How do international student returnees contribute to the development of their home countries? A systematic mapping and thematic synthesis

Zhe Wang, Natalya Hanley, Joonghyun Kwak, Ilka Vari-Lavoisier, Mira Al Hussein, Lorena Sanchez Tyson, Ahmad Akkad, Maia Chankseliani

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This study investigates the significant yet under-examined role of international student returnees in catalysing societal development in their home countries. Through systematic mapping and thematic synthesis of 53 articles selected from an initial pool of 1515, this review delineates the literature’s portrayal of returnees’ impacts across various domains, including firm growth, industrial innovation, higher education, research, social diversity, equity, inclusion, democracy, and civic engagement. While highlighting the skills, knowledge, and resilience students garner abroad—facilitating innovative problem-solving and engagement in their countries—the study concurrently points out the emerging nature and methodological limitations of the extant literature. This review identifies critical gaps in the literature on international student returnees. It notes a lack of global evidence and an overemphasis on certain geographical contexts which questions the generalisability of the findings. Furthermore, there is a narrow focus on economic and political impacts, overlooking crucial areas like poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. Equally important is the absence of comparative studies between returnees and local counterparts. This lack of comparative studies highlights the need to distinguish the unique effects of international versus domestic higher education. This review not only advances academic understanding by systematically mapping the underexplored nexus between international student mobility and societal development but also offers implications for policy. By delineating the transformative potential of returnees and highlighting the importance of conducive environments, it underscores the necessity of informed, strategic interventions to maximise returnees’ societal contributions. In doing so, the study acknowledges existing gaps and methodological limitations within the literature, advocating for a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to leveraging international education for sustainable development.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102330
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Journal of Educational Research
Early online date4 Mar 2024
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2024


  • Development
  • Higher education
  • International student mobility
  • Returnee contributions
  • Systematic review
  • Thematic synthesis


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