there were 1.6 million international students studying abroad. During that year, 70% of those students studied in just five countries—the US (28%), the UK (14%), Germany (12%), France (8%), and Australia (7%).1
Fast forward to 2022 and the distribution of international students looks very different. Over 6.4 million students crossed the border to study in 2022, four times the number in 2000.
Not only has the volume of international students around the world exploded, but this growth has spilled into several emerging host countries. The top five host countries in 2022 are home to just 45% of all international students, with no country outside of the US (15%) accounting for more than 10% of total international enrollment.
Let’s take a look at how that growth has taken shape over the last 22 years:
International students have more choices today than they did two decades ago. As baby boomers progress towards retirement and the global birth rate falls, an increasing number of countries need help to address labour shortages.
International students have the potential to be the educated and trained professionals that so many economies need today. While Canada, the UK, and the US currently boast the largest international student populations, they are facing more competition from other countries now than ever before. Let’s take a closer look at that competition.
The Fastest-Growing Destination Countries in the World
Growth is the first factor we look at when trying to determine who the next big players in the international education market will be.
22 years ago, Canada hosted just over 32,000 international students, or 2% of the world’s international student population. Today, Canada is home to over 500,000 international students. That’s one of every 13 around the world.
The following table ranks the fastest-growing destination countries in the world from 2017 to 2022:
Only two of the “big four” destination markets, Canada and the UK, are part of the top 10 fastest-growing markets since 2017. What’s more, there are also four different continents represented on this list, showing the global expansion of international education.
Here are some of the most interesting emerging markets on this list:
Home to just over 3,000 foreign students in 2018, Chile is now the fastest-growing destination for international students in the world. The small South American country hosted nearly 19,000 international students in 2022, a 500% increase since 2018.
Here’s what that growth has looked like over the last 6 years:
Chile began to pick up steam as a destination country in 2020, and has been steadily growing every year since.
To attract more international students, the Chilean government has implemented a range of scholarships, including the Chilean Government Scholarship and the Bicentennial Scholarship, as well as streamlined its visa process for international students.
But the biggest factor influencing this country’s growth is the strength of its Spanish-led instruction. All of Chile’s top five international student source markets in 2022 were South American countries where Spanish is the first language. Many Chilean universities have also begun offering Spanish language programs for international students, which can help them improve their language skills to the point where they can compete for a job after graduation.
The Netherlands is home to several top-ranked universities in Europe and was the 11th most popular destination for international students in 2022. Showing steady and consistent growth since 2017, this country is the fastest-growing destination in Europe over the last six years.
The Netherlands hosted over 115,000 international students in 2022, the largest single-year total in its history. In addition to offering scholarship opportunities and part-time work to students while studying, the Netherlands has a competitive post-graduation work program.
The Netherlands offers a one-year orientation visa for international graduates, which allows them to stay in the country and look for a job after completing their studies. Once students have found a job, they can stay in the Netherlands for as long as they’re employed and apply for a four-year EU residence permit.
Looking at the numbers, there’s one country taking advantage of these perks at a very high rate—Germany. Germany provides the highest influx of international students in the Netherlands, with a staggering number of 24,534 students in 2022 alone. The second-largest source market was Italy with just over 7,000 students.
The Netherlands and Germany are both known for their very strong English-speaking abilities and share a border. The number of well-established German communities in the Netherlands also makes it a popular choice for German students. Similar to Chile, the Netherlands attracts students who feel comfortable speaking one of the country’s national languages.
Often talked about as one of the hottest source markets in international education, the Philippines is also starting to make a name for itself as a destination for international students. From 2021 to 2022, the Philippines was the fastest-growing destination country in the world outside of Canada at +52%.
Take a look at the growth of the Philippines since 2017:
Normally, markets this small wouldn’t be significant enough to warrant the attention of the big four. But the Philippines gets interesting when we examine the nationality breakdown of its new students.
Of the 22,000 new international students that studied in the Philippines last year, over 16,000 of them came from India. India is the world’s largest source market for international students and is projected to keep growing at a significant rate over the next decade.
Once Indian students penetrate a market, history tells us that the market will skyrocket in popularity. Not just among Indian students, but all international students.
Take the UK for example, which hosted 18,000 Indian students in 2017. Today, the UK is projected to welcome over 100,000 new Indian international students next year, which will make India the UK’s number one source market.
We will be watching the Philippines closely to see if this spike in Indian interest is the catalyst of quick growth.
Other Countries to Watch
While volume and growth metrics are valuable pieces of information to have when assessing the international education landscape, they don’t always tell the full story. Here are three markets that institutions in the big four should have on their radars:
China is perhaps the most interesting market in international education right now. Ranked within the top three destination markets and showing steady annual growth as little as five years ago, China has flatlined in recent years.
China hosted over 492,000 international students in 2019 and just 292,000 in 2022. The pandemic was a major factor influencing this decline. China’s “Zero-COVID” policy, which had the majority of the country in and out of a strict lockdown for the past three years, made it very difficult for international students to enter the country.
But despite the plummeting numbers, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that China could bounce back to pre-pandemic enrollment numbers as soon as 2024.
The Chinese government has implemented several policies and initiatives aimed at growing the international education industry in China:
- They have set up programs like the “One Belt, One Road” initiative to attract more international students from countries participating in the initiative.
- The cost of education in China is generally lower than in all of the big four. Average tuition fees at public universities range between US$5,000–$10,000 per year.
- There are many universities in China that offer the majority of their degrees taught entirely in English, eliminating the language barrier that previously deterred international students from considering China as a destination.
- Several Western universities have partnered with Chinese institutions to build satellite campuses in China. Designed to be near replicas of their Western counterparts, these China-based campuses allow international students to be taught entirely in English for a much lower cost than they would be charged at the university’s home campus.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the international student market in China, the government’s policies and initiatives aimed at growing the industry will likely help to attract more international students in the future.
Japan is known for its high-quality education and is becoming increasingly popular among international students. In 2022, Japan hosted over 200,000 international students, ranking as the ninth top destination market in the world.
Japan has steadily grown in popularity over the past five years, as you can see from the graph below:
While steady growth is likely to continue, the Japanese government has its sights set on a much higher goal. In a recent meeting of the Council of the Creation of Future Education, the Japanese Prime Minister was quoted as saying Japan wanted to host 400,000 students by 2033.
But if Japan hopes to hit that target, they’re going to need to make their post-graduate work offerings more attractive to international students.
Data suggests that more than 40% of international students have been in Japan for over three years and that the number of international graduates choosing to stay is also increasing. But if it is to compete with other destinations in post-study work, there needs to be better provisions for visas.
Currently, international graduates are only permitted to stay in Japan for 360 days. If Japan wants to attract talented people, it needs to offer above-average post-study work programs for the long term.
Germany reached a record-high number of international students last year, with around 350,000 enrolled in higher education institutions during the 2021/22 academic year. This marks an 8% increase from the previous year.
The main factor driving popularity among international students in Germany? Free tuition for non-EU students pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at most public institutions. Cost is a huge consideration for many international students post-pandemic, which is being reflected in Germany’s growing international student population.
German universities are also offering a growing number of English-taught degrees, meaning the popularity of Germany as a study-abroad destination will only increase in the short term.
But most encouraging of all, the “stay rate” of international students in Germany (i.e., those who remain in the country to work or immigrate after their studies) is the highest in the world behind Canada. Nearly 40% of all international students in Germany end up immigrating there.
Germany has a strong, streamlined pathway to work and immigration and is experiencing skilled labour shortages in a number of sectors. With both Chinese and Indian students applying to German institutions in bunches, we expect Germany to threaten “big four” institutions in the near future.
The Importance of Native Language and Post-Graduate Work
Where to attend university or college is one of the most important decisions international students will ever face. While cost, cultural similarities, and proximity to home are key factors that weigh into this decision, there are a couple of consistencies we’ve seen with several emerging destinations that make them competitive.
The first is language. Whether it’s Spanish-speaking students flocking to Chilean universities, English-speaking students pursuing affordable education in China, or Germans driving across the border to attend a Dutch institution, students gravitate to instruction in their native language.
The second is streamlined pathways to work after graduation. The more often a university can set its graduates up for success, the more likely students are to want to enroll there. As governments around the world adapt their work and immigration policies to increase accessibility for international students, the pressure will be put back on institutions to equip their students with the work experience and soft skills they need to succeed in their field after obtaining their degree.
Stay rates are one of the ultimate measures of strength for a country’s international education system. What institutions do to prepare students to have an impactful and rewarding career will directly influence how motivated students are to give back to the economy of the country they study in.
About the ApplyInsights Team
1. All data courtesy of Project Atlas, 2022, unless otherwise stated.