New Report Explores International Student Motivations

New Report Explores International Student Motivations

Laura Bridgestock

Updated February 2, 2024 Updated February 02

QS World Grad School Tour Applicant Survey 2015
What motivates prospective international students to choose one study destination over another? How do they decide between institutions and programs? And what aspirations and expectations are driving them to pursue higher levels of study in the first place?

These are some of the questions addressed in a new report on international student motivations, available to read online. Created in association with Cambridge English Language Assessment, the report is based on the 2015 QS World Grad School Tour Applicant Survey, which received responses from more than 7,150 prospective international students worldwide.

The report offers insights into the changing motivations for prospective postgraduates around the world, looking at shifting trends in recent years, and identifying points of commonality and variation between different groups.­­­

Employability is a key driver from start to finish

Comparison of this year’s survey results with those from previous years provides an indication of the growing importance of employability-related factors for prospective international students. This encompasses the desire to progress in a specific career, to find work locally after graduation, or simply to become more robustly ‘employable’. All of these factors are exerting a growing influence on the choices made by prospective postgraduates – when choosing an educational pathway, a study destination, and an institution.

Reasons to pursue a master's degree

Different priorities, different destination choices

Analysis of respondents’ preferred study destinations alongside their primary reasons for choosing a destination shows clear differences in the push and pull factors at play. Anglophone destinations tend to be chosen by applicants for whom international recognition of qualifications is the top priority. The same is true for most Western European countries, with the notable exceptions of Italy, Spain and Portugal, which all appeal to those for whom cultural interest and lifestyle are leading factors – as do many Latin American destinations. Meanwhile a large number of destinations, particularly in Asia, are being targeted by applicants for whom the top priority is funding availability – which is a growing priority overall.

How do PhD applicants choose a university?

Reputation is essential – but which reputation?

When choosing between institutions, most applicants agree that reputation is king. Where they differ, however, is on whether the main emphasis should be placed on the university’s overall reputation, or on subject-specific and departmental reputations. Female students, for instance, tend to place a stronger emphasis on subject-specific reputation than their male counterparts. As would be expected, the latter becomes especially important for those applying at PhD level, as does funding availability. Meanwhile those applying for master’s degrees are comparatively more likely to prioritize employability and career prospects when choosing an institution, and also location.

This is the first report in a two-part series, soon to be complemented by a second installation exploring prospective postgraduates’ employment expectations and ambitions – including target career outcomes and salaries, anticipated working hours and priorities when choosing an employer.

In association with 

Cambridge English

This article was originally published in October 2015 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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