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For the first time in our extensive series of student surveys, the US was chosen as the first-choice destination by most international student respondents, leaping from fourth in the previous iteration to top spot this time. Canada fell from tied top spot with Australia into fourth position. Australia now sits in second position and the UK remains in third.

‘High quality of education,’ and ‘good employment opportunities’ remain the top primary factors for why students choose their first-choice destination, while ‘cost of living’ and ‘cost of tuition’ remain the first and second factors why students do not choose a destination.

This article will analyse the survey results and explore possible reasons behind the findings. It will explore the primary factors behind first-choice decision making, switch factors, reasons why second choice is not first, and destination influencers. It will also provide actionable insights for institutions based on the student voice.


Our Emerging Futures, Voice of the International Student, survey was carried out between 22 February and 19 March 2024. It collated the views of more than 11,500 prospective, applied, current and completed international students from 117 countries across the globe. To find out more about the research and the evolution of IDP’s research series – 11 surveys running from April 2020 to Mar 2024 – you can download the report here. Our partners can view the results in their IQ dashboards, where they can drill down into the entire set of results by destination country, source market, students study status and more.

First-choice study destination – the deep dive

When looking at first-choice destination data, the main headlines in this round of Emerging Futures research are that Canada dropped from tied first place in Emerging Futures 4 (EF4) in August 2023 to fourth of the top anglophone study destinations. The USA rose from last place to first place among All international students (All = Prospective, Applied, and Current – and Complete where applicable) surveyed.

While we know that the US hosts the most international students across the globe (IIE Open Doors figures state there were 1,057,188 enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions in the United States and online from abroad, and those on Optional Practical Training (OPT) in 2022/23), this is the first time in IDPs Emerging Futures research, which started in March 2022 and has been carried out biannually since then, that we’ve seen the US ranked as most popular first-choice destination among our respondents.

Students were asked which is/was your first-choice destination. Of All students surveyed, USA came out on top with 24% of the students.

When we look at the results over time, they show a rapid changing of student choice from survey to survey. The most recent downturn for Canada and contrasting upswing for the USA reflects a period of significant policy change in Australia, Canada, and UK towards the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024. The policy environment in these countries has been changing swiftly and a certain amount of ambiguity in the policy outlook may have created pain points for students and institutions in understanding how the student journey might be affected.

Meanwhile, the USA’s policy environment has remained stable and they appear to have reaped the benefit.

Points ratings of destinations

When asked to rank their top four study destinations from first to fourth choice (1st place = 4 points – 4th place = 1 point) of All students surveyed (All = Prospective, Applied and Current), USA was given the highest points rating.

The top-ten study destinations among All students were: USA, followed by Australia, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Singapore, France, and UAE.

When we break down the results to study status level, Current students gave a slightly higher points rating to Australia and this is likely to be because they are slightly less affected by the changing policy environment going forward.

When we look at the points ratings by source market, there were certain differences.

For example, among All students from China, UK was rated the top destination, followed by Australia, then USA, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. While All students from Nigeria rated Canada at the top, followed by UK, USA, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. And All students from the Philippines rated Canada at the top followed by Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK and Ireland.

What makes a study destination the student’s first choice?

We asked international students to tell us why they chose their first-choice study destination. The top response, among All students (All = Prospective, Applied and Current) was that it offers ‘high quality of education’. This is fantastic news for the sector as it shows that the highest priority is not migration, or low tuition fees, but that students want the best education they can achieve. If they perceive a country provides high quality education, then they are likely to want to start their international education journey there.

After ‘high quality of education’, the ‘All students’ cohort ranked ‘good employment opportunities after graduation’ in second place, ‘safe country for international students’ came in third, followed by ‘availability of scholarships’, ‘good part-time work opportunities’ and ‘supports international students’ in sixth place.

In the previous survey, EF4, the top three primary factors in first choice were ranked in the same order, but the next three were ‘supports international students’, ‘institutions are attractive’, followed by ‘welcomes people from other countries’.

So, in the latest survey we can see how the financial considerations are affecting the drivers; availability of scholarships and part-time work are now more important than they were in the previous survey.

In the graphic below, we can see how the factors were ranked by the destination chosen.

In the top four study destinations (USA, Australia, UK, and Canada) ‘high quality of education’ is the primary factor, However, amongst the cohort who chose New Zealand as their first-choice destination, the primary driver was that it is a ‘safe country for international students’, followed by ‘high quality of education’, then ‘good employment opportunities’.

Why is your second-choice destination not your first choice?

As well as identifying what drives a student to choose one country as their first-choice study destination, it’s important to understand why other countries weren’t their first choice. When we asked All students why their second choice was not their first choice, the top reason was that the ‘cost of living is too expensive’, followed by the ‘cost of tuition is generally high’, then ‘absence of family or friends’, ‘too difficult to obtain a student visa’, and ‘too difficult to obtain permanent residency’. Previously, in EF4, All students placed the first three reasons in the same order as above, but the fourth reason was ‘cost of accommodation is not affordable’, followed by ‘it is too difficult to obtain a student visa’.

What do prospective students say?

At the top of the funnel in the latest survey, Prospective students had a similar viewpoint to All students, but ‘the lack of available scholarships’ was ranked fourth, followed by ‘too difficult to obtain a student visa’. In EF4, again cost of accommodation and student visa problems came in fourth and fifth.

When we look at the reasons why a second-choice country was not the first choice of prospective students by source market, some variance in the responses can be observed.

Prospective students from India, (those who have not yet applied), largely follow the global findings of All students as above (except cost of accommodation is rated in fourth and difficulty in obtaining permanent residence is rated fifth).

Among Prospective students from China the top reason was ‘less employment opportunities after graduation’, followed by ‘lack of part-time work opportunities, then ‘lack of scholarship opportunities’, ‘cost of living is too expensive’, and ‘cost of tuition is generally high’.

Prospective students from the Philippines, said that high cost of living was the primary reason their second-choice destination was not first, followed by high cost of tuition, absence of family and friends, distance from home country, and ‘too difficult to obtain a student visa’.

Among Prospective students from Nigeria, high cost of tuition was the number one reason, followed by high cost of living, absence of family and friends, too difficult to obtain a student visa, and ‘cost of accommodation is not affordable’.

Switch factors - changing minds over first-choice study destination

As the international education landscape is currently changing quickly and frequently, and students are becoming increasingly aware of policy changes, cost-of-living considerations, and other key factors, it is likely that students may change their minds about which destination is right for them. We asked All students, “how many times, if at all, have you changed your first-choice destination since you decided to study internationally?”

A large proportion (42%) said they had not changed their first-choice destination – which is a positive. However, 28% said they had changed their mind once, 23% had changed their mind two to three times, and 7% had changed their mind three or more times.

Of the top four study destinations, students who had indicated the UK as their first choice were most likely to change their minds, with 71% saying they had changed their mind at least once or more.

Those students who indicated Canada as their first choice were least likely to have changed their mind, with 46% saying they had changed their mind at least once or more. What is influencing your change of mind?

When All students were asked what was influencing their decisions to change destinations, the most chosen answer was ‘cost of living in destination country’ (59%), followed by ‘post-study work environment’ (46%), ‘safety of international students in destination country’ (45%), and ‘cost of tuition’ (44%).

Of the five most-represented source market cohorts, students from China were the most likely to have changed their mind on three of the stated factors – ‘post study work environment’ (69%), ‘safety of international students’ (67%), and ‘cost of living in destination’ (67%). Students from the Philippines were most likely to have changed their mind due to ‘cost of tuition’ (68%), followed by ‘cost of living in destination’ (63%), then ‘migration pathways’ (41%).

Key Insights and takeaways

Policy instability and negative governmental rhetoric affects students when they are deciding where to study and this means that the first-choice country placings change rapidly – the USA is top this time, but will that still be the case when other destinations find consistency? What about a Trump re-election – would that put some students off their plans for a USA education?

High quality of education remains the number one factor students want when choosing a destination, and the top two reasons students would not have a destination as first choice are financial – the cost of living and the cost of tuition are too high. As an institution, you should look at what messaging you are providing for students about the reality of costs at your institution. Also, it is useful for international students to be able to see details about scholarships and any other financial assistance early in their research, so make sure these are clearly labelled and easily accessible.

Understanding the switch factors for particular markets can be useful for tailoring recruitment strategies and marketing campaigns. For example, knowing that a high percentage of Chinese students change their first-choice destination, you can create targeted recruitment campaigns focusing on the factors that influence these changes, such as scholarship opportunities, quality of education, safety, and post-graduation opportunities. For countries such as Nigeria, where students are less likely to change their minds, institutions can focus on retention strategies ensuring that once the students have chosen a destination, they receive enough support to maintain their decision.

In our next deep-dive article on the latest Emerging Futures research we will be looking at what constitutes ‘high quality of education’ in the eyes of students. To find out more about this round of Emerging Futures research you can download the report here. IDP partners can explore the IQ dashboards and use the available filters to seek the information that will help them tailor their marketing and recruitment strategies. To find out more about IQ, contact the team here.

Jane Venn
Jane Venn17 June 2024