educations.com ran several surveys between January 2018 and October 2020 that sought to understand students’ opinions about international education. This report highlights several trends that we’ve observed over the course of conducting these surveys. We think this report is especially useful to university recruiters who are interested in learning about some key trends that drive prospective students’ decisions to study abroad.
The four surveys cited in this report and the number of total respondents for each survey are as follows:
January 2018: over 20,000 total respondents
January 2019: over 30,000
January 2020: over 20,000
October 2020: over 2,700
The statistics used in this report are based on responses from prospective students only and do not include responses from current or past students.
Students’ top reasons to study abroad remain consistent from Jan 2018 to Oct 2020. The consistency of these experiential and development motivators suggests that prospective students’ desire to study abroad is driven by longer term goals - goals that will likely outlast current disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Kingdom and Canada overtake the United States as the two most popular study abroad countries. Neither the UK nor Canada has made particularly significant gains in prospective student interest. It is in fact the magnitude of the US’s decreasing popularity that has driven the US from being the most popular country in Jan 2018 down to the 3rd most popular country in Oct 2020.
Post-study employment opportunities are an increasingly important factor in country choice. Post-study employment opportunities - ranked 9th in Jan 2018 - has climbed up to become the 3rd most important factor in students’ country choice in Oct 2020. This is mirrored by the rising importance that prospective students place on a university’s career services and industry connections when choosing a school.
Welcoming nature towards international students of secondary but increasing importance in university choice. Since the onset of COVID-19, the importance of the university’s welcoming nature has climbed from 6th place in Jan 2020 to 4th place in Oct 2020.
Finding #1. Students’ Top Motivators to Study Abroad Remain Consistent
Prospective students’ reasons to study abroad have remained consistent over the 4 survey periods from Jan 2018 to Oct 2020.
The top 5 motivators in Oct 2020 are a mix of experiential and development goals:
To develop myself personally
To achieve my career goals
To experience a new culture/ lifestyle
To access higher quality teaching
To have an adventure
These top 5 reasons to study abroad have remained pretty consistent since Jan 2018. The consistency of these motivators suggests that prospective students’ desire to study abroad is driven by longer term goals - goals that will likely outlast the current disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fulfillment of prospective students’ experiential goals such as “to experience a new culture/ lifestyle” and “to have an adventure” requires students to have on-campus study experience in their country of choice.
Thus, the persistence of these experiential goals supports our Oct 2020 report’s findings that the desire to study abroad remains strong. In the Oct 2020 report that focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on study abroad, we observed that only a very small percentage of prospective students (3.9%) plan to cancel their future study plans in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Additionally, a substantial proportion of prospective students (53%) still expect to be traveling abroad to study on campus. This indicates that many prospective students are determined to experience the full study abroad experience despite the current situation.
Finding #2. The UK and Canada overtake the US as the most popular study abroad destinations
The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have consistently been the three most popular study abroad countries for prospective students looking to begin studies in the following 1-3 years according to educations.com's surveys.
In Oct 2020, the UK and Canada overtook the US and became the two most popular study abroad destinations for prospective students. Neither the UK nor Canada has made particularly significant gains in prospective student interest. It is in fact the magnitude of the US’s decreasing popularity that has driven the US from being the most popular country in Jan 2018 down to the 3rd most popular country in Oct 2020.
The decline in student interest has been incremental suggesting no one event in the past two years - such as COVID-19 - has driven the downward interest. In 2018, 21.6% of prospective students selected the US as the country they most want to study abroad in. This figure declined to 20.8% in Jan 2019, 14.4% in Jan 2020 and finally to 10.7% in Oct 2020.
Meanwhile, the proportion of prospective students who selected the UK as the country they would most like to study abroad in has increased from 12.7% in Jan 2018 to around 15-16% over the next 3 survey periods. The figure is at 15.4% in the most recent Oct 2020 survey.
Canada saw a gradual increase in this figure from 10.1% of prospective students in Jan 2018 to 13.8% in Oct 2020.
Germany and Australia cemented their positions at just below the top 3 countries. In Oct 2020, 8.1% of prospective students chose Germany as the country they are most interested in studying abroad in while 7.5% selected Australia.
European countries France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Sweden made up the bottom half of the top 10 most popular countries between Jan 2019 and Oct 2020. The proportion of prospective students that selected each of these countries ranges between 2% and 4%, and there were some minor changes amongst the rankings of these 5 countries between Jan 2019 and Oct 2020.
Asian countries Japan and South Korea made the bottom half of the top 10 list in Jan 2018 but were replaced by the Netherlands and Sweden in the subsequent survey periods.
Finding #3. Post-Study Employment Opportunities Increasingly Important in Country Choice
The two most important factors for prospective students when choosing which country to study in are cost of living, and language and culture. These two factors have remained unchanged between Jan 2018 and Oct 2020.
Safety and socio-political climate, and reputation of the education system are two other factors that have remained in the top 5 factors that determine country choice between Jan 2018 and Oct 2020.
One factor that has steadily increased in importance from Jan 2018 to Oct 2020 is post-study employment opportunities. It ranked 9th in Jan 2018 and has climbed up to be the 3rd most important factor in Oct 2020.
The increasing importance of post-study employment opportunities is mirrored by the rising importance that prospective students place on a university’s career services and industry connections when choosing a school or university. Career services and industry connections ranked only 10th in importance in Jan 2018 and Jan 2019 and has shot up to be the 2nd most important factor in university choice in Oct 2020.
Given the increasing importance of post-study employment opportunities to international students, factors such as more stringent visa policies for international scholars seeking employment in the US may be at play.
In contrast, Canada and the UK’s policies that make it easier for international students to study and stay may contribute to both countries overtaking the US as the top 2 study abroad destinations.
Finding #4. Welcoming Nature Towards International Students of Secondary but Increasing Importance in University Choice
Teaching quality has consistently been the most important factor in university choice from Jan 2018 to Oct 2020.
General reputation of the school is another factor that has stayed on the list of the 5 most important factors in university choice from Jan 2018 to Oct 2020.
An interesting development is the growing importance of welcoming nature towards international students in prospective students’ university choice. This may point not only to the welcoming nature of the university but also to that of the country in which the university is located.
Since the onset of COVID-19, the importance of the university or country’s welcoming nature has climbed from 6th place in Jan 2020 to 4th place in Oct 2020.
We hope this report is useful in helping you make informed decisions about international student recruitment. For further insights into how your target international students think about studying abroad, download our 2020 Student Insights data.