What Motivates International Students?

Survey finds different priorities send them to different destinations.

September 30, 2010

Overseas students head to Britain for quality, to the United States for career improvement and to Germany for low tuition, according to a new study.

The British Council’s Student Decision Making Survey includes information gathered from around 115,000 students, from 200 countries, who hope to study abroad. The poll has been conducted over the past three and a half years.

The introduction to the report notes that the market for overseas students is becoming "more sophisticated," with domestic higher education investment in many countries making overseas study less attractive, and courses taught in English increasingly being offered in non-English-speaking countries.

The survey found that when choosing a country, just over half of students put quality of education in their top three priorities. Just over a quarter (26.3 per cent) see the reputation of a country’s universities as a key factor.

Of students naming Britain as their ideal destination, 59 percent said they considered quality of education the top priority – the highest rating of any destination country on that criterion.

Prospective students aiming to study in the U.S. were most likely to focus on enhancing their career prospects (38 percent).

Those with their eyes on Australia or Canada were more inclined than others to see the opportunity to work while studying as a key consideration (24 percent), while those seeking a place in Germany were most likely to mention low tuition fees as a priority (25 percent).

But overall the "cost of studying overseas does not feature strongly when students are choosing a study destination," according to the survey, with only one in 10 citing low tuition as one of the three most important factors.

The survey found that when asked to identify three factors that most influenced their initial decision to study abroad – before choice of destination – higher quality is cited by 54.2 percent, followed by career improvement (53.8 percent) and the chance to live overseas (51.5 per cent).

The survey report notes changes in the market. "Having traditionally drawn students who are comfortable with the English language, the UK is now competing with non-English speaking countries offering tuition in English," it says. "In addition, some of the key countries for international students are investing heavily in their domestic higher education systems, making study abroad less attractive at undergraduate level."

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, five countries attract a combined 50 percent of all students studying outside their home nations: the United States (19 percent), Britain (10 percent), Germany (7 percent), France (7 percent) and Australia (7 percent).

But the market shares of most of these countries have dropped over the past eight years.

The OECD’s recent Education at a Glance 2010 report found that the US share of the overseas student market fell from 26 to 19 percent over an eight-year period, and Britain's share dropped by two percentage points. The shares of Australia, Korea and New Zealand rose by one percentage point and Russia’s by two percentage points.

The OECD also noted that "an increasing number of institutions in non-English-speaking countries now offer courses in English to overcome their linguistic disadvantage in terms of attracting foreign students," a trend identified with the Nordic countries in particular.

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