League tables are king to foreign students

A major new survey shows many universities are failing to understand what international students want from higher education

The survey of over 14,000 international students and applicants, conducted by leaders in student lifecycle management Hobsons & The Parthenon Group, shows that ‘student experience’ and contact time are much less important to potential applicants than institutional and course-specific league table rankings. 

This survey – which is the largest of its kind – utilises ‘conjoint analysis’ techniques to explore how  students make trade-offs when they choose a particular institution. 

The study finds that overall university ranking and subject ranking are the two most important factors in affecting the decisions of international students about where and what to study. 

More than 40% of international students rank ‘subject ranking’ ahead of either the country of choice or the university ranking overall as the key to their decision.  Only 12% say that coming to the UK is the deciding factor – highlighting the fact that universities are competing globally for international students, not just with other UK institutions. 

More than 80% of students choose their destination on the quality of education as opposed to other factors such as job opportunities in the destination country.  Both ‘teaching quality’ and ‘academic ranking’ beat other factors such as ‘student satisfaction’ in determining decisions.

These findings have major implications for how universities choose to market themselves overseas.  At a time when the higher education sector is relying more and more on international students to ensure financial security for institutions, how to attract the best and the brightest from around the world has never been more important.

Hobsons have developed guidance for universities looking to improve their recruitment of international students based on this major new tranche of data.  Key lessons include:

  • Universities should lead their marketing with what they rank highly in, whether that’s subject or university – especially if they are in the top quintile.
  • Unless a university is in the top quintile either overall or for a subject, large student segments are almost completely unavailable to them.
  • Although students like high student satisfaction scores, student satisfaction doesn’t drive choice
  • Price is not particularly important providing fees are below a critical level

Hobsons’ Director, Client and External Relations, Duncan Findlater, said: “These findings reinforce what we at Hobsons know from our extensive work with partner universities throughout the UK and around the world.  The UK has some of the best universities in the world – and is a major education exporter.  But as we compete with more and more institutions from around the world for the best and brightest students, understanding the market has never been more important.  Hobsons helps our partners do just that and this work demonstrates that it is crucial for universities to really know and understand their particular strengths.”

Matthew Robb, Partner in Parthenon’s Education Practice noted:Through Hobsons, we have been able to conduct the largest survey of its type globally, and gives us the opportunity to understand student choices in far greater detail than ever before. It highlights the crucial role of subject ranking and specialisation, and leads us to question the importance of ‘student satisfaction’.

Hobsons are higher education specialists that work in partnership with institutions, delivering technology and services to engage and support students throughout every stage of their learning lifecycle. Student success is our shared aspiration and today we work with over 7,500 schools, colleges, and universities worldwide, applying global insight locally.



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