A Shift in International Student Mobility: Understanding the Choice of Europe.


The decision of where to go to university is a significant one for anyone exploring the prospects of higher education – it has the potential to substantially mold the course of a student’s life thereafter. It is known that not only the education one receives but also the connections one makes, on both the professional and personal level, impact their future. With so much to consider, what brings students to decide to complete their undergraduate degree abroad?

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw a significant decrease in students entering universities abroad. Not only did acceptance levels plummet, but so did the number of VISAs and student permits issued. The desire to study abroad, however, did not follow the same downward trend. On the contrary, in the past decade, the number of international students has seen a growth of 70% in OECD countries – and this rate has continued to increase in the years following the pandemic.

In 2022, the OECD issued more than 1.9 million residence permits to international students pursuing higher education. The number marked a 24% increase from 2019 and set a new record for permits granted in a single year. Although different factors played a part in making this experience more accessible, such as cheaper flights and more efficient modes of transportation, the annual increase represents a growing number of students actively choosing to study in a foreign country.

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A global education. Image source: https://theglobalscholars.com/the-definition-of-global-education/.

This move is a choice most of those attending IE University have taken. Reportedly, 81% of the student body is composed of international students. When asked why they decided on this path the answers varied greatly, but a few responses stood out. Namely, students highlighted the importance of broadening their options and the urge to seek something new as the main elements that influenced their decision.

Broader horizons

The main finding was that options seemed limiting to students in their own countries. “In South Africa, although there are some really good universities, they don’t really offer the same degrees and access to professors and international experience that I have found here at IE,” stated Georgia Bailey, a 2nd-year PPLE student from South Africa.

Many students report similar stories to Georgia’s. Not only the number of universities but also the variety of degrees offered often seem narrow. With the whole world at their disposal, it felt counterintuitive to remain bound to a geographical space. The scope of learning opportunities found outside of the confines of their home countries seemed much broader and generally very tempting.

Seeking something new

Students also expressed that the opportunity to live outside of their home countries and engage with different cultures sounded very appealing. They felt as though university was the perfect moment to explore the intricacies of diversity in all its forms. Moving to a new country entails actively participating in a new culture, and that is a dimension of multiculturality that is hard to achieve without diving in all the way. 

“I chose to study abroad because I wanted to experience living within another culture. I also realized that learning a third language (Spanish) could be really helpful for my future.” shared Ayana Honjo, a first-year Communications student from Japan. 

So, why Europe?

The first question has been answered: students study abroad in search of opportunity. The next question to be asked is why study in Europe as opposed to the United States. For decades the two regions have been competing to retain the most foreign students. Yet, an increasing shift towards Europe has been observed recently. European universities have been open to students from other European countries for a long time, yet only recently have they begun to slowly extend their hands to international students from other areas. These students, in turn, gladly take it.

Ayana reported that, “it (the choice between USA and Europe) mainly came down to a cost issue. The US was too expensive and I felt unsafe there.”, and she is not the only one. Of the students interviewed, more than half described a similar situation. While American universities can cost over $80,000 in annual fees, European universities typically range around €8,000 – €25,000 per year, and are in many cases cheaper if the student has European citizenship. For most families, this is a serious concern. Household budgets have a limit, and it is rare for that limit to reach what is necessary for full undergraduate education in the United States. 

Lorenzo Crippa, a first-year BBA student from Italy, reported that when weighing his options for university, safety also played a major role. “Ultimately,” Lorenzo stated, “I chose Europe because I felt like I’d be safer here”. Georgia shares this feeling, “Coming from South Africa, safety is a huge consideration, because I’ve never really had freedom from that fear. The US has a kind of political environment, particularly involving violence, that doesn’t attract me in that sense.” These are not the only students who raised this concern. Cost and safety came up recurrently as common reasons leading to the choice of Europe over the United States. 

In this rapidly changing world, education is becoming of central importance for the next generation of global citizens. With priorities and opportunities shifting, it is clear that students now seek more financially viable, safe, and inclusive institutions to pursue their studies. The highlighted push and pull factors drawing attention to Europe as a potential new home for international students are a clear reflection of educational institutions’ swiftness to adapt to the changing needs of a diverse and international student body. Europe has succeeded in creating the incentives to attract an international student base, but if it will have the capacity to keep them is a question yet to be answered.

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