Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
20th Sep 2023

Sustainability factors in the study abroad research for nearly half of prospective students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The latest QS International Student Survey provides fresh evidence of the role that sustainability initiatives play in student decision making
  • Four in ten students actively look for information about the environmental sustainability initiatives of institutions they are considering

The 2023 edition of the QS International Student Survey has just been released and one of the interesting findings this year is that sustainability is becoming a bigger factor in student research for study abroad, and, by extension, in student choice as well.

This year's findings draw on responses from nearly 120,000 students and they pick up on a trend that we first began to notice last year, and the 2023 survey observers that four in ten international students say that, when researching institutions, they "actively researched their environmental sustainability strategy or efforts."

Of those, nearly six in ten (58%) say they were satisfied with the environmental action that institutions were taking. But nearly a third (32%) were neutral on this question and another 11% were dissatisfied altogether.

In presenting the findings earlier this week QS Insights Manager Alex Berka made the important point that this represents an "active research" effort on the part of prospective students. "This isn't passive absorption of information or something they regard as a hygiene factor in their deliberations," he said. "It's something they are really honing in on."

"For the institutions you have researched, were you satisfied with the level of environmental action from these institutions?" Source: QS

And while many of those students are satisfied with what they find, Mr Berka points out that nearly half are looking for more evidence of institutional action on environmental issues. "There is scope for improvement," he adds. "There is a large proportion [of prospective students] that are fairly underwhelmed with what they are seeing. There is definitely scope to improve the narrative that institutions can present to students as far as sustainability goes."

The social dimension

Beyond the broad topic of environmental sustainability the ISS also explores student perspectives on the ways in which institutions can also be more socially sustainable – that is, how they might contribute to broader goals of social justice, diversity, and inclusion.

When asked what are the most important types of initiatives that institutions might undertake in this respect, students most commonly cited these five:

  1. Encouraging and facilitating participation between students and local community with their social sustainability efforts
  2. Efforts to create a diverse student and staff cohort
  3. Increasing social literacy among students and staff - both within and outside the curriculum
  4. Fair pay and treatment for staff
  5. Investing in and increasing research of social sustainability initiatives

QS has rolled these factors, and more, up into a new QS Sustainability Index – within which every university included the QS global rankings is given a score between 0 and 100 to sum up several sustainability factors. When those scores are applied, QS notes as well that sustainability appears to be a relative area of strength for Canadian higher education.

"Eleven out of the top 100 universities in the world, for sustainability, are Canadian," says Mr Berka. "On average, a Canadian university will rank 126 places higher for sustainability than they do overall. That's a real reflection of just how highly Canadian higher education performs on this particular metric."

Those additional metrics underscore the growing importance placed on sustainability factors by prospective students. They are in turn an important signal to recruiting institutions that they will often now need to take additional steps to strengthen sustainability initiatives, and to communicate those efforts more clearly to incoming students and prospects.

For additional background, please see:

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