A New Era of Student Choice Begins

Top Trends in International Education for 2023 and Beyond

After a challenging period of uncertainty and change, international education is booming. Borders are largely open worldwide. Most other pandemic restrictions have been lifted. Students are once again on the move, looking abroad to take the next step in their education and their career.

Amid this flurry of student activity, destinations are making aggressive moves to position themselves as the ideal landing place for international talent. Governments have shifted key policies, while institutions have adapted new marketing strategies. An era of intense competition is beginning, one in which students will carefully weigh their many options to study abroad.

This report is intended to help institutions, recruitment professionals, and governments navigate this new competitive reality. Here, we outline key trends that are shaping international education across major English-language destination markets. We bring together government data, industry reports, and ApplyBoard research to provide insight into major factors driving growth in the sector. To help shape future recruitment plans and long-term growth strategies, we examine key established and emerging source markets. And we take the long view on which trends will last and which will fall off.

Students Are on the Move, but Barriers Persist

Experts understandably feared that COVID-19 could cast a long shadow over international education, given its reliance on international travel. Those fears proved unfounded, as record numbers of students across the globe looked to study abroad in 2021 and early 2022.

In the October 2022 edition of ApplyBoard’s Pulse Survey,1 83% of recruitment professionals surveyed indicated they had seen an increase in the number of students interested in studying abroad over the previous three months. A full 53% reported a significant increase. 

  1. Email survey conducted of ApplyBoard recruitment partners. 912 respondents.

This enthusiasm has extended across destination markets and led to an influx of international student applications worldwide.

Strong International Education Rebound in 2021–2022

In 2021, the Canadian government processed more than 550,000 new student visa2 applications, easily surpassing the record 425,000 processed in 2019.3 2022 is primed to smash 2021’s numbers, with more than 450,000 applications already processed through the end of August.4 
  1. The terms student visa and study permit are generally used interchangeably for Canadian international students. Rather than student visas, Canada provides accepted international students with study permits, which allow those students to enroll in classes at Canadian institutions. When a student is approved for a study permit, they are also usually provided with a visitor visa, which allows that student to enter Canada for their studies.
  1. All Canadian study permit data used in this report is provided courtesy of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Data includes new study permits only.
The United Kingdom has seen a similar boom. Nearly 450,000 students applied for a sponsored study visa in 2021, up from 290,000 in 2019. And another 140,000 applications were submitted in the first half of 2022, 80% more than in the same period last year.5
  1. All UK study visa data used in this report is sourced from the UK Home Office.

On the ApplyBoard Platform, there was a 250% rise in UK applications submitted between January and September 2022 compared to the same period in 2021.

Australia’s borders remained closed to international travel until mid-December 2021. Though there were concerns its international education sector would be slow to recover, early signs are positive. More than 213,000 Australian student visa applications were lodged from January to August 2022, almost 25% more than the same period in 2019.6

  1. All Australian student visa data used in this report is sourced from the Australian Department of Home Affairs (ADHA). Data includes subclass 500 and subclass 570 to 576 visas granted to primary applicants located outside Australia only.

If there’s a laggard among the top English-language destination markets, it’s the United States. The US government processed just under 450,000 student visa applications for its 2021 fiscal year,7 below the nearly 490,000 processed in fiscal year 2019. But 2022 may be more promising. At ApplyBoard, US applications spiked by 200% from January to September 2022 compared to the same period last year.

  1.  All US student visa data used in this report is sourced from the US Department of State. US government fiscal years run from October of the previous year to September of the given year. 

Processing Delays Leave Students in Limbo

So many students vying to study abroad has put strain on the international education ecosystem. Governments have struggled to manage the influx of applications, leading to processing delays that have kept students in limbo for months and, in some cases, forced them to defer their studies.

Canada’s total visa backlog reached 2.1 million in June, due in part to the Canadian government’s efforts to relocate refugees from the Ukrainian crisis.8 Amid this backlog, average student visa processing times hovered between 11 and 13 weeks throughout 2022 after falling as low as seven weeks in 2021.9 And for certain countries, processing times have been much higher. For example, processing times for Sri Lankan students reached 26 weeks in September.

  1.  Abigail Lindblade, “Students missing out as delays hit Canada visa applicants.” The PIE News, June 24, 2022.

  1.  Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada, “Check processing times.” September 29, 2022.

In the US, estimated wait times for a student visa interview appointment climbed steadily over the course of the year before falling sharply in September. But like Canada, significant outliers remain. Remarkably, wait times of over a year remained for select Indian cities in October. The US government authorized consular officers to waive the in-person requirement for category F visa applicants through the end of 2022, but applicants must meet specific criteria to qualify for a waiver.10
Facing its own visa processing delays, the UK government pointed to its own efforts to support Ukrainian refugees as contributing to the backlog.11 In June, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria implored applicants to apply for their study visa well ahead of when they might have in previous years.12 In August, the government restored certain priority visa services, suspended without warning in March, allowing students to pay a premium for faster visa turnaround times.13 
  1.  Kim Martin, “Extend Covid-19 concessions, say UK universities.” The PIE News, June 22, 2022
  1. Helen Packer, “UK resumes priority visa services.” The PIE News, August 17, 2022.

By October, average processing times for UK study visas sat at three weeks—significantly less than those for the other major English-language markets.

Australia faced backlogs of five to nine months while its borders were closed.14 However, the Australian government has made significant investments to expedite visa processing, adding 140 new staff in May.15 Currently, the government advises students to lodge their applications at least six to eight weeks before course commencement.

  1.  Australian Department of Home Affairs, “Visa processing times.” August 30, 2022. 

  1.  The Hon Andrew Giles MP, “Government taking action to process more visas faster.” July 25, 2022.

The Australian government’s willingness to invest in better visa processing is an encouraging sign for the sector. While the post-COVID boom will not last indefinitely, the ability to deliver shorter visa processing times—as we’re currently seeing from the UK—is likely to be a key point of competitive differentiation across markets moving forward. International students are eager to begin their education abroad as soon as possible, particularly those who put their plans on hold during the pandemic.

Student Visa Approval Rates a Key Differentiator

For some international applicants, the long wait for visa processing ends in disappointment. This is less of a concern in the UK and Australia, where candidates less likely to secure a visa are typically triaged out at the institution stage, and government approval rates are upwards of 90%.

For Canada and the US, however, significant numbers of students are refused a student visa. From 2016 to 2018, approval rates for Canadian and US students visas were roughly on par, hovering in the mid to high 60s. But since 2019, US approval rates have been consistently higher than Canadian rates. In 2021, the US F-1 student visa approval rate hit 80%, its highest since 2013. Canadian students, meanwhile, had just a 60% approval rate in 2021, and that rate fell to 57% over the first six months of 2022.

Students have taken notice of these challenges. In the October edition of ApplyBoard’s Pulse Survey, 66% of recruitment professionals surveyed said that visa processing times and approval rates were a top concern for their students. US institutions would be well served to highlight this advantage over their counterparts in Canada as they continue to rebuild their international enrollment post-pandemic.

Affordability, Post-Graduate Work Top Concerns Among Students

A global recession looms over many economic projections for 2023. In October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) revised its global growth forecast for next year to 2.7%, down 0.2 percentage points from its summer projection.16 The 2023 forecast is the weakest growth profile since 2001 except for the global financial crisis and the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic—arguably the two largest periods of financial uncertainty within the past 20 years.17

A new study from the World Bank Group also suggests that the global economy is edging toward a recession in 2023, and that a string of financial crises could create lasting damage to key markets.18

Global growth is slowing sharply, with further slowing likely as more countries fall into recession. My deep concern is that these trends will persist, with long-lasting consequences that are devastating for people in emerging markets and developing economies.
— David Malpass, President, World Bank Group

Affordability Concerns Paramount with Recession Looming

Against this global economic backdrop, ApplyBoard’s Pulse Survey asked counsellors what aspects of studying abroad their students were most concerned about when choosing where to study. Affordability issues dominated the results. More than 85% of respondents cited cost of studying as a concern for their students. This was the most commonly occurring concern, followed by post-graduation work opportunities (80%) and cost of living (73%). These results are unsurprising, as high inflation and rising interest rates have dominated financial news around the world throughout 2022.

Surveys of prospective international students have produced similar results. Across four of five priority markets for US institutions, students indicated that cost of living was their number one concern about studying abroad.19 Similar results held for the UK20 and Canada.21 For Australia and New Zealand, four out of the top five worries students expressed about studying in a different country are related to affordability. Cost of living (74%) was number one, followed by availability of scholarships (65%), safety (55%), getting a job (49%), and finding accommodations (49%).22

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), International Student Survey 2022 – UK Edition. May 17, 2022.

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), US International Student Survey 2022. June 30, 2022.

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), Canada International Student Survey 2022. September 1, 2022.

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), Australia and New Zealand International Student Survey 2022. June 24, 2022.

ApplyBoard’s exclusive internal data also reflects the concerns students have about the affordability of studying abroad. In 2019, 60% of searches on the ApplyBoard Platform were for programs with tuition fees of over 50,000 per year.23 But by 2021, this fell to 29%. Student willingness to spend is up slightly in 2022. Even so, two out of every three students on our platform searched for tuition fees below 50,000 per year. In short, even as students are once again on the move in large numbers, they remain less willing (or able) to pay high tuition fees today than they did before the onset of the pandemic.

  1. ApplyBoard Platform tuition amounts listed in the currency charged by the institution.

How do these widespread concerns about affordability affect destination market competitiveness? ApplyBoard’s Pulse Survey asked counsellors which major English-language destination markets were more attractive from an affordability standpoint. Canada was the clear winner, with 87% of respondents saying they felt that studying and living in the country was affordable for international students. Canadian institutions should consider highlighting this advantage—particularly those located in more affordable regions of Canada, such as the Prairies and Atlantic provinces.

Strength of American Dollar Will Impact Affordability

Another macroeconomic trend impacting the international education ecosystem? The soaring value of the American dollar. Shockingly, the euro fell below parity with the USD in August.24 The US Dollar Index—which measures the value of the dollar relative to six other major foreign currencies—reached highs in 2022 not seen since the turn of the century. While a strong US dollar is good news for traveling Americans and students already living and working stateside, it also means that newer students relying on personal savings may find their home currency no longer goes as far in the US as it once did.

This currency shift means that American institutions and policymakers will need to monitor their market closer than ever before. There is a strong opportunity for the sector to grow its reputation for supporting students through these tough financial times by offering scholarships.

At the same time, competing destination markets like Australia and Canada could leverage the strong USD to appeal to students who find their budgets suddenly unable to accommodate the shifting currency value. Likewise, with the euro falling below parity with the USD and the British pound potentially not far behind,25 the EU and UK may be more affordable destinations than before. As the only Anglophone country remaining in the EU, Ireland seems likely to be a major beneficiary.

For more on how the rise of the American dollar will impact global student mobility, read the ApplyBoard data blog, ApplyInsights.

Post-Graduation Work Opportunities an All-Important Driver

Post-graduation work opportunities remain a key consideration for students choosing between destination markets. As mentioned above, 80% of our recruitment partner network indicated that post-graduation work opportunities are a top consideration for their students. Other surveys have found that nearly half of all students intend to stay in their destination market to work after graduation.26

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), Australia and New Zealand International Student Survey 2022. June 24, 2022.

With post-graduation work opportunities of such paramount importance to students, the generosity of these programs offers a key opening for destination markets to get a leg up on the competition.  

Canada’s Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) allows international graduates to stay and work in Canada for eight months to three years, depending on the length of their study program. The PGWPP is particularly highly regarded.27 When surveyed, 97% of ApplyBoard recruitment partners agreed that Canada provides strong post-graduation work opportunities for their students.

  1.  For more information on Canada’s PGWPP, please visit the Canadian government’s website.

The program’s sky-high approval rate may be a factor. More than 97% of eligible PGWPP applicants were approved between January of 2016 and July of 2022.

In Australia, the Post-Study Work stream allows international students who’ve recently graduated with a degree from an Australian institution to live, work, and study in Australia for two to four years, depending on their qualification.28 However, the Australian government announced in September that graduates in select sectors will be eligible to stay and work for an extra two years.29 This change makes Australia’s post-graduation work program the most generous among the four main English-language destination markets, and may well push Australia ahead of its competitors when it comes to attracting international talent.
  1.  For more information on the Post-Study Work stream, please visit the Australian government’s website.

The introduction of the Graduate Route (GR) in the UK helped propel international student enrollment growth by 8% in 2020/21.30 Incredibly, this helped the UK reach its 2030 goal for international student enrollment nine years ahead of schedule. And there’s room for even further growth: in student surveying, nearly 60% of prospective students said they would be more likely to consider studying in the UK if international students could remain in the country for three years instead of two.31
  1.  For more information on the Graduate Route, please visit the UK government’s website.

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), International Student Survey 2022 – UK Edition. May 17, 2022.

The US trails other markets with respect to post-study work rights. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program extends for just one year for most students, with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students eligible for a two-year extension. Beyond this, the transition from OPT to a permanent residency pathway is a particularly difficult one. Nevertheless, OPT is well subscribed, with more than 200,000 international graduates working under the program in the 2021 academic year.32 In January, the Biden administration took steps to make OPT more accessible to international students by making 22 additional STEM sub-fields eligible for the two-year OPT extension.33 
  1.  For more information on OPT programs in the US, please visit the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

When I was considering which country to study in, the countries where I had a path to staying long-term after graduation were the ones I found most attractive.
— Joseph, Nigerian International Student

Destination Markets Alleviating Work Barriers for International Students

The expansion of post-graduation work opportunities is exciting to see. But new and current students often need to work part-time to pay for their tuition and living expenses. How destination markets support these efforts is another key area of differentiation.

The Canadian government recently lifted the 20-hour weekly limit for international students authorized to work off-campus.34 There are more than half a million international students in Canada, and this change will not only help increase their weekly income and alleviate cost of living pressures, but also increase their work experience and possibly help prepare them for later career success.35

  1.  We covered these policy changes in more depth on the ApplyBoard website.

These policy changes are sure to be welcome news for students, their parents, and employers across Canada, making it an important improvement that will keep Canada top of mind for international students and competitive as a nation looking to attract top talent.

— Meti Basiri, Co-Founder and CMO, ApplyBoard
Like Canada, Australia has temporarily relaxed the working hours cap for student visa holders. But this relaxation will end on June 30, 2023.36 This means that working hours will once again be capped for students following this date. In the UK, international students are capped at 20 hours of work per week during the school term.37 The US also caps working hours for international students at 20 hours per week.38 Although Canada’s relaxation of its working hours cap is scheduled to end on December 31, 2023, these changes should boost the country’s reputation as accommodating to student needs, thereby giving the country a competitive recruitment edge over other destination markets over the next year.
  1.  For more information, visit the Study in the UK website

Global Need for Workers Driving Competition for International Students

If destination markets are expanding post-graduation work opportunities, does that mean international students are well positioned to fill gaps in the job market? Job vacancies reached record levels while unemployment rates fell to multi-decade lows nearly across the board in 2022.39 This means that organizations experienced a growing need for workers, but faced a shrinking pool of available talent to hire. While this trend will likely shift in 2023 due to the looming recession, for many high-skill positions, student recruitment should remain a vital component in filling those roles.
  1.  We covered the record number of vacancies for high-skill jobs in the UK and Australia in ApplyInsights articles earlier this year.

This is perhaps most evident in the healthcare industry. Tragically, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers lost their lives due to COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021, a figure that has likely risen in the year and a half since.40 Other healthcare workers have sought out new sectors for employment. These losses have contributed to a global crisis in which nations face a shortage of healthcare workers.41 Recruiting professionals from one country to another will not solve this crisis—instead, new workers need to be trained.

  1.  World Health Organization, “Health and Care Worker Deaths during COVID-19.” October 21, 2021.

  1.  We covered the global shortage of healthcare workers in an ApplyInsights article earlier this year.

Encouragingly, this need may be starting to reach the ears of prospective students. Searches for fields related to the health industry on the ApplyBoard Platform jumped 3.8 percentage points in 2022 compared to 2020. Searches for science programs rose by 3.7 percentage points over the same period. But business programs still account for nearly one-third of searches, and further incentives may be needed to get international students into high-need careers. The time may be ripe for other governments to follow the US in offering extended post-graduation work rights for STEM students. 

The Shifting Face of International Education

Whether or not international students hold the key to solving the labour shortage across destination markets, many will leave their home country to live, work, and study far away. With this in mind, it’s important to take a closer look at student mobility not just from the perspective of destination markets, but from source markets as well.

Any conversation about source markets begins with China and India. While emerging markets will be critical means of diversifying student inflows moving forward, by virtue of their sheer size, China and India will continue to dominate as the top two sources for international students.

That said, the two markets are headed in opposite directions. China’s population of young adults (aged 18 to 23) declined by nearly 50 million between 2010 and 2020, and it’s expected to shrink by another 35 million by 2050.42 At the same time, the Chinese government is actively working to develop their post-secondary education systems and institutions, transitioning China from a top source market to a destination market of its own. 

  1.  All population projections based on UN World Population Prospects 2022 calculations and estimates of domestic populations aged 18 to 23.

India, on the other hand, has become home to the largest population of young adults worldwide, with more than 150 million in 2020. Though the Indian young adult demographic is expected to decline somewhat over the next 30 years, India is still projected to become the world’s largest middle class consumer market by 2030.43 And near-term economic projections for India are more favourable than those for China, as well as the Eurozone and Latin America.
  1.  Mark Abssy, Lenore Elle Hawkins, and Chris Versace, “World Reimagined: The Rise of the Global Middle Class.” Nasdaq, July 9, 2021.

The rise of the middle class in India will enable more Indian students to consider studying abroad, and this massive population of students seeking to further their education will drive recruitment conversations for years to come.

A Sea Change at the Top

These shifts are already having an impact on student inflows to top English-language destination markets. Indian student inflows to Canada surpassed Chinese student inflows in the mid-2010s, and as of December 31, 2021, there were more than twice as many Indian holders of Canadian study permits as there were Chinese holders.

In contrast, the news that more Indian students than Chinese students were granted UK sponsored study visas between July 2021 and June 2022 surpassed the expectations of most across the sector. And indeed, the rate at which the gap between the two countries closed is remarkable. As recently as 2019, China sent 80,000 more students to the UK than India. While the total number of Chinese students in the UK still greatly outpaces the number of Indian students, the gap is narrowing.44 

  1.  HESA, “Where do HE students come from?” February 10, 2022. 

A similar phenomenon has taken place in the United States. The US Department of State issued more F-1 student visas to Indian nationals than Chinese nationals in the 2020 fiscal year, and while China surpassed India again in 2021, the margin was less than 10,000 students. In 2019, the gap was more than 60,000 students; in 2015, it was nearly 200,000. Like the UK, the total number of Chinese students in the US remains well ahead of the total number of Indian students, but the divide is shrinking.45
  1.  Institute of International Education, Open Doors 2021. 

The number of Australian student visas granted to Indian nationals surpassed 37,000 in the 2018-19 Australian government fiscal year, more than double the total in 2015-16.46 At the same time, the number of student visas granted to Chinese nationals declined to just under 52,000, the first year-over-year drop since 2011-12. But Indian student inflows to Australia fell more sharply than Chinese inflows during the pandemic, bucking a trend seen elsewhere around the world. Last year, more than twice as many Chinese nationals were granted an Australian student visa as Indians. 
  1.  Australian government fiscal years run from July to June. 

It’s important to note that the more recent decline in Chinese students going abroad matches a larger pattern across the rest of East Asia. Fewer students from the region have gone abroad to study since the onset of the pandemic, perhaps due to stricter lockdown measures or more uncertainty about travelling. But while we may be in line for a small bump in Chinese student outflows as COVID-19 fades even further into the rear view mirror, expect the underlying demographic trends to eventually prevail—and the competition for students to grow even more intense. 

What does the international education ecosystem look like with India at the top? Chinese students have repeatedly emphasized institution ranking and reputation as key drivers when choosing where to study. For Indian students, graduate outcomes are paramount.47 Expect post-graduation work opportunities and career success metrics like graduate employment rate to become even more salient in the sector as Indian students dominate.
  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), US International Student Survey 2022. April 30, 2022.

Key Markets Emerging in Earnest

In last year’s trends report,48 we identified six high-growth-potential markets that we felt were ready to expand and that remained relatively untapped by institutions in each destination market. Those markets were Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Indonesia. While our forecasts were (and remain) intended to be long term, we feel it’s worth briefly reviewing the performance of some of these markets to see how their international student populations have shifted over the past year.

  1.  Read last year’s ApplyBoard trends report, A Future of Opportunity, here

International education stakeholders have long touted Nigeria as the next major source market for international students, and for good reason. The demographics are extraordinarily favourable. The population of Nigerians aged 18 to 23 is expected to surpass 30 million by 2030. At the same time, Nigeria’s GDP per capita is predicted to grow by 30%.49 

Last year, we forecasted that these changes would drive growth in the Nigerian middle class, but that Nigerian students would likely remain highly price-conscious, favouring lower-cost markets such as Canada. In fact, it’s the UK that saw an enormous spike in Nigerian students over the past year. More than 65,000 Nigerian nationals were granted UK sponsored study visas for the year ending June 2022. In a remarkable contrast, this number was just over 7,000 for the year ending June 2019. 

As a result, Nigerian student inflows to the UK are orders of magnitude higher than those to other top English-language destination markets. It’s worth noting, however, that Canada saw its own doubling of study permits issued between 2019 and 2021, from 3,100 to 6,400. What drove the UK surge? Likely the Graduate Route, but it’s worth noting that the UK has a proximity advantage to Nigeria as well. 

  1.  All GDP projections sourced from PwC, The World in 2050

With a post-secondary student population poised to surpass that of the US by 2025 and an education system unlikely to be able to accommodate the increasing demand,50 Pakistan is a particularly attractive source market for institutions across the globe. 

As we saw with Nigeria, there has been an immense surge of Pakistani students to the UK. More than 23,000 Pakistani nationals were granted UK sponsored study visas for the year ending June 2022, up from 4,500 in the year ending June 2019. That’s more than a 400% increase. Again, we can point to the Graduate Route as driving the surge: Poor domestic economic conditions make working abroad post-graduation an attractive option for Pakistani students. 

Canada has also witnessed an increase in Pakistani students. The Canadian government issued study permits to 2,500 Pakistani nationals in 2021, an increase of 125% over 2019, when 1,100 study permits were issued to Pakistanis. Even the US saw a 85% increase between fiscal years 2019 and 2021, noteworthy given the overall drop in student visas issued over that time frame. 

  1.  Robert Hunter, Education in Pakistan. World Education News & Reviews (WENR), February 25, 2020.

Bangladesh made headlines, particularly in Indian media, when it surpassed its neighbour to the west in estimated GDP per capita in 2021.51 Though Bangladesh has faced significant economic headwinds over the past year, its outlook remains solid.52 Over 50 million more Bangladeshis are expected to join the middle class by 2030. And with Bangladesh’s domestic education system unable to accommodate this influx of post-secondary students,53 more and more Bangladeshis are primed to look abroad to study.

Booming Bangladeshi student inflows are a trend we saw, once again, in the UK. In the year ending June 2019, just over 1,600 Bangladeshi nationals were granted UK sponsored study visas. For the year ending June 2022, that number surpassed 15,000—an 820% increase. The US saw a more modest but still noteworthy 115% increase in F-1 student visas issued to Bangladeshis from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2021. Just under 4,200 F-1 student visas were issued to Bangladeshis in fiscal year 2021, the highest total since fiscal year 1997.54
  1.  Stefan Trines, Education in Bangladesh. World Education News & Reviews (WENR), August 1, 2019.

  1.  The earliest year for which records are available.

We remain excited about Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as high-growth markets. While the UK is the clear leader in all three markets at present, institutions in other destination markets would be well served to direct recruitment efforts to these countries with growing young adult populations, developing economies, and overtaxed domestic education systems.

The Long View

So far in this report, we’ve focused on key trends we see impacting international education right now, and how governments and institutions can respond to shifting student preferences in order to ensure they can remain competitive in an increasingly challenging landscape. But some of the most profound shifts happening in our sector will play out over years, if not decades.

In this section of the report, we look at a pair of trends we see as having a longer horizon. We begin with technological innovations we see taking hold in the medium term.

Momentum for Online Delivery Stalled, but Hybrid Viable

While online programs were gaining momentum prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 and 2021 saw an explosion in digital course offerings. With international students unable or unwilling to travel, governments demonstrated flexibility by allowing students to begin their international education from their home country while remaining eligible for post-graduation work rights.

With pandemic restrictions waning, students have made a welcome return to the physical classroom. In a June 2022 Institute of International Education survey, 89% of US institutions reported that the majority of their international students were once again studying on campus.55

  1.  Mirka Martel and Julie Baer, Spring 2022 Snapshot on International Educational Exchange. June 2022.

What does that mean for the future of online learning in international education? Quacarelli Symonds (QS) student surveying in early 2022 found that across markets, just 1 in 5 students were considerably interested in online or distance learning.56 This was broadly consistent with previous findings, suggesting that the pandemic failed to expand the long-term viability of the purely virtual learning model. When asked to explain why they weren’t keen on online delivery, students pointed to a lack of access to university facilities, wanting to meet other students, and wanting to live overseas while studying.

  1.  Quacarelli Symonds (QS), Canada International Student Survey 2022. September 1, 2022.

There remains considerably more interest in a hybrid or blended learning approach, which combines in-person instruction and online delivery. 65% of candidates surveyed by QS indicated that they would find this approach either somewhat or very appealing, citing the convenience of studying from any location and the advantage of being able to study while working.

If hybrid delivery is to gain a real foothold post-pandemic, we believe it will be through students’ wallets. With the lifting of weekly work hour caps across select destination markets, students may elect to pursue additional time on the job—particularly as affordability concerns mount. Institutions could alleviate those financial concerns further by lowering tuition rates for online or hybrid programs, which many international students have reported would make them reconsider online studies.

When you’re calling into class online, it becomes so much easier to not concentrate on the lesson. I prefer to be with the other students and the professor in the same room. I can talk to other students, ask questions, and I feel much more engaged in the lesson.

— Joseph, Nigerian International Student

The instant nature of communication online and the decrease in expenses that come with hybrid learning are attractive, but I love being in a physical classroom with other students.

— Azin, Iranian International Student

When you’re calling into class online, it becomes so much easier to not concentrate on the lesson. I prefer to be with the other students and the professor in the same room. I can talk to other students, ask questions, and I feel much more engaged in the lesson.

— Joseph, Nigerian International Student

The instant nature of communication online and the decrease in expenses that come with hybrid learning are attractive, but I love being in a physical classroom with other students.

— Azin, Iranian International Student​

New Competition from Non-Anglophone Destination Markets

When it comes to recruiting students, the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia will face growing competition from destination markets outside the English-speaking world in the coming years.

International students began returning to China this fall after being shut out of the country for more than two years due to COVID-19 border restrictions. However, China’s zero-COVID policy, which has included harsh lockdowns and disruptive repeat-testing policies, remains in place.57 China hosted almost 500,000 international students as recently as 2019, and while its ongoing restrictions may make for a slower recovery than countries such as Australia, we expect a full rebound in the coming years.

  1.  Mimi Leung, “China gears up for return of international students.” University World News, August 24, 2022.
Russia enacted a strong international student recruitment plan over the past five years. From 2016 to 2021, the number of international students in Russia grew from under 300,000 to nearly 400,000.58 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 severely destabilized the sector, however, with safety concerns paramount and sanctions limiting students’ ability to access funds from back home.59 Volatility in Russia may open up recruitment opportunities for the big English-language destination markets in Eastern Europe and Central Asia if institutions are willing to invest in those regions.
  1. Institute of International Education, Project Atlas.
  1. Helen Packer, “Russia: international students suffer under sanctions.” The PIE News, March 8, 2022.
A record 350,000 international students were registered at German universities in Winter 2021/22.60 This marked an 8% increase from the previous year. Germany’s greatest competitive advantage is its free tuition for all students, but there are signs this perk could vanish. Earlier this year, the state government of Bavaria granted public universities the right to charge fees to non-EU international students, but complexities implementing the new rules have preserved the status quo for now.61
Other, smaller destination markets that have seen significant international student growth over the past 5 to 10 years and which have shrinking or stable domestic student populations62 include Italy, Spain, Japan, and the Netherlands. The development of these markets will increase competition for international students worldwide, even as new emerging markets provide larger student populations.
  1.  Based on UN Population Prospects 2022 calculations and estimates of domestic populations aged 18 to 23.

Stay Tuned

In this report, we’ve touched on a wide range of factors that have driven international education trends post-pandemic and which will influence the sector in the years to come. But this report is not meant to be exhaustive. Many of the trends we’ve discussed are more complex than we’ve outlined here. Others which we’ve barely scratched the surface on may prove more influential than anyone predicted.

In this era of increasing student choice in international education, one thing is absolutely certain: With unemployment rates at historic lows and job vacancy rates at historic highs, success in attracting the best and brightest international students means more success in the larger global competitive sphere.

More than anything else, the countries and institutions that succeed in bringing in top talent will be those that prioritize student success. Look for governments to continue to craft policies that facilitate student mobility, whether by investing in more staff to alleviate visa processing slowdowns, or by offering more generous post-graduation work opportunities. And look for institutions to revisit their international recruitment strategies to gain a global edge, including by strengthening ties to industry and by pursuing more flexible learning models.

As for ApplyBoard, we’ll continue to provide key data insights and forecasts across markets. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be releasing detailed articles and analyses that expand on some of the topics we discussed in this report.

Questions about this report?

Alessandra Manieri

Manager, Public Relations