This question is aimed at undergraduate level, since postgraduate students are more mobile. By "upper echelon" I mean those that are, say, in the top 200 universities in the world (presumably there are lower-ranked universities that struggle to attract international students).

The idea is that most admission spots are reserved for local students for political reasons - it would be a political disaster if the country's best universities, especially if they are publicly-funded, teach more international students than local ones. So international students already have a higher bar to clear to be admitted. Therefore the international students perform better because they are better (e.g. they are the top 10% of their country's students, while local students are only the top 30%). Accordingly it should not be surprising, in fact it should be expected, that most of the best students of each cohort are international.

Is this the case in practice?

  • The discussion on caps on international students has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 17, 2019 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


In the UK at least, this is not the case. Non-EU international students pay full fees so there is a strong push to accept as many of these students as possible. They still nominally meet the same minimum admissions requirements, but very few home students come in at the minimum. Once at university, many struggle with the language and differences in learning expectations and perform more poorly.

  • 2
    "international students pay full fees so there is a strong push to accept as many of these students as possible." This is true in many countries. In the US substitute "out of state" for international. I think Germany does not charge more for international students, though. Jun 17, 2019 at 2:18
  • And who pays the reminder of the fee for EU students? Because if it is the state or the EU, I don't see where the incentive is from the university perspective.
    – Alexis
    Jun 17, 2019 at 8:21
  • 1
    @Alexis it used to be that the number of UK students was capped by the government on a per school/department basis. I never understood how non-UK EU students fit into the picture.
    – StrongBad
    Jun 17, 2019 at 12:04
  • @AnonymousPhysicist My university uses "non-resident" to cover OOS and international, who pay about 3.3x resident tuition. Jun 19, 2019 at 18:29

From my experience (German speaking countries, UK, Spain): We just took the best students and the nationality did not really play a role. (exception: medicine where politics wants to make sure that enough doctors stay in the country after graduation).

BUT: The reason why international students often perform outstandingly is that a positive selection takes place before: students that seek international education (possibly in a language that is not their mother tongue) will often be the most motivated and smartest students of their home country. Local students might just give it a try even if they are not that outstanding. Assuming that each admission process has false positive and false negative outcomes a pre-selected international cohort that got admitted might perform exceptionally well (low false positive rate).

  • Thanks for answer. Are you saying you indeed observe international students perform better in these countries (German speaking countries, UK, Spain)?
    – Allure
    Jun 18, 2019 at 23:46
  • Well, I do not have a quantification but feelingwise I often see international students at the top
    – lordy
    Jun 19, 2019 at 6:51

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