Exploring Higher Education Mobility through the Lens of Academic Tourism: Portugal as a Study Case

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Exploring Higher Education Mobility through the Lens of Academic Tourism: Portugal as a Study Case


A new definition of international academic tourism will also be proposed, addressing the need for clarification regarding different typologies of international students and academic tourists. This will fulfil the second research gap identified in this study.

3.1. International Student Mobility

In Portugal, international students’ arrivals represent a very small percentage of the overall influx of international tourists, but it has been increasing. Between 2013 and 2019, international students accounted for around 0.3% of the total tourist arrivals, but, in 2020, this percentage increased to 1.4% [51,52].
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, there had been a steady increase in international student mobility and the number of students enrolled in Portuguese HEI (Figure 2). During the academic year 2019/2020, 60,679 international students studied in Portugal, accounting for 15% of all students enrolled in Portuguese HEI. This number has more than doubled compared to the 2013/2014 academic year.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a 9% decrease in the number of international students in Portugal, dropping from 60,679 in 2019/2020 to 55,137 in 2020/2021. This decline marked the first decrease in overall international student enrolment in Portugal. However, the impact of this decrease may be considered less severe than expected.

The origin of international students is closely tied to the two major international networks that Portugal is a part of: the European Union (EU) and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (henceforth referred to by the Portuguese acronym CPLP). A member of the EU since 1986 and having joined the Erasmus programme in 1987, Portugal also has strong historical, cultural, and civilizational links with Portuguese-speaking countries (Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, S. Tomé and Principe, Mozambique, and East-Timor).

3.2. Academic Tourists Versus International Degree Students

Academic tourists are defined as students engaging in “any stays made in HEI in places outside their usual environment for less than one year, the main objective of which is to complete degree-level studies in universities and/or attend language courses organized by these centres” [9] (p. 1583).
Given the intrinsic connection between academic tourism and the internationalisation of higher education [15], it is appropriate to incorporate certain dimensions reflected in the increasing global student mobility numbers [33], such as credit mobilities, certificate mobilities (e.g., cultural or language courses, summer programmes, workshops), and other mobility experiences.
Therefore, building upon a reformulation of the definition provided by Rodríguez et al. [9], it is proposed that international academic tourism should encompass any stays made in HEI in places outside their usual environment for less than one consecutive year, the primary objective of which is to undertake a short-term mobility experience.

For the subsequent secondary data analysis in this study, our specific focus is on two categories of international students: “credit-mobile students” and “degree-mobile students”.

Thus, following UNWTO [26] recommendations, in this study, “credit-mobile students” who undertake short-term mobility experiences in Portuguese HEI with stays of less than one year are henceforth considered as academic tourists. Conversely, “degree-mobile students” enrolled in Portuguese HEI are hereafter designated as international “degree” students.

Since the academic year 2013/2014 to 2019/2020, which predates the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase of 43% in the number of academic tourists (credit-mobile students) enrolled in Portuguese HEI. This growth is evidenced by the rise in numbers from 11,687 in 2013/2014 to 16,674, in 2019/2020. Likewise, there has been a notable rise in the first-year enrolment of international “degree” students, with an increase of 251% observed, from 6169 in 2013/2014 to 21,668 in 2019/2020.

The main countries from which academic tourists originate are Brazil (18%), Spain (16%), Italy (12%), Poland (8%), and Gerseveral (7%). Indeed, there has been an increase in the number of academic tourists from EU countries, with several of them associated with the Erasmus programme.

Regarding international “degree” students, Brazil accounts for 38% of international “degree” students, followed by Cape Verde (11%), Angola (10%), and Guinea-Bissau (5%), all of which are part of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP).

In turn, Figure 3 illustrates a map of Portugal divided into districts, with varying shades of grey representing the average annual count of international students from 2013/2014 to 2020/2021. The district of Lisbon appears as the darkest shade on the map, indicating that it has the highest density of HEI and the largest number of international students (76,450 enrolled from 2013/2014 to 2020/2021). Similarly, the district of Porto, located in the northern part of the country and encompassing the second-largest district, also exhibits a significant concentration of HEI and the next highest number of international students (42,108 enrolled from 2013/2014 to 2020/2021). Other significant locations for international students include the district of Coimbra, situated in the central part of the country, as well as Braga and Bragança, both located in the northern region.
Additionally, and particularly regarding the academic tourists, Figure 3 also shows that between the academic years 2013/2014 and 2020/2021, the main Portuguese districts, Lisbon and Porto, received over 50% of academic tourists. Coimbra, Aveiro, and Braga followed, accounting for 13.5%, 3.6%, and 3.4% of academic tourists, respectively.
These data help to understand Figure 3, which exhibits a notable disparity in the country to attract credit students (versus degree students), arguably ascribed to different facilitating push–pull factors. Attracting more academic tourists than international “degree” students, the Azores and Madeira islands, as well as Coimbra, Lisbon, and Porto stand out. A reasonably balanced distribution of international students from both categories can be observed in the coastal district of Setubal, located just below Lisbon, as well as in the Algarve, a renowned tourist destination. The allure of these regions as tourist destinations (pull factor) appears to have a positive influence on the proportion of academic tourists in relation to degree-seeking students. In contrast, it can be observed that districts such as Braga in the northwest, Bragança in the northeast, and inland districts lacking a coastal location generally demonstrate a diminished ability to attract academic tourists when compared to international “degree” students.
According to Figure 4, it is evident that the demand for international “degree” students has exhibited greater resilience in comparison to the demand relative to academic tourists amidst the ongoing pandemic. Multiple factors can account for this situation. In contrast to academic tourists, we contend that international “degree” students place a greater emphasis on education and a higher level of commitment: the chosen university will be the one to confer their degree, and the chosen location will serve as their temporary home during their extended stay. During pandemics, the cost–benefit framework analysis serves as a valuable tool for decision-making regarding travel, particularly when assessing associated health risks [53]. On the other hand, the benefits may include the significance of the trip, and the potential rewards of the travel experience itself, such as educational opportunities or career advancement [30]. Everyone’s cost–benefit analysis will differ based on their specific circumstances and risk perception, but we argue that academic tourists tended to make a different cost–benefit analysis than international degree students, which caused the number of enrolments of the former to drop further with the pandemic. The decline in academic tourism can be attributed to various pull factors (e.g., pandemic restrictions, vaccination rate, healthcare access, travel restrictions, limited access to information) and push factors (e.g., fear, health-related concerns, and family pressure) [54]. On the other hand, international “degree” students may be motivated by other types of factors. These include pull factors (e.g., improved educational circumstances and quality of life) as well as push factors (e.g., higher frequency of exposure to health risks and the aspiration to pursue higher education in Europe) [28].
The distinction between academic tourists and long-term international students is highlighted by the discernible differences between the two groups depicted in Figure 4. The presence of these distinct categories of prospective students suggests the implementation of diverse marketing strategies to effectively attract them.

To summarise, from the academic year 2013/2014 to 2019/2020, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a substantial 43% increase in academic tourists enrolled in Portuguese HEI, rising from 11,687 to 16,674. Simultaneously, first-year enrolment of international “degree” students surged by 251%, from 6169 to 21,668. District-wise analysis revealed Lisbon and Porto as major hubs, with the highest density of HEI and the most significant number of international students. Lisbon had 76,450 enrolled students from 2013/2014 to 2020/2021, while Porto had 42,108. Other districts like Coimbra, Aveiro, and Braga also featured prominently. Academic tourists were concentrated in Lisbon and Porto, constituting over 50% between 2013/2014 and 2020/2021, with Coimbra, Aveiro, and Braga following. The data further revealed a discernible disparity in attracting academic tourists versus degree students, likely influenced by push–pull factors. Moreover, based on the cost–benefit analysis, the data demonstrated that demand for international “degree” students exhibited greater resilience during the ongoing pandemic compared to academic tourists. The distinctions between academic tourists and long-term international students underscored the imperative need for diverse marketing strategies to effectively attract each group.


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