Staying or leaving: Examining migration intentions of international students

Spain is an attractive destination for international students and may be an interesting choice to pursue their professional career. But what motivates some students to stay, and why do most leave?

Rita Rueff

In the 2021/22 academic year, the number of international students enrolled in degree programs at Spanish universities reached almost 85,000. According to new data from the Spanish Ministerio de Universidades, foreign enrolment grew by 27 percent this year. 

Research from the OECD suggests that between 15 and 30 percent of international students stay in their host country after completing their studies, meaning Spain could welcome over 25,000 highly qualified international specialists into its labor market. 

To stay or not to stay  

But why do most leave and what motivates other students to stay? Esade’s Rita Rueff‑Lopes and Josep Sayeras, with co-author Ferran Velasco from EADA Business School, say it’s an under-researched area. 

To bridge this gap, they interviewed 63 international students who graduated in a business subject at a top-tier, international private university in Spain. The results, published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration, revealed eight main categories that motivated international students to stay in Spain after completing their studies and five main reasons students chose to return home. 

The insights, say the researchers, are valuable for policy makers and careers advisors in developing and implementing programs and support. 

The globalization of higher education 

OECD data reveals the number of international students grew fivefold between 1975 and 2016. As globalization continues to transform the work landscape, employers are increasingly seeking candidates with highly specialized international profiles

In response, higher education institutions — backed by governments — invest growing resources into attracting the students who fit these profiles, and delivering programs that will enhance their employment opportunities. 

Employers are increasingly seeking candidates with highly specialized international profiles

In Europe, Spain has both sent and hosted the highest number of students in the Erasmus program over the last decade. It’s an attractive country for students from both the European Union and Latin America, with almost 68 percent of all international students from these regions.  

But until now, little has been known about the factors that prompt the decisions behind student migration, after completing their studies

Mastering life abroad 

For their study, the researchers selected participants who graduated with a Master’s degree in a business field from a high-ranking Spanish university in the 2020-2021 academic year.  

All participants were in work at the time of the interview, none were Spanish citizens, and none had lived in Spain before their studies. Controls were implemented to ensure a diverse sample. 

The interviews took place over video and were transcribed verbatim. Of the 63 participants, 73 percent were male. All interviewees were aged between 24 and 31 years old.  

Just under half of the participants had decided to pursue an international career after graduation, 16 percent of whom chose to stay in Spain. The remaining 53 percent returned to their home country. 

Researchers used a variety of qualitative analysis techniques including content analysis to define motivation categories from themes in the raw data, and grounded theory methodology to classify those themes.  

This process resulted in a 2x2 model that included five work-related categories and eight non-work-related categories related to the decisions to pursue or not pursue an international career. The data was independently analyzed and, after several rounds of discussion, an inter-rater agreement of 100 percent was reached. 

Students motivations migrate

Work-related categories to migrate  

Three categories were identified that motivated international students to pursue a career in another country and that were directly related to the work itself: salary, career opportunities, and their ideal company being located abroad. 

Although salary is generally considered the most important motivation for migrating for work, it was only reported by two participants, both of whom were from countries significantly affected by economic crises. Most participants saw salary simply as an added benefit of the international work experience. 

Most participants saw salary simply as an added benefit of the international work experience

Working for the ideal company was cited as an important factor, with a strong focus on company culture.  

The career opportunities in the host country were also significant – although interestingly, all but one South African participant who cited this reason were from developed European countries with strong labor markets where career opportunities are not scarce. 

Work-related categories to return to home country 

The participants who chose to leave the host country for work related reasons, based their decision on either two categories: lack of opportunities abroad or being offered a work opportunity in their home country. 

Non work-related categories to migrate  

On a personal level, participants described five main reasons for deciding to stay in their host country: new cultural experiences, having a global identity, finding the ideal location, opportunities for personal development and a desire to leave the home country

From a cultural perspective, participants said international values and respect for diversity were important motivations. All the participants who said that having a global identity was a relevant factor in their decisions had lived in more than two countries while growing up. The personal development opportunities that come with an international career were also seen as important by participants. 

Those who cited living in the ideal location as motivation for migration all lived within the Schengen zone, giving them legal means to live in their chosen country. For the two participants who reported a desire to leave their home country as motivation, their host country offered a more attractive prospect than ongoing political unrest at home

Non work-related categories to return  

The three other categories identified by participants who chose to return home were mobility restrictions, the pandemic and personal reasons. The first one, was mainly mentioned by participants from outside the Schengen zone who had legal contraints in obtaining a working visa. The pandemic affected nearly all participants, who reported that most selection processes were simply canceled. Personal reasons were often related to a desire to be around friends and family and was often mentioned by participants from more collectivist cultures.  

Supporting a valuable workforce 

The researchers acknowledge that their research has limitations, such as the privileged economic situation of participants, and therefore warn against generalizing the results on a wider level. They also point out that the study was carried out when many countries were only starting to ease pandemic-related restrictions, which is clearly significant in the categories of mobility restrictions and the pandemic as motivations for going home. 

Master’s programs that connected students with companies generated a stronger perception of career opportunities

They encourage future research with similar studies in other fields to gain a wider perspective. 

However, they say the findings remain relevant to all institutions with an interest in international students’ migration behaviors, including universities, companies and governmental bodies.  

Master’s programs that connected students with companies generated a stronger perception of career opportunities, illustrating the influence of higher education institutions on the perception of opportunities. The strong focus on developing a global identity is also highly relevant for careers advisors. 

The deeper understanding offered by this study is a valuable step in the design and implementation of policies aimed at encouraging this valuable workforce to “stay or go”, the researchers conclude. 

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