Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Multi-year trends from the Agent Barometer global agent survey

The ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer is a unique annual survey of education agents around the world, and a joint venture of ICEF and i-graduate, a leading market research firm in the education sector.

The findings from the 2012 Agent Barometer survey can be found here. To help set the stage, here are a few highlights from the previous years of the survey to underline the stakes for the leading destination countries in terms of agents’ perceptions of the study abroad marketplace.

Traditional destinations ruled, with a few surges from Canada

Tracking the attractiveness of major study destinations as reported by agents, 2008–2011.

In 2011, traditional destinations ruled as the most popular amongst the 737 agents from 102 countries who responded to the survey. The US was the clear frontrunner: 72% called it “very attractive.” Not too far behind were the UK (63%) and Canada (59%). Rounding out the top destination list were Australia (47% “very attractive”) and New Zealand (37%).

Within this list, however, there was movement over the time period 2008–2011. Canada became notably more attractive according to agents, jumping from 49% “very attractive” in 2008 to 59% “very attractive” in 2011 – a leap of fully 10 percentage points. New Zealand, too, became much hotter, moving from 29% “very attractive” in 2008 to 37% in 2011.

Contrast this to the US, which gained only four percentage points (“very attractive”) from 2008 to 2011, and to the UK, which lost eight percentage points in the “very attractive” reading from 2008 to 2011 (71% to 63%). Australia had lost some traction in 2009 and 2010, dipping to 40% in 2009 and 42% in 2010 from a high of 49% in 2008. In 2011 it regained some standing to emerge in 2011 at 47% “very attractive,” almost reaching the 2008 reading.

As for which study destinations were preferred for specific types of study, the UK was far and away the leader for language courses, with 46% of the total responses for “single best study destination” for this type of study (Australia, in second, claimed only 15% of total responses). The UK’s huge lead continued in foundation courses (41% compared to 15% for the second-ranked US), and it also led in secondary/high school study (25%) – but this time was followed closely by the second-ranked US (23%).

For vocational education, Australia claimed top place (29%) in 2011 and the second-ranked UK trailed by nine percentage points.

The US was the clear leader for undergraduate study, maintaining its #1 ranking over the four years of the study and claiming 33% of total responses (the UK was second with 23%). The same was true for graduate/postgraduate study (US with 38%, and UK with 21%) and MBA (US with 43% and UK with 26%). In all cases, Canada and Australia vied for 3rd and 4th place.

More movement over time occurred with work and travel study: while the US (37%) led by a wide margin, Canada moved into second place in 2011 (12%), just edging out Australia (11%). This represented a jump of two ranks in 2011 alone for Canada (from 4th to 2nd place).

Study visa concerns troubled all agents to some degree, but some far more than others

Looking at six countries in particular – China, Turkey, Nepal, India, Brazil, Russian Federation, several of which are leading sources of international students– over 6 in 10 agents across the board cited study visas as a student mobility concern/difficulty in 2011. However, study visas were felt to be highly problematic in Nepal and Russia (92% of agents in each country named them as a concern). This dipped to a more moderate 61% in Brazil, by contrast.

The overall global economic situation was cited most often by those in Turkey (50%) and China (46%) – contrast this to only 24% of Indian agents who noted the global economy as a concern for student mobility. Agents in Turkey (46%), and to a slightly lesser extent, Nepal (38%) were also much more likely to mention “financial” issues as problems than those in other countries.

A great deal of variation occurred on the question of how problematic work visas were in 2011. Over half (52%) of Brazilians cited work visas, and work visas were also a concern for a significant 38% of Chinese agents. Meanwhile, they came in at 15% or less in Turkey, Nepal, and Russia.

Safety was less of a top-of-mind concern across the board, peaking at 21% among Indian agents and falling to 3% among Brazilians.

Top countries for visa hassles in 2011

The UK was named as the most difficult in terms of obtaining a study visa for students (52%) with Canada (45%), Australia and the US (40% each) not too far behind. The UK was also perceived to be the most difficult for work visas (59%), with the UK and Canada next in line (40% and 39% respectively), and Australia back at 29%.

i-graduate pointed out that the traditional markets may have dominated visa concerns because they were so often chosen as destination countries by students; therefore agents would encounter more issues by volume alone than in countries in which they placed students infrequently.

Australia was the country agents named as the one in which “financial” concerns emerged the most as an issue (51%, followed closely by the UK at 45%). The UK (63%) and the US (53%) cropped up as the top countries agents felt the “global economic situation” made things difficult, and these countries were also cited the most as places “safety” was an issue (50% for the UK and 41% for the US). i-graduate noted that the London riots may have contributed to the UK’s being named the most for safety issues.

What’s ahead?

In 2011, there were no real surprises in terms of who was leading overall: the traditional markets dominated and maintained their overall positions re: “most attractive” study destinations. More interesting was the movement within the top five – the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

We saw Canada make some very impressive gains both overall and in some specific study areas (notably work and travel), Australia make up for some lost ground in 2009 and 2010 (the years in which the country was plagued by racial violence against students of certain nationalities), and UK lose some ground (71% “very attractive” in 2008, 72% in 2009, 69% in 2010, and 63% in 2011). The US was stable in first place, but had certainly not made any big leaps in terms of its attractiveness to agents.

At the same time, the UK was emerging as the most challenging to agents of the leading destinations on a few “difficulty” fronts: work visas, study visas, and safety.

What are we seeing in 2012? Will the UK’s stance on student visas and immigration affect its rankings? Will the US’s National Tourism and Travel Strategy make an impact? Will Canada’s sustained efforts at attracting foreign students keep it surging forwards? Will Australia rebound? And what of the smaller players – outside of the top five – who have their own recruitment strategies at play?

The 2012 rankings provide some clues as to the answers to these questions, if not definitive conclusions. They provide some very interesting indicators of how much the international education playing field is shifting – and who is winning and losing in the perception of agents the world over.

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