The number of higher education students’ mobility periods abroad increased, but did not yet reach pre-pandemic levels

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Recent statistics in Vipunen – Education Statistic Finland show an increase in the number of mobility periods Finnish higher education students completed abroad in 2022. However, the figures are still far from the pre-pandemic levels. Especially the mobility of students of universities of applied sciences (UAS) seems to be recovering slowly.
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During 2022, higher education students completed slightly over 6,200 long-term mobility periods abroad, i.e. exchanges or traineeships lasting at least three months, and more than 2,000 exchanges or traineeships shorter than that. This is significantly more than the previous year, when only 2,900 long-term and 500 short-term mobility periods were completed.

Graph shows the number and development of international mobility periods in higher education in 2016-2022.

The statistics confirm the picture formed by the situation survey conducted by the Finnish National Agency for Education last autumn, according to which international student mobility in higher education has again become more active after COVID-19. However, the figures are still not anywhere near the pre-pandemic levels as Finnish higher education students completed 7,900 long-term and 4,700 short-term mobility periods in 2019.

The number of incoming higher education students completing a long-term mobility period in Finland has in turn increased significantly faster. In 2022, a total of 9,400 international exchange students came to Finland for a mobility period of at least 3 months, while their number was 6,700 the previous year. The number of incoming students completing a long-term mobility period has already almost reached the pre-pandemic level. In addition, 1,600 students came to Finland on a shorter exchange.

Fewer and fewer UAS students go on a mobility period abroad

COVID-19 is still reflected in the 2022 student mobility figures and many countries have still had restrictions related to it. On the other hand, the mobility figures already began to decline before COVID-19, and the same development may also continue after the break caused by the pandemic. The declining trend has been sharper in universities of applied sciences than in universities: between 2016 and 2019, student mobility figures fell by 33% in universities of applied sciences and by 16% in universities.

Line diagrams of students who went on mobility period from universities of applied sciences and universities. In 2016, more than 5,000 students left both universities of applied sciences and universities. Since then, the trend has been downward and the gap between universities of applied sciences and universities has started to grow. In 2022, 4,137 students left universities and 2,070 students left universities of applied sciences.

Even if the short-term mobility periods, which have usually been popular among UAS students, are included in the figures, significantly fewer UAS students went on mobility periods abroad than university students also in 2022.

Approximately 2,100 UAS students went on a long-term mobility period and just over 1,600 on a short-term mobility period. The corresponding figures for university students were just over 4,100 and 400. In proportion to the number of new students, 9% of UAS students and 17% of university students went on a mobility period abroad. Before COVID-19, the corresponding percentages were significantly higher, 22% in universities of applied sciences and 23% in universities. 

The difference between universities of applied sciences and universities is also visible in the number of incoming students: approximately 3,100 students came to universities of applied sciences to complete a long-term mobility period, to universities just under 6,300. In practice, the number of incoming students in universities is already at the same level as before COVID-19, while it is one quarter smaller in universities of applied sciences.

The role of Erasmus+ as an enabler of long-term mobility periods strengthened during COVID-19

The Erasmus+ programme funded by the European Union has for a long time been the most common channel for international student mobility, but its role strengthened considerably during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, the programme supported 68% of all outgoing and 81% of all incoming students on long-term mobility periods abroad. In 2019, the corresponding percentages were 58% and 74%.

Other common routes to completing mobility periods abroad are higher education institutions’ own agreements and funding, and exchanges organised by students themselves.

In 2022, information on the mobility programme was also collected on short-term mobility periods abroad. In them as well, the Erasmus+ programme is the most important enabler, but its role is smaller than in longer periods abroad. Correspondingly, the percentages of other programmes are slightly higher. Erasmus+ was used by 45% and, for example, the Nordplus Programme of the Nordic Council of Ministers by 6% of those who were on a mobility period abroad.

COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened the focus on Europe in student mobility

Most of the long-term student mobility in higher education takes place within Europe: 74% of the outgoing students from Finnish higher education institutions head for Europe for their period abroad and 85% of the students coming to Finland are from Europe. The share of Europe has been large also in the past, but it has strengthened further during the COVID-19 pandemic and, correspondingly, the share of Asia has decreased.

In 2022, the most common destination countries of students going on a long-term mobility period were Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Italy, in this order. The same countries were also the most common countries of origin of incoming students, only there were more incoming students from France than from Spain. Of all students going on longer mobility periods, 39% go to these countries and up to 59% of incoming students are from these countries.

The number of outgoing students to many Asian and African countries was still significantly lower than before COVID-19 in 2019. For example, the number of outgoing students to China was now 79% lower than three years ago, and the number of outgoing students to Vietnam has declined by 55%, to Indonesia and India by 53%, and to Tanzania and Namibia by 50%. On the other hand, student mobility to many Asian and African countries already declined before the pandemic.

However, compared to the figures from 2019, student mobility to Russia has declined the most: it fell by 82%. This is explained by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as a result of which higher education institutions have frozen their agreements on student mobility with Russia.

Statistics are also compiled on blended mobility

Virtually implemented mobility periods became topical in a new way during COVID-19 when entry to many countries was restricted and many campuses were closed. Blended mobility, in which the physical period abroad is supplemented by a virtual part, has also become more common. In the 2022 statistics, information was for the first time collected on whether a virtually implemented section was included in the mobility period. Statistics are still not compiled on mobility periods that are implemented only virtually.

In 2022, outgoing Finnish higher education students completed a total of 380 mobility periods that included a virtual section. The virtual section was most commonly combined with short-term mobility periods, i.e. those lasting less than three months: approximately one in five (19%) of the short-term mobility periods of Finnish students included a virtually implemented section. Virtual mobility periods are significantly more common among UAS students.

Of the short-term mobility periods of incoming students to Finland, 260 (16%) included a virtual part.

For example, virtual mobility periods may be blended intensive programmes (BIP) funded by the Erasmus+ programme, which especially universities of applied sciences have begun to implement together with their European partner institutions.