10 Trends That Shaped International Student Recruitment In 2019 

We surveyed IB students in 173 countries. The results revealed some interesting findings about how international students are faring against their domestic counterparts.

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International student recruitment is a major priority for higher education systems & governments in multiple countries.

But where are international students actually choosing to study? What do we know about their success rates? And how are they faring in the university application process compared to their domestic counterparts? 

For the second year running, BridgeU has partnered with Managebac to survey International Baccalaureate students in 173 countries. Our report offers a unique snapshot into the application preferences of IB students, both international & domestic, including their preferred university destinations and the subjects they applied for.

The data we’ve gathered provides some interesting insights into the current state of international student recruitment, as well as posing questions about future trends as universities look to the next decade. 

We’ve compiled the five key takeaways from this year’s report, and what they might mean for university recruiters and marketers who are looking to find and connect with the best-fit IB students. 

Download the full report – Get more exclusive insights on international students’ university application preferences. Download the full Life After the IB report. Get my free report

1. The USA remains the most popular destination, but its share of applications is shrinking 

In our previous report, we found that the US, Canada and the UK were the most popular university destinations for IB students. These remained the most popular destinations in the second year of our study, but we found that the USA and Canada were less popular than before. 

To further validate this finding, we restricted our analysis to students from each of the five global Americas, Asia, Europe, Oceania and Africa. In every region, the popularity of the US has fallen. 

By contrast, we found that the popularity of the UK has risen for IB students in our 2019 survey.

These findings might be an early sign of the effects of the current US government’s perceived hostility towards international students. By contrast, we note that the UK is more popular despite uncertainty over Brexit. 

2. Canadian universities are the most popular for IB students in 2019 

Turning to specific university institutions, we found that Canadian universities received the highest volume of applications from IB students in our 2019 survey. Specifically, two Canadian institutions retained the top spot from last year’s survey – The University of Toronto and The University of British Columbia. 

bar chart of the most popular universities for IB students

These findings coincide with data from ICEF that international student enrolment in Canada rose by 16.25% across 2018, as well as news of the Canadian government launching its International Education Strategy. 

3. Asian students continue to be the most globally mobile 

For the second year of our survey, IB students from Asia were the most globally mobile in their university choices. Specifically, we found that students from Asia sent the highest volume of applications to the US. 

We also found that European students were more likely to send applications to their country of origin, or to the UK. 

The least globally mobile students in this year’s survey were from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the US and the UK. 

4.  Leading universities are primarily recruiting from Europe & Asia 

We asked IB students where they are choosing to study and surveyed their country of origin. In this year’s survey, we found that higher education institutions in countries such the USA and Canada are heavily reliant on applications from Asian citizens to meet their international student recruitment goals.

The UK reported a slightly more diverse pool of applicants in this year’s survey, with the majority of applicants to UK universities coming from Asia and Europe. All of the most popular universities in our survey struggled to recruit students from the regions of Africa, the wider Americas and Oceania. 

5. Business, Architecture & Design degrees have grown in popularity with IB students since last year 

IB students in our 2019 survey focussed their university applications on a small number of subject areas. Specifically, IB students have sent more applications for Businesses, Sciences, Engineering and Social Science than any other subjects combined. 

We also compared IB students’ general subject preferences with this time last year and found that Business and Architecture have continued to grow in popularity since 2018. For example, Architecture/Design courses have seen almost a 10% increase in applications from IB students since we performed last year’s survey. 

6. International students had higher predicted grades, but the same success rates overall

We found that the average predicted grade of international IB students was 36.6. This was compared to 33.4 for their domestic counterparts. 

What’s more, international IB students had higher predicted grades in general (the majority of international students had grades over 35, while domestic students had grades that averaged in the 20s and low 30s). This also suggests that international IB students are more likely to apply to university abroad than their domestic counterparts. 

But even though they reported better predicted grades, international students were no more likely to receive an offer than domestic students. This may be, in part, due to the fact that they apply to more competitive institutions.

Download the full report – Get more exclusive insights on international students’ university application preferences. Download the full Life After the IB report. Get my free report

7. International students are less successful than domestic students in the US, UK, and Canada. 

We found that international students fare better in when applying to university regions and countries, while domestic students fared better in others. 

For example, when we segmented by region, we found that international students applying to the Americas have much lower success rates than domestic students. We found that the reverse was true for international students applying to universities in Europe, Asia & Oceania. 

Specifically, our survey found that the United States had one of the lowest success rates for international students. 

By contrast, international students who applied to less mainstream destinations (i.e. countries other than the US, UK and Canada) reported higher success rates overall. 

In fact, the countries where international students fare least well in the university application process are also those that have the highest number of international applicants. 

There are a number of possible explanations for this. It may simply be the case that the large number of international applicants to these countries makes the university application process more competitive. 

Another explanation is that these universities may simply have been slow to develop the capacity to accept an increasing number of international applicants. 

8. The success rates of international students vary significantly by subject 

We found that international students had higher success rates than their domestic counterparts for some subjects, and lower success rates for others. 

Specifically, we found that domestic IB students were more successful when they applied for humanities or sciences. Meanwhile international students were more successful when applying to study business (which we’ve seen is a popular subject for international students overall) or law degrees.

9. International students are more likely to apply for subjects where they outcompete domestic students 

We’ve already seen how business and law were the subjects where international students were more successful.  

Our survey also found that international students were more likely to apply for the subjects where they had higher success rates. We found that international students were more likely to apply for business and law and less likely to apply for science, medicine and humanities degrees. 

bar chart showing international students' subject preferences

We can’t definitively explain this trend. It may be that international students are aware of their relative advantages in these subjects and submit their applications accordingly. Alternatively, international students may be more mindful that business and law-based degrees are more likely to secure them a good job after graduation.

10. There’s a trade off between application quantity & quality 

Our research has found that IB students who apply to more universities are less likely to receive offers overall. 

We found that students making more applications will find their chance of acceptance slightly decreased. Our model estimates that making 10 applications, rather than 5, reduces the chance that each application will be accepted by about 10%. 

scattergram showing quality versus quantity of international students' applications

This suggests that IB students applying to university will do better if they focus their applications on a smaller crop of best-fit institutions. While there’s no right answer on how many applications they should send, students who are encouraged to adopt a ‘scattergun’ approach to their university applications are less likely to receive offers. 

Our 2019 report points to a number of possible trends, which we will monitor in subsequent years. These include: 

  • The continued reliance of major US and Canadian universities on Asian countries for their international student recruitment.
  • The growing popularity of the UK with this year’s cohort of IB students. Will this trend continue as the Brexit process continues to unfold? 
  • The fact that international students achieve better grades than their domestic counterparts in some countries, but don’t receive more offers. 

If you’d like to download this year’s report in full, click on the link below to find out how your university compares to other major international destinations. 

image of the Life After the IB university report
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