Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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What role can agents play in diversifying foreign enrolment across a wider range of fields of study?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Many institutions need to fill seats in programmes outside of business and STEM subjects
  • Surveyed agents say that many of the students they work with are open to field of study recommendations
  • Providing agents with solid training (and even a flexible incentive structure) and supplying them with comprehensive information about alternate programmes is a powerful way of diversifying international enrolments

Over the past few years, schools and universities have picked up the pace of their diversification into emerging markets, often to mitigate heavy reliance on two or three source countries. But as much progress has been made on this front, many institutions are still dealing with another issue: foreign enrolments are often concentrated across a relatively narrow band of subject areas. This is leading to capacity issues in those fields of study that are in the greatest demand, even as seats may be available in other programmes within the institution.

For example, Statistics Canada reports that between 2000 and 2019 in Canada, “There was increased concentration in source countries, provinces of study and fields of study of international students … The field of business, management and public administration attracted a large and growing share of international students studying at the college level.”

In the US, the top three fields of study for international students in 2019/20 – engineering, math and computer science, and business and management – enrolled more than half of all international students at US colleges and universities. And in the UK, four in ten international students studied either business and management or engineering in 2021.

In addition to business and STEM studies representing only a fraction of the total courses on offer in destination countries, national governments need international students to choose programmes that are linked to labour market gaps in their economies and then to work in those fields after graduating.

Sometimes those gaps can be filled by business and STEM graduates, but not always. For example, the pandemic has created a massive need for workers in health and medicine; manufacturing, construction, and retail management are also short on skilled workers. Those are broad trends – but labour market needs shift at the regional and municipal levels as well.

Agents as key facilitators

Are international students aware of these dynamics – of the relevance of alternate programmes and the jobs and salaries attached to graduating with those skills? Are they aware that outside of urban centres, there are both well-paying jobs and often lower cost of living?

Not always.

Educating international students about why options outside of the most popular fields of study and cities can be just as exciting and remunerative as STEM studies is ever more urgent for many institutions that are struggling to hang on to a wide range of programmes. And here’s the thing: attracting students to alternate or niche programmes is well within the grasp of most institutions that work with experienced agents.

A couple of weeks back, we wrote about an agent survey we conducted that revealed that international students are currently more likely to prioritise working while studying than post-study work rights because they are increasingly pressed to find ways to afford their studies. That same survey – with top ICEF-vetted agents in Asia (Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam), South America (Brazil and Colombia), as well as Nigeria, Turkey, Mexico, and Iran – revealed that students are highly open to programme recommendations during counselling for study abroad.

At least half open to programme suggestions

In all but one of those countries, agents said that at least 50% of the students they worked with are interested in hearing agents talk to them about a variety of programmes. Agents emphasised the need for institutions to work closely with them to explain what programmes need students, why students should be interested, and what jobs the programmes can lead to. If a programme is less expensive, has internships attached to it, has strong industry input, and has scholarships available, these are incredibly important features that agents need to be able to communicate. Providing agents with a variable commission structure where they can receive slightly higher commissions for referrals into niche programmes than other programmes can also yield impressive results.

Don’t forget parents

Another question we asked agents was the extent to which parents are involved in the study abroad decision-making process. To no one’s surprise, parents make the decisions about the secondary school and summer course programme choices of junior students. But parents are often involved in the choices their university-age children make as well – a majority of agents said that parents are key players in decisions, particularly when students are self-funded.

Parents may be less aware than students are about emerging fields of study that lead to good careers – studies that could well give their children a strong chance of being accepted for permanent residency in a destination country because of labour market needs. Most parents of international students have known for years about the most popular study fields of study – i.e., business and STEM – and may be less likely to think that alternate courses could also have a high return on investment.

Again, here is where local agents – who speak parents’ first language – can play a crucial role, but only if they are provided with current, accurate information about why a programme they would not ordinarily have considered is a good option for their children.

For additional background, please see:


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