How do local economy specialties influence student demand? Skip to main content

Our recent research, New Horizons, asked students what their motivations are for taking up international study. Unsurprisingly, the very clear winner was ‘Career development’. We all know this through our experience and conversations with students, but it’s always gratifying to see received wisdom in hard numbers too (67% list career development as their motivation, if you were wondering).  

36% of responders in the same survey also plan to stay in their study destination to work after they’ve finished their qualification.

There’s an enduring and close relationship between university portfolio, the economic climate and the local markets that students will graduate into. Over recent years we have seen this borne out through huge growth for computer science programmes. Currently, the world over, there are calls for more developers while vast schemes to get more people into coding abound. In January of this year, LinkedIn published the top 20 jobs on the rise in some key markets globally; of the 20 top jobs for the UK, 25% of them were in the sphere of computer science.

That trend follows through higher education with computer science being one of the fastest growing university subject areas in the UK for international students [HESA]. Students are savvy to the skills gap and see where opportunities arise.

While there’s demand for computer science in all key destination markets, the demand for sub-disciplines and programmes is strongly correlated with the dominant economic drivers in each destination market.

In the US, Silicon Valley is a dominant and well-known region for vast and rapid growth – both in population and capital. The Silicon Valley region blew up in the internet boom during which time 230,000 jobs were created in the region. By many measures, it’s often said that were Silicon Valley a country, its GDP per capita would be among the highest in the world.

The tech sector in the USA, driven strongly by Silicon Valley, makes up more than 10% of the whole country’s GDP. These days the tech sector in the USA is worth more than $5tn – yes TRILLION – and steadily grows by 5-6% each year. This may not sound much but 5% of a trillion is $50bn and there are no signs of this slowing down yet. In the UK, a comparative sector of economic strength and a contemporary beacon of unique success is the banking and financial services sector, making up almost 9% of GDP

Despite these two sectors – silicon value and financial services - being different in requirements, they’re dominant in the respective destination markets and, I argue, the differences in these two sectors are what drive the differences in the demand-led portfolio profiles.

In the USA, demand for computer science courses is quite broad but has a clear focus on software engineering. Software engineering is centred on building and maintaining technology itself, closely aligned to the tech sector and commonly associated with the type of developer roles that are essential for building software, and form a huge part of the workforce across the USA’s tech sector [12 months from 1st March 2021].  

In the UK, in contrast to the USA, the demand for computer science courses is focussed in some key specialties that serve sectors the UK excels in, notably the banking and financial services, as well as smaller sectors such as retail, medical technology and aerospace. As you can see in the table, these subject specialties include data science, business analytics, artificial intelligence and cyber security [12 months from 1st March 2021].  

The boom for computer science demand globally began pre-pandemic but a switch to the work-from-home culture we’ve all had to adapt to and relying even more on our computers and phones have accelerated the demand even further.

These portfolio profiles reveal the nuances between the demand for each destination market and how driven they are by local economic specialties.

Market portfolio profiles are clear in other subjects too. Under business studies, the UK excels in accounting and finance (linking back to strengths in finance and banking), while Canada excels in programmes geared towards transportation and logistics. Humanities is another interesting area; humanities based subjects have been an ongoing challenge for many universities with enrolments in decline and subject level funding funnelled elsewhere.  However, globally the UK wins by volume and share of demand which is led by strengths in regional studies and Literature, while the US’s demand is far more generalist in ‘English studies’ and liberal arts. The UK publishes the most titles per capita in the world, so the strength of literature for the UK economy holds. 

When portfolio planning and marketing university programmes, the opportunity is to build and position programmes within the context of local and global opportunity. International students want the opportunity to put post-study work visas to good use and have confidence that they’ll be successful in being able to make the most of it. In part, this starts with the right programmes, but recruiters and marketers also have the big opportunity to tell the stories of current students and alumni who have been able to take advantage of the opportunities in their destination market.

Making the most of these insights

Use Ask IDP as part of your Core Membership to tell these stories – use the Ask IDP app and search for ‘Career’ questions to answer for student audiences.

Utilise your subscription to the IQ Demand Tracker to understand more about market-led portfolio profiles.

Please note, we will be discussing further career data insights in our upcoming Emerging Futures research, published in late March.  And please get in touch if you need help in any other ways.

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Lorna Greville17 March 2022