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INTO’s global agent survey shows intensifying competition for international student recruitment as students explore multiple options

LONDON–International students worldwide are applying to record number of universities and destinations, a global survey of education counsellors by INTO University Partnerships has revealed.

A total of 1,240 recruitment agents from 66 countries took part in the survey – one of the largest of its kind in the world – conducted in March 2024.

The finding signals an intensely competitive landscape for universities looking to recruit overseas students with over 11% of education agents confirming they submitted applications to 100+ universities last year​.

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

The cost associated with attending university abroad was also highlighted as an influential factor across all markets with 78% of agents in China, Hong Kong and Macau region agreeing that study abroad discussions are increasingly focused on cost when selecting study destinations over the last 12 months. 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.

“INTO’s survey signals a major shift in student behavior 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,” said Tom Hands, Chief Recruitment Officer of INTO University Partnerships.

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

Findings of the survey show the increasing attractiveness of destinations outside the ‘Big Four’ English-speaking destinations of Australia, Canada, UK and USA. In particular, INTO’s research indicates some key regional pivots 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 the most frequently, with cost and access to post-study work opportunities 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 localized pathway provision and a heightened sense of priority given to geographic and cultural proximity. Across other parts of Asia, the research notes an increase in the attractiveness of students studying within the region, including China.

The survey also highlights the importance of an efficient admissions process in securing international enrolments with 99% of education agents stating the speed of response to enquiries and applications was important to them.

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

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

“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,” said Mr Hands.

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’s Global Agent Survey 2024 identifies several key themes of importance to the higher education sector, and those working with study abroad recruitment agents:

  1. Traditional destination flux – Varying degrees of positive agent sentiment for Australia, Canada, the UK and the US
  2. The rising importance of affordability in student decision making
  3. The emerging popularity of alternative destination countries – with European and Asian destinations capturing greater interest
  4. Students are applying to more universities and destinations
  5. The majority of agencies counsel students towards multiple destinations
  6. Agents rely on rankings as a proxy for QS becoming increasingly prevalent
  7. Service and especially timely responses to enquiries and applications continue to dominate the most important factors for a productive relationship with institutional partners
  8. Training and Accreditation – the research explores the extent to which agents are receiving training and accreditation as the global sector embraces more regulation

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.