News & Reports

New Surveys Peek Into International Students’ Searches for Universities

PRAGUE—Some new research on prospective students’ searches for universities has found some surprising results.

– First, many of the world’s top universities don’t bother answering potential applicants’ e-mails.

– Second, students often view high tuition as an indicator of teaching quality.

– Third, cultural life is not that strong a factor in students’ initial decisions, even if it remains an important part of their eventual satisfaction.

With 4.5 million students venturing abroad annually and spending an estimated $51 million on tuition alone, the global movement of students has become big business, even if that label offends some academics’ nonprofit sensibilities. (References for those numbers: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and ICG Consulting, respectively.)

The findings from surveys reported at the annual meeting of the European Association for International Education gave some glimpses into what happens when students search for a university abroad.

For starters, when it comes to answering e-mail from prospective students, many of the world’s top universities are downright rude, a study by the British Council and StudyPortal, a website for students, found.

In the study, student researchers “mystery shopped” 448 universities in 38 countries—not revealing that they were doing research. In the first phase of their research, the students focused on how easy university websites were to find. Next, the students determined how easy it was on the websites to find desired information, such as application deadlines. Last, the researchers checked to see if the universities would respond to their e-mails. Twenty-one percent of the universities did not respond to the students’ e-mails.

That result bodes ill for those universities’ chances of recruiting international students, said Joran van Aart, director of student value for StudyPortal. “If you try to buy a BMW and no one lets you in the showroom,” he said. “You are going to go somewhere else.”

In separate research, Marine Condette, an academic relations coordinator at ETS Global, a subsidiary of the nonprofit testing organization, discussed research that drew on the responses of 18,393 students. The research was done by Hobsons, an educational services company. The Hobson’s survey found that international students may be willing to pay higher fees because they see them as a proxy for teaching quality.

The company gave international students a list of 13 factors that might influence their decisions. The students surveyed said that the top five decision-influencing factors were, in order, quality of education, university rankings, their perceptions of how welcoming the host country was to international students, safety, and the perceived ease of getting a visa.

But inside the “quality of education” factor, the students reported that they believed the number-one indication of teaching quality was the cost of tuition.

Universities that think that survey result gives them an unlimited license to hike fees, should think twice, however. When it comes to actually choosing an institution to attend, the number-one reason students gave for declining offers was the price.

The survey found that the least important factors in students’ decisions were distance from home, the ability to get permanent residency in the host country, exposure to cultural life and the hope for a career in the destination country.

While exposure to cultural life doesn’t seem to be that important a factor in students’ decision-making, at the tail end of their time abroad, the city they study in and their interactions with local people rise up as being an important factors in their satisfaction, a StudyPortal survey and other research have found.

Multiple surveys seem to be arriving at the conclusion that students who go abroad are a happy lot—see “Students Rave About the Rewards of Study Abroad.” Similarly, StudyPortal asked international students how satisfied they were on scale from zero—“no, not at all”—to ten—“yes, certainly.” Out of about 7,000 students surveyed, 3,475 gave the experience a ten. (One note of caution on this and other surveys about student satisfaction with study abroad—they are largely done by organizations that stand to benefit from positive results.)

What are international students unhappy about? The StudyPortal survey found that when students complain, they say that the level of the academic program was too low, the program was unorganized and the English level of the professors was poor. Other gripes include uncomfortable housing and slow, bureaucratic processes. A survey done by the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education found, anecdotally, that when Asian students go to the United States they are put off by the level of alcohol consumption at student parties. Likewise, when American students go to Asia, they are disappointed at the relative absence of alcohol.

As the data on international students gathers, universities who pay attention to the results may be able to leave students more satisfied and—hopefully—improve their academic experience and career preparation. But university administrators will probably not be racing to adjust the amount of alcohol at student parties.

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