International students globally are applying to more universities and destinations than ever before, a global survey by INTO University Partnerships has revealed.

A total of 1,240 recruitment agents from 66 countries, covering all major and emerging student source markets, participated in the survey – one of the largest of its kind worldwide – conducted in March 2024.

The findings highlight a highly competitive landscape for universities aiming to recruit international students, with over 11% of education agents confirming they submitted applications to more than 100 universities last year.

More than four out of five agents globally – 87% – reported that international students are applying to more universities overall than before. Meanwhile, 84% said that students are also applying to more destination countries compared to the previous year.

The cost associated with attending university abroad was also noted as a significant factor across all markets, with 78% of agents in the China, Hong Kong, and Macau region agreeing that discussions about studying abroad increasingly focus on cost when selecting destinations over the past 12 months. Similarly, 84% of education agents in East Asia, 90% in Europe and Central Asia, 85% in the Middle East and Africa, and 90% in South Asia expressed the same sentiment.

Tom Hands, Chief Recruitment Officer of INTO University Partnerships, said: “INTO’s survey signals a major shift in student behaviour and the emergence of new study-abroad destinations. As a result, the competition for universities in top study-abroad markets to attract overseas talent has become even tougher.

“It is crucial for universities to clearly differentiate their offerings to meet new enrolment challenges. The survey underscores the need for strategic positioning and adaptive solutions to navigate this intensifying environment.”

The findings of INTO’s Global Agent Survey 2024 show the increasing attractiveness of destinations outside the ‘Big Four’ English-speaking destinations of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the USA. In particular, INTO’s research highlights some key regional changes in demand.

Europe was most frequently cited as an emerging study destination by agents from South Asia, with destinations such as Germany and Ireland mentioned most frequently, with cost and access to post-study work opportunities being key influencing factors. Chinese agents noted significantly more interest in other Asian destinations (particularly in Southeast Asia), with rising interest in international schooling options, more localised pathway provision, and a heightened priority given to geographic and cultural proximity. Across other parts of Asia, the research notes an increase in the attractiveness of studying within the region, including China.

In the survey, 99% of education agents said the speed of response to enquiries and applications was important to them, highlighting the significance of an efficient admissions process in securing international enrolments. This is consistent with research over multiple years and demonstrates the importance of timeliness in working with partners to support their student counselling efforts.

Tom Hands added: “Universities are grappling with the dual challenges of managing a rapidly rising volume of applications and heightened competition. Our AI-enabled admissions processing systems have demonstrated how innovative technology can help overcome this significant challenge while meeting critical benchmarks of compliance, efficiency, and quality assurance.”

The survey also revealed that career opportunities continue to grow as a vital consideration for international students, with 87% of agents – up 5 percentage points from the previous year – highlighting it as an important factor.

Tom Hands continued: “More than ever, students and parents are looking for a strong return on their investment, and careers have become a major consideration for study abroad decision making. Universities are challenged to provide tailored employment support to students and alumni in order to attract talent from across the globe in the face of very stiff competition.”

INTO’s Return & Connect initiative is a response to this need. The digital platform and physical service is aimed at empowering international students with enhanced career opportunities, bridging the gap between education and employment worldwide. The platform is designed to support international students returning to their home countries after completing their studies overseas. It connects them with employer and alumni networks for in-market work experience and post-study work placements both during and after their study overseas.

INTO University Partnerships connects ambitious international students with leading universities in the US, UK, and Australia. Since its inception in 2005, INTO has helped over 150,000 students from more than 180 countries achieve their dream of obtaining a degree from a world-class institution.