Study Abroad: Research & Trends

In 2017, there were over 5.3 million international students, up from 2 million in 2000. More than half of these were enrolled in educational programs in six countries: The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, and the Russian Federation. Prominent sending countries of international students include China, India, Germany, the Republic of Korea, Nigeria, France, Saudi Arabia, and several Central Asian countries (ibid).

Studies of internationally mobile students tend to focus on the conditions (push and pull factors) that motivate students to study overseas, but policymakers are also interested in international students because they can become highly skilled immigrants in the future.

Over the past few decades, international student mobility and migration significantly increased.  Globally, Europe is the main destination of international students, hosting 48% of all international students (OECD, 2014). In contrast to other world regions, the most common form of student mobility in Europe is credit mobility, whereby students go abroad for a limited period of time in the framework of an exchange program.

This is principally the result of the Erasmus program, the largest European student exchange scheme for higher education students. Since its initiation in 1987, more than three million students have studied in another European country within this framework.

Today, more than 4000 institutions from over 30 countries participate, and its annual budget exceeds 450 million euros. In sum, these impressive numbers indicate that international students now form an intrinsic part of the ‘new European map of migration’. (Source, 2020)


Reasons for Coming

In 2019, 3 million first residence permits were issued in the EU for the following reasons:

Among Asian countries, the most common to receive permits were people from India and China.

Studying abroad: Key Facts

  • In 2018, 23 % (312 000) of the EU-27 total of students from abroad were studying in Germany; the next largest shares were 17 % in France and 8 % in Italy and the Netherlands.
  • Two-fifths (44 %) of the students from abroad who were undertaking tertiary level studies across the EU-27 in 2018 were from Europe, 25 % were from Asia and 15 % were from Africa.
  • In 2018, 22 % of tertiary education students in the EU-27 were studying business, administration, or law.


What do international students study in Germany?

Germany is the most popular country to study abroad.

Source: DAAD, 2020

Employment of Immigrants

In terms of occupations, non-EU citizens were over-represented among:

On the other hand, non-EU citizens were under-represented among:

Source, 2020

Effectiveness of the Return System

In 2020, 69,500 non-EU citizens were returned to a non-EU country. This corresponds to 18% of all return decisions issued during the year, down from 29% in 2019. The travel restriction introduced in the wake of the pandemic and the limited availability of flights made it difficult to carry out report operations in 2020.

Among the main countries of origin of those returned outside of the EU in 2020 were:

  • Albania (14% of all returns)
  • Georgia (8.2%)
  • Ukraine (7.9%)

Among the nationalities with at least 5,000 return orders, the return rate was particularly low for those coming from:

  • Mali (2.0%)
  • Côte d’Ivoire (2.1%)
  • Guinea (2.5%)
  • Senegal (3.1%)
  • Algeria (4.8%)

Who is Ready to Accept?

In 2019, EU Member States granted citizenship to 706 400 persons having their usual residence in the territory of the EU, an increase of 5 % compared with 2018.

Most new citizenships in 2019 were granted by Germany (132 000 or 19 % of the EU-27 total), Italy (127 000 or 18 %), France (109 800 or 16 %), Spain (99 000 or 14 %) and Sweden (64 200 or 9 %).

In 2019, a quarter of people acquiring citizenship of an EU Member State were Moroccans, Albanians, Britons, Syrians, and Turks.

Opportunities to Study

Third-country nationals have a variety of scholarships and grants to choose from. These grants are offered mainly by higher education institutions, the state, private research companies, scholarship funds, or third parties.

The way the recipients are determined differs, but factors such as bilateral and multilateral agreements with third-country institutions, academic excellence, being of certain origin, are applied. The scholarships are also mostly directed to Master’s and Doctoral students. Funding opportunities were identified by the Member States as one of the main triggers of increased applications from international students.

In (Member) States where higher education is free, such as Finland and Norway, there tend to be many applicants from third countries. All (Member) States, except in Slovenia, offer scholarship opportunities to international students.

Relevant opportunities to study for free by taking part in EACEA’s new generation of funding programs for the period 2021-2027:


Most common sectors for employment of international students (where reported by (Member) States)


At the EU level, education policies strongly focus on advancing the EU as a center of excellence in education and training to encourage and support mobility and scholarships, particularly in relation to the establishment of international scientific and academic networks among universities and alumni.

The most popular and open countries for international students are Germany, France, Spain, and Sweden. There are a lot of opportunities to study for free as well as good policies to stay in the future. However, according to statistics, international students from Asia and Africa often study law, economics & business administration. But they do not work in these fields later.

Over recent years, and in the framework of EU policies, (Member) States have put in place national strategies and policies with a view to attracting international students. These include attracting high-level skilled migrants in order to fill existing gaps in the education and labor market (following graduation), as well as promoting international trade and cooperation with third countries. The economic benefits associated with international students are also linked to strategies to enhance revenue coming from abroad.

by Mariia Leonova