6 factors influencing overseas students when choosing a university

Jun 18 2021
Business Insights Study abroad

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Studying abroad can be costly. Overseas tuition fees, while varying widely from country to country, are significantly higher compared to domestic tuition fees - and that’s before living costs. But overseas study is still viewed as an investment in the future. Which is why international students will take the time to research all the options available when it comes to choosing a university. While the cost of overseas study might be high, many students see it as an investment. According to a report from the International Alumni Job Network (IAJN), 72% of students from Asia are satisfied with the return on their investment.

As explained in the Zai Guide to Overseas Student Trends, much will depend on factors influencing student mobility, but there are common factors that every student will look at when choosing a study destination. By understanding and taking account of these when developing a targeted recruitment plan, overseas student recruiters can significantly improve outcomes with marketing campaigns designed to influence students deciding where to study.

Here, we will look at the six main factors affecting student choice when it comes to selecting a university or college for overseas study.

Access to high quality education

The goal of studying overseas is to acquire a reputable qualification that offers improved career prospects, so high quality teaching is consistently one of the most important factors in the decision-making process for international students. Many third level universities, such as the University of Oxford in the UK, or Stanford University in the US, have a well-established reputation for providing high quality teaching programmes. These have become a popular choice for students, meaning a lot of competition for places. However, there are a number of organisations that compile rankings. One is the QS university rankings, where students can compare institutions based on a number of factors including quality of teaching programmes.

Clearly, one of the key benefits of studying overseas is that it widens the number of high quality options open to students, and offers access to universities that are highly regarded internationally. In India, for example, 75% of students cited quality of education as their motivation for studying abroad.

Increasingly, technology and the delivery of study programmes plays a role in quality too. In the 2018 International Student Survey carried out by QS, 65% of respondents looking to study in the UK placed technology among their top five priorities.

To attract overseas students in a competitive market, universities must play to their niche strengths and integrate the most innovative teaching technologies to deliver study programmes. Recruiters can then highlight these features in their marketing efforts to support one of the main objectives for students - improved career prospects after graduation. 


While it’s not a prerequisite for a student to know what job they want to pursue upon completing their studies, many study with a specific career in mind. Where applicable, education institutions should be able to provide study programmes that lead towards this goal, but they need to provide much more besides - specifically, in terms of connecting the student to employment opportunities. Those that can will stand out when it comes to appealing to overseas students.

There are many ways this can be done. Study programmes should be continually reviewed, so that they remain in line with best teaching practices and methodologies, include a practical element and be designed to be relevant in relation to the current job market and employment trends. Universities should continue to build partnerships with employers and industry bodies in relevant sectors and, finally, integrate job placements and hands-on experience outside of the classroom into study programmes.

Access to career services, especially in the final year, including recruitment events, job fairs and other networking opportunities, designed to help students find a route into employment will be a solid selling point for ambitious students eager to be job-ready upon graduation.

A welcoming, safe environment

Students seek to study where they are wanted, respected and valued as much as domestic students. How welcoming a study destination is can significantly influence their choice of university. In the annual International Student Surveys conducted by QS, more than half of students cited that as a factor in their decision-making. While educators can do little about travel restrictions or border policies for example, positioning the university as a welcoming and inclusive institution for overseas students can make a difference.

This can be achieved throughout the student journey, from engagement and recruitment to graduation and beyond. By facilitating visa and travel requirements to organising accommodation and financial services, such as low cost currency exchange, universities that put in place initiatives to make the transition to life and study in a new country easier will undoubtedly attract a greater number of overseas students. The University of East London, for instance, provides an airport pickup service in its five day welcoming programme designed to help students transition into life in the UK.

Programmes that encourage cross-cultural mixing and events across social, sporting and academic settings, will promote diversity and inclusivity on campus. At the same time, if the university attracts a lot of students from a specific region, providing ready-made resources, amenities and social groups for these incoming students will boost the university's appeal and reputation in those overseas student markets.

Foreign students should have a voice and be heard within the broader student community. An International Students' Committee is the ideal way to make this happen.

International students are looking for culture and new experiences as part of their overseas education. According to one European study, most students believe that studying abroad helps them understand their own cultural values, as well as those of other cultures. Highlighting cultural diversity within the university, as well as local attractions, heritage sites, and events is one way of driving more international students to the institution.

Scholarships and funding

Overseas study is expensive and some students can’t afford the cost of tuition fees abroad, even if they’ve excelled at a subject in their home country. For this reason, many will spend a lot of time researching and applying to sources of student finance such as scholarships for international students, particularly for postgraduate studies.

Fortunately, depending on the region, there are many sources of funding, scholarships and bursaries for overseas students. Popular scholarship search databases include Scholarship Portal, FastWeb, IIE Passport and Scholarships for Study in Australia. Highlighting the relevant sources on the university website and marketing materials can drive more applicants to your university.

Recruiters should subscribe to mailing lists and other resources in order to stay up-to-date with any government schemes developed to attract foreign students, as well as other types of funding from business, industry and educational bodies. Universities that invest in their own overseas scholarship scheme demonstrate that they are welcoming to overseas students and attract more fee-paying students as a result.

Course content and availability

Before choosing where to study, students decide what to study. As we'll see in our upcoming Guide to Overseas Student Trends for Educators, the most popular courses for international students are business and administration courses, along with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Overseas marketing materials should be adapted to showcase the university’s strengths in these disciplines.

Given the rise in new technologies in a wide range of industries, all institutions should be integrating digital technology and industry applications into study programmes. Students are looking at how universities tailor their study programmes to make them more practical for transitioning into the workplace.

Institutions should actively market ongoing partnerships with external industry bodies and stress a commitment to continually reviewing and updating course structures and curricula so qualifications meet the needs of employers in the recruitment marketplace.

Building a reputation

Hand-in-hand with high quality teaching programmes and improved employment prospects, the reputation and prestige of an educational provider can be one of the biggest contributing factors to student decision-making. For many international students, particularly those coming to Europe and the US from Asia, attending a prestigious overseas university can help them stand out in a crowded graduate job market.

Obviously, developing the reputation of a university isn’t something that can be done overnight, but there are a combination of factors that universities can focus on to help refine and strengthen their brand message.

When it comes to research, for instance, it should be focussed on the university’s strongest disciplines in order to differentiate the institution from key competitors. We’ve already seen how students are attracted by practical learnings that can be applied to the real world, so this is an area where increased investment can be particularly beneficial for raising awareness of the institution on a global scale.

Recruiters must be vigilant to what competitors are doing and to the latest research in the educational sector with regards to overseas students. Having a marketing or press function to publicise awards, accolades, research achievements and gain press coverage can all help garner respect and brand awareness at home, as well as abroad. And, like every other business, universities should invest in developing a strong social media presence.

Finally, getting feedback by sending questionnaires to prospective students can help educational providers identify areas for improvement and even initiate an engagement process with those students.

With international student recruitment becoming more competitive than ever, it’s vital for education providers to use insights such as these to build strategies to grow brand awareness, develop innovative study programmes and maximise the employment potential of overseas students. Those institutions that are seen to offer more value and services to overseas students will stand out and enjoy more success when it comes to attracting this hugely important source of income.










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