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7 Factors International Students Consider When Deciding Where to Study

By their very nature, international students come from diverse cultures, with different backgrounds and circumstances. This is why students consider largely different factors when it comes to choosing where they want to study. That said, it may be possible to identify certain common factors with a large sampling of a diverse population. 


In this article, I sought to identify the seven common factors that drive the decisions of prospective students regarding where they will acquire higher education.

Key Takeaways:

  • The COVID-19 situation has an overall effect on the decision of a prospective student to study abroad
  • Teaching quality is the top consideration when choosing a course, country, or college
  • A high graduate employment rate is also a top factor for students when choosing the destination HEI
  • International students put a premium on the country and HEI with a reputation for being welcoming to them

Identifying the common factors

Getting unbiased information about international education is not always easy. Fortunately, there is QS Quacquarelli Symonds. It is one source of higher education information that has proven quite valuable in the past. 


Most people are familiar with its Top Universities site that regularly tracks and ranks the performance of higher education institutions around the world. However, the value of QS in this instance rests on its annual International Student Survey (ISS), which takes the pulse of the market from the perspective of the students. 


The 2021 ISS entitled “Navigating a complex global higher education climate amidst crisis,” comes in several editions, including the US and UK. However, in this instance, we are referring to the global edition. The survey recorded the responses of 105,083 students from 191 countries and 115 institutions for 2021. Unless otherwise stated, all figures in this article refer to the QS ISS 2021 Global Edition. So let’s get down to business.


Under normal circumstances, the deciding factors for international students would not include a health component. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced 65% of students to change their plans. Forty-seven percent of those chose to delay or defer enrollment, 16% decided to change their destination country, and 5% abandoned international education plans altogether.

student plans covid chart
Source: QS Global International Student Survey 2021

The vaccine rollout was also a major factor. Thirty-seven percent of respondents reported they would feel more comfortable going to another country to study when the vaccine is already widely available. Even more students (41%) indicated they would go abroad to study when face-to-face instruction resumes.


In response to the question regarding their choice, students chose quality of teaching (66%) and personal interest (55%) as the most important factors. However, when asked about prospects, the response shifted to employability in terms of learning new skills (60%) and higher-level qualifications (53%).


When asked about choosing a university, the results showed that more than half (54%) put a premium on the HEIs’ graduate employment rate. Almost the same percentage (48%) considered how soon an HEI’s graduates found work. Additionally, 48% of students looked favorably at institutions with links to industry and work placement schemes.

Teaching quality

When it comes to the choice of course (66%), country (57%), and university (59%), students consistently indicated that quality of teaching is paramount. However, what is of more interest is how they acquire the information about the quality of teaching.


Overall, 55% of students referred to institution-specific information to assess the teaching quality of a course, referring to teaching staff qualifications and experience. This highlights the importance of including relevant information about the faculty for specific courses. 


When choosing a country and HEI, 60% of students referred to independent ranking sites such as Top Universities. In terms of HEI recognition, 60% of respondents looked to country-wide measurement schemes such as the Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK.  Fifty-eight percent also considered up-to-date technology use in an HEI as an indication of teaching quality.


In terms of information sources other than that of HEIs and ranking sites, 52% of students preferred connecting with current international students to get feedback about a country or university. Forty-one percent would also consider stories about former and current international students, indicating the benefits of posting student testimonials on HEI sites and channels.

Inclusiveness and safety

A full 54% of survey participants would choose a country they perceive as being welcoming to international students. Fifty percent (50%) would choose a university for the same reason, and it is the second leading factor for both categories.


The US edition of the 2021 ISS  included student ranking of countries in terms of their handling of the pandemic, with New Zealand leading the pack at 51%, followed by Australia (25%) and Canada (24%). However, in terms of associations, Canada topped the list as being the most welcoming and safe at 36% and 28%, respectively. It beat out the US (32%, 13%), Australia (8%, 6%), and the UK (6%, 6%).

Funding support

In general terms, 49% of prospective students would decide to get an international education depending on the availability of scholarships. When choosing a university, 45% of respondents indicated they would choose an HEI that offered scholarships.

Post-study work rights

While 55% of prospective students plan to work immediately after graduation, only 17% plan to return to their home country at once. Fifty-four percent collectively expect to stay in the country in which they studied from one to six years after graduation. This indicates they would choose a destination country that would make it possible for them to work there for at least one year.


Identifying the top 7 factors that drive international student decisions can benefit key stakeholders in the international education ecosystem, from the recruitment agents to destination countries. They can inform policy changes and management strategies to cater to and gain from this valuable source of talent and revenue. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM #GlobalEducationForAll

MSM VP Global Suneetha Qureshi

MSM President-Global Marketing Office (GMO)

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As president of MSM GMO, she fortifies its business development outreach globally, particularly in the face of MSM’s foray in edtech-based recruitment via MSM Unify. She preserves the premium, value-adding services provided to each GMO partner institution, including dedicated teams on the ground, agent management, lead generation and inquiry management, application pre-screening, and student and parent support through pioneering pre-departure briefing sessions.


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.

Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.



International Student Survey 2021 – US edition. QS. (2021, May 25). https://www.qs.com/portfolio-items/international-student-survey-2021-us-edition/.


International Student Survey 2021. QS. (2021, May 12). https://www.qs.com/portfolio-items/international-student-survey-2021/.


A Leading Global Education Network. QS. (2021, May 17). https://www.qs.com/.


Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – what you need to know. UCAS. (2020, January 9). https://www.ucas.com/undergraduate/what-and-where-study/choosing-course/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-what-you-need-know.


Top Universities. (n.d.). https://www.topuniversities.com/.


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