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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

International S&E Higher Education

In the 1990s, many countries expanded their higher education systems and increased access to higher education. At the same time, flows of students worldwide increased. More recently, a number of countries have adopted policies to encourage the return of students who studied abroad, to attract foreign students, or both. As the world becomes more interconnected, students who enroll in tertiary (post-high school) institutions outside their own countries have opportunities to expand their knowledge of other societies and languages and improve their employability in globalized labor markets.

Higher Education Expenditures

Increasingly, governments around the world have come to regard movement toward a knowledge-based economy as key to economic progress. Realizing that this requires a well-trained workforce, they have invested in upgrading and expanding their higher education systems and broadening participation in them. In most instances, government spending underwrites these initiatives. Recent investments by several governments to send large numbers of their students to study abroad are a strategy for workforce and economic development. Examples include the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program (also known as “Science without Borders”), launched officially in July 2011, whose goal is to enable 75,000 Brazilian students to study in foreign countries (Knobel 2012). Similarly, the government of Saudi Arabia has invested considerably in a scholarship program launched in 2005 that has supported study abroad for more than 100,000 Saudi students throughout the world, at an estimated cost of at least $5 billion since the program’s inception (Knickmeyer 2012).

One indicator of the importance of higher education is the percentage of a nation’s resources devoted to it, as measured by the ratio of expenditures on tertiary education to gross domestic product (GDP). Between 2005 and 2009, this indicator declined for the United States and Canada, even though of all OECD countries, these countries and South Korea spent the highest percentage of GDP on higher education. Between 1995 and 2005, U.S. expenditures on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP were about double the OECD average; by 2009, this proportion had decreased to about 60% above the OECD average. Between 2005 and 2009, expenditures on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP rose in most other OECD countries; they remained stable in the United Kingdom (appendix table 2-34). As a result of the global recession and fiscal crisis, some European governments have cut investments on higher education. The effects of these cuts are not yet evident in the most recent data.

Higher education funding data are not always comparable across different nations. They can vary between countries for reasons unrelated to actual expenditures, such as differences in measurement, prevalence of public versus private institutions,[44] types and levels of government funding included, and types and levels of education included.

Educational Attainment

Higher education in the United States expanded greatly after World War II. As a result, the U.S. population led the world in educational attainment for several decades. Because of this, the United States offered clear advantages for firms whose work would benefit from the availability of a highly educated workforce. In the 1990s, however, many countries in Europe and Asia began to expand their higher education systems. Some of them have now surpassed the United States in the attainment of degrees from tertiary-type A (see “Glossary”) and advanced research programs in their younger cohorts. Over time, the expansion of higher education elsewhere has substantially diminished the U.S. educational advantage and its related economic advantages.

Although the United States continues to be among those countries with the highest percentage of the population ages 25–64 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, several other countries have surpassed the United States in the percentage of the younger population (ages 25–34) with a bachelor’s degree or higher (figure 2-31; appendix table 2-35).

China has lower tertiary education attainment than all OECD countries. China’s tertiary attainment rates are also lower than those of Brazil and Russia, the two non-OECD, G20 countries for which data are available. As in most OECD countries, attainment among the younger population (ages 25–34) in China is higher than in the older population.[45]

First University Degrees in S&E Fields

Almost 17 million students worldwide earned first university degrees in 2010, with about 5.5 million of these in S&E fields (appendix table 2-36). These worldwide totals include only countries for which relatively recent data are available (primarily countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas) and are therefore underestimates. Asian universities accounted for nearly 2.5 million of the world’s S&E first university degrees in 2010, close to half of them in engineering. Students across Europe (including Eastern Europe and Russia) earned more than 1.5 million first university S&E degrees (nearly 40% of them in engineering), and students in North America earned more than 700,000 such degrees in 2010 (22% in engineering).

In several countries and economies around the world, the proportion of first university degrees in S&E fields was higher than in the United States. Half or more of all first university degrees in Japan and China were in S&E fields, compared with about one-third in the United States. National differences in engineering degrees largely account for overall differences in the proportion of S&E degrees, given that the disparity was especially large in engineering. However, differences in the taxonomies and quality of engineering programs and level of reporting detail across countries make comparisons problematic. For example, according to Wadhwa et al. (2007), in China in the mid-2000s, the term “engineer” had no standard definition and did not translate well into different dialects, so the reports sent to the Ministry of Education from different Chinese provinces did not count degrees consistently. In the late 1990s, the Chinese government implemented top-down policy changes to increase enrollment in engineering. However, the total number of technical schools and the corresponding teachers and staff declined, which meant that degree awards were achieved by increasing class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios.

China has traditionally awarded a large proportion of its first university degrees in engineering, although the percentage declined from 43% in 2000 to 31% in 2011 (appendix table 2-37). Other places with a high proportion of engineering degrees are Singapore, Iran, South Korea, and Taiwan (appendix table 2-36). In the United States, about 5% of all bachelor’s degrees are in engineering. About 11% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States and worldwide are in natural sciences (physical, biological, computer, and agricultural sciences, as well as mathematics).

The number of S&E first university degrees awarded in China, Taiwan, Turkey, Germany, and Poland more than doubled or nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. During this period, S&E first university degrees awarded in the United States and several other countries (i.e., Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea) increased between 23% and 56%, whereas those awarded in France, Japan, and Spain declined by 14%, 9%, and 4%, respectively (appendix table 2-37).

Natural sciences and engineering degrees account for most of the increase in S&E first university degrees in China. The number of natural sciences and engineering first university degrees in China grew by more than 300% between 2000 and 2010 (figure 2-32). The number awarded in Germany grew by nearly 90%, and the number awarded in South Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom increased between 20% and 29%; in Japan, it declined by 9%.

In 1999, 29 European countries, through the Bologna Declaration, initiated a system of reforms in higher education throughout Europe. The goal of the Bologna Process was to harmonize certain aspects of higher education within participating countries so that degrees were comparable; credits were transferable; and students, teachers, and researchers could move freely from institution to institution across national borders. Ten years later, the European Higher Education Area was launched, and higher education reform in Europe was extended to 47 participating countries. In recent years, countries have made considerable changes: they have modified higher education structures by implementing three degree cycles (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate), developed quality assurance systems, and established mechanisms to facilitate mobility (EACEA 2012). In 2009, for the first time, the Bologna Process established a quantitative target for student mobility. By 2020, at least 20% of those graduating in the Area should have spent time studying abroad. For details on student mobility in Europe, see sidebar, “Mapping Mobility in European Higher Education.

S&E First University Degrees by Sex

Women earned half or more of first university degrees in S&E in many countries around the world in 2010, including the United States and a number of smaller countries. Most large countries in Europe are not far behind, with more than 40% of first university S&E degrees earned by women. In the Middle East, women earned nearly half or more of the S&E first university degrees in most countries in the region, except for Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Jordan. In several Asian and African countries, women generally earn about one-third or fewer of the first university degrees awarded in S&E fields (appendix table 2-38).

In Canada, Japan, the United States, and many smaller countries, more than half of the S&E first university degrees earned by women were in the social and behavioral sciences. In South Korea and Singapore, nearly half of the S&E first university degrees earned by women were in engineering, a much higher proportion than in the United States or in any countries in Europe.

Global Comparison of S&E Doctoral Degrees

More than 200,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned worldwide in 2010.[46] The United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any country (about 33,000), followed by China (about 31,000), Russia (almost 16,000), Germany (about 12,000), and the United Kingdom (about 11,000) (appendix table 2-39). About 58,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned in the European Union (EU; see “Glossary” for member countries).

Women earned 41% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States in 2010, about the same percentage earned by women in Australia, Canada, the EU, and Mexico (appendix table 2-40). In the United States, women earned nearly half of the S&E doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents in 2010 (appendix table 2-31). Women earned close to half of S&E doctoral degrees in Portugal and Italy but less than one-quarter of those in the Netherlands, South Korea, and Taiwan (appendix table appendix table 2-40).

The number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China rose steeply between 2000 and 2009 and leveled off in 2010. Although the rise was steeper in China, the trend was similar to the recent trend in doctoral production in the United States (appendix tables 2-41 and 2-42).

In 2007, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of natural sciences and engineering doctoral degrees (figure 2-33). In the United States, as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, the largest numbers of S&E doctoral degrees were awarded in the physical and biological sciences (appendix table 2-41).

In Asia, China has been the largest producer of S&E doctoral degrees since 2000 (appendix table 2-42). As China’s capacity for advanced S&E education increased, the number of S&E doctorates awarded rose from about 4,000 in 1996 to more than 31,000 in 2010, a substantially faster rate of growth than that of the number of doctorates earned by Chinese citizens in the United States during the same period (figure 2-34). In the mid-1990s the number of “homegrown” Chinese doctorate recipients and the number of doctorate recipients of Chinese origin with U.S. degrees were very similar, but since then the gap has grown considerably because of the large increase of doctorates awarded in China. In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced that China would begin to limit admissions to doctoral programs and would focus more on quality of graduates (Mooney 2007). The number of S&E doctorates awarded in India, South Korea, and Taiwan also increased from 1996 to 2010, but at a lower rate; in Japan the numbers rose consistently through 2006 but declined in the following years. In China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, more than half of S&E doctorates were awarded in engineering. In India, close to three-quarters of the S&E doctorates were awarded in the physical and biological sciences (appendix table 2-42).

Global Student Mobility

Students have become more internationally mobile in the past two decades, and countries are increasingly competing for them. According to data from UNESCO, the number of internationally mobile students nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, to 3.6 million (UNESCO 2011).[47] In general, students migrate from developing countries to the more developed countries and from Europe and Asia to the United States. However, a few countries have emerged as regional hubs in their geographic regions—for example, Australia, China, and South Korea for East Asia and South Africa for sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO 2009). In addition, several countries have set targets for increasing the numbers of international students they host; among these are Jordan (which plans to host 100,000 students by 2020), Singapore (150,000 by 2015), Japan (300,000 by 2025), and China (500,000 by 2020) (Bhandari and Belyavina 2012).

Some students migrate temporarily for education, whereas others remain abroad permanently after completing their studies. Some factors influencing the decision to seek a degree abroad include the policies of the countries of origin regarding sponsoring their citizens’ study abroad, the tuition fee policies of the countries of destination, the financial support the countries of destination offer to international students, the cost of living and exchange rates that affect the cost of international education, and the perceived value of obtaining a foreign credential. The long-term return from international education also depends on how international degrees are recognized by the labor market in the country of origin (OECD 2010). For host countries, enrolling international students can help raise revenues from higher education and can also be part of a larger strategy to attract highly skilled workers, in particular as demographic changes in many developed countries cause their own populations of college-age students to decrease (OECD 2012) (appendix table 2-43).[48]

In recent years, many countries have expanded their provision of transnational education. One growing trend is the establishment of branch campuses: offshore programs established by higher education institutions in foreign countries. Branch campuses give students the opportunity to earn degrees from foreign universities without leaving their home countries. According to research by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, by the end of 2011, 200 degree-awarding international branch campuses were operating worldwide, and 37 new ones were planning to open in 2012 and 2013 (Lawton and Katsomitros 2012). Collaborative programs, such as international joint and dual-degree programs, are another trend in transnational education. In these programs, students study at two or more institutions; after successfully completing the requirements, they receive a separate diploma from each institution in dual-degree programs or a single diploma representing both institutions in joint degree programs (CGS 2010). The most common fields for dual degrees at the master’s level are business, engineering, and the social sciences; at the doctoral level, engineering and physical sciences predominate (for additional details, see sidebar, “Transnational Higher Education,” in NSB 2012).

More internationally mobile students (both undergraduate and graduate) go to the United States than to any other country (figure 2-35). Other top destinations for international students include the United Kingdom (11%), Australia (7%), France (7%), and Germany (6%). Together with the United States, these countries receive about half of all internationally mobile students worldwide.

Although the United States remains the destination for the largest number of internationally mobile students worldwide, its share in all fields has declined from 25% in 2000 to 19% in 2010 (UNESCO 2011). Between 2005 and 2010, the U.S. share in the natural sciences and engineering declined as well, but an increase in international students coming to the United States to study social and behavioral sciences kept the overall S&E share stable (table 2-17).

In the United States, international students are a small proportion (about 3%) of students enrolled in higher education (including both undergraduate and graduate levels); this proportion is higher at the graduate level. In other countries, the proportion of international students is much higher. Australia, with a much smaller higher education system than the United States, has a higher percentage (21%) of international students but a lower share (7%) of international students worldwide. Other countries with relatively high percentages of international higher education students in their higher education systems include the United Kingdom (16%), Austria (15%), Switzerland (15%), and New Zealand (14%).[49] In Switzerland and the United Kingdom, more than 4 out of 10 doctoral students are international students. A number of other countries, including New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Ireland, Sweden, and Canada, have relatively high percentages (more than 20%) of doctoral students who are internationally mobile (OECD 2012).

Since the late 1990s, the United Kingdom has been actively working to improve its position in international education, both by recruiting foreign students to study in the country and by expanding its provision of transnational education (British Council 2013; UK Council for International Student Affairs 2013). Between 1994 and 2010, foreign student enrollment in S&E fields in the United Kingdom increased, especially at the graduate level, with increasing flows of students from China and India (appendix table 2-44). The overall pattern of top countries is similar to that of the United States. In 2010, foreign students made up 48% of all graduate students studying S&E in the United Kingdom (an increase from 29% in the mid-1990s). Foreign students accounted for 60% of graduate students in mathematics and computer sciences, as well as in engineering. Students from China and India accounted for most of the increase, but the number of graduate students from Nigeria, Pakistan, the United States, France, Ireland, and Germany also increased considerably. At the undergraduate level, the overall percentage of foreign students in S&E did not increase as much during this period. As a result of recent stricter student visa regulations that apply to those from non-EU countries, in the last year, foreign enrollment declined at the graduate level, mainly due to a decline in the number of students from India and Pakistan. The declines were larger in mathematics and computer sciences and in engineering (appendix table 2-44).

Japan has increased its enrollment of foreign students in recent years (both in S&E and in all fields) and in 2008 announced plans to triple foreign enrollment in 12 years (McNeil 2008, 2010). Nonetheless, growth has slowed considerably in the last 2 years (appendix table 2-45; appendix table 2-41 in NSB 2012), perhaps caused in part by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami (McNeil 2012). In 2012, slightly more than 70,000 foreign students were enrolled in S&E programs in Japanese universities, similar to 2010, and up from 57,000 in 2004. Unlike in the United Kingdom, foreign S&E student enrollment in Japan is concentrated at the undergraduate level, accounting for more than two-thirds of all foreign S&E students. Foreign nationals accounted for 3% of undergraduate and 17% of graduate S&E students in Japan. The vast majority of the foreign students were from Asian countries. In 2012, Chinese students accounted for 70% of the foreign S&E undergraduate students and 59% of the foreign S&E graduate students in Japan. South Koreans were 18% of the foreign undergraduates and 9% of the foreign graduate students. Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Mongolia, and Nepal were among the top 10 countries of origin for both undergraduates and graduate students (appendix table 2-45).

Foreign students constitute an increasing share of enrollment in Canadian universities at the undergraduate level. In 2010, foreign S&E students accounted for about 7% of undergraduate S&E enrollment in Canada, up from 5% in 2000. At the graduate level, the proportion of foreign students in S&E fields was stable during that period (19%). In 2010, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the highest percentages of foreign S&E students were in mathematics and computer sciences and in engineering. At the undergraduate level, China was the top country of origin of foreign S&E students in Canada, accounting for 13% of foreign undergraduate students, followed by France and the United States (11% each). At the graduate level, the top country of origin of foreign S&E students was France (13%), followed by Iran and China (11% each) (appendix table 2-46).

Although the United States hosts the largest number of international students worldwide, U.S. students constitute a relatively small share of foreign students worldwide. About 57,000 U.S. students (in all fields) were reported as foreign students by OECD and OECD-partner countries in 2010, far fewer than the number of foreign students from China, India, South Korea, Germany, Turkey, or France. The main destinations of U.S. students were the United Kingdom (15,600), Canada (9,100), Germany (3,900), France (3,400), New Zealand (3,200), and Australia (3,000)—mostly English-speaking OECD countries (OECD 2012).

Nearly 275,000 U.S. university students enrolled in study-abroad programs in the 2010–11 academic year (credit mobility), a 1% increase from the preceding year but a 78% rise from 2000–01 (IIE 2012). Nearly 40% were enrolled in programs during the summer term; more than one-third enrolled in programs lasting one semester, 13% in short-term programs lasting up to 8 weeks, 4% for the academic or the calendar year, and the rest for one or two quarters or a month. About 9% were master’s and 1% were doctoral students; the rest were undergraduates, primarily juniors or seniors. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. students studying abroad were women and more than three-quarters were white. More than one-third were studying in S&E fields: 23% in social sciences, 8% in physical or life sciences, 4% in engineering, 2% in mathematics or computer sciences, and 1% in agricultural sciences; these proportions have been stable since 2000–01. The leading destinations for study-abroad programs in the 2010–11 academic year were the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain, followed by France and China.

According to a recent study conducted by IIE and Project Atlas, more than 43,000 U.S. students are enrolled in academic degree programs in the 13 countries represented (degree mobility). Most students were enrolled in master’s degree programs (44%), followed by students in bachelor’s degree programs (39%) and doctoral programs (19%). Almost three-quarters of them studied in Anglophone countries; the top destination was the United Kingdom. Humanities, social sciences, and business and management were the most popular broad fields of study for students pursuing a degree abroad (Belyavina and Bhandari 2012).

[44] According to an international database compiled by the Program for Research on Private Higher Education, at the State University of New York at Albany, the United States and Japan have long-standing private higher education sectors, and Western Europe has an almost completely public higher education sector. Eastern and Central Europe and several African countries have recently seen growth in private higher education. In most countries in Latin America, more than half of all higher education institutions are private. For more information, see (accessed 15 May 2013).
[45] These data are based on national labor force surveys and are subject to sampling error; therefore, small differences between countries may not be meaningful. The standard error for the U.S. percentage of 25–64-year-olds with a bachelor’s or higher degree is roughly 0.1, and the standard error for the U.S. percentage of 25–34-year-olds with a bachelor’s or higher degree is roughly 0.4.
[46] In international degree comparisons, S&E does not include medical or health fields. This is because international sources cannot separate the MD degrees from degrees in the health fields, and the MDs are professional or practitioner degrees, not research degrees.
[47] Internationally mobile students are students who have crossed a national or territorial border for the purposes of education and are now enrolled outside their country of origin. This concept is different from “foreign students,” which are those who are not citizens of the country where they are enrolled, but may, in some cases, be long-term residents or have been born in the country (OECD 2012).
[48] The population of individuals ages 20–24 (a proxy for the college-age population) decreased in China, Europe, Japan, and the United States in the 1990s and is projected to continue decreasing in China, Europe (mainly Eastern Europe), Japan, South Korea, and South America. The U.S. population of 20–24-year-olds is projected to increase.
[49] In Luxembourg, international students represent 41%, mostly due to the high level of integration with neighboring countries (OECD 2012).