Student Mobility: Most Popular Countries | Top Universities

Student Mobility: Most Popular Countries

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated Updated

Are you thinking of studying abroad? You may be interested to see where you fit into the broader patterns of student mobility worldwide. Have you chosen one of the most popular countries to study in, or are you among those looking further afield?

The results of QS’s global surveys of grad school applicants suggest that more students are considering a broader range of options when choosing a study location. This reflects broader trends in student mobility – with the ‘big four’ Anglophone destinations remaining among the most popular countries for study, but gradually losing share in the increasingly competitive international student market.

What are the most popular countries for students?

QS asked prospective grad school applicants at QS World Grad School Tour events between 2008 and 2013 which countries they’d most like to study in, and their main reasons for these choices.

Comparing the results of surveys conducted in 2008-9 and 2012-13, the three most popular countries remain the same: the US, UK and Canada. However, all three declined in popularity during this period, as did the fourth big Anglophone destination, Australia. Meanwhile Germany climbed to replace Australia as the fourth most popular choice overall, albeit by a narrow margin.

Most popular countries for international grad school applicants*


% of grad school applicants, surveyed by QS in 2012-13

% of grad school applicants, surveyed by QS in 2008-9

% change









































These results correlate with trends already observed in student mobility, with the ‘big four’ gradually accounting for a smaller percentage of the total number of international students. UNESCO data shows that while just under half (47.8%) of all international students were studying in the US, UK, Australia or Canada in 2004, this had fallen to 40.3% in 2012.

Of course this doesn’t mean the traditional Anglophone destinations are no longer popular countries to study in. All four have continued to increase their total numbers of international students during this period – just not at the same pace as the overall number of internationally mobile students has grown.

Multiple factors underlie this gradual evening out of international student market share. More governments and universities are stepping up international recruitment strategies. More institutions are gaining global visibility, through their own efforts as well as through international rankings. And financial pressures are prompting students to seek more affordable, but still internationally respected, study destinations.

International reputation still top priority for students

While much is changing, international reputation remains a top priority for students when deciding where to study. In both QS surveys, the most commonly cited reason by far was ‘international recognition of qualifications’ – selected by 71.6% of respondents in 2008-9, and 70.3% in 2012-13.

Other commonly cited motivations also remained relatively constant across the survey period, with just two reasons increasing significantly. The first of these, ‘would like to work there afterwards’, suggests a growing number of international grad school applicants are considering post-graduation employment opportunities when choosing where to study.

The second, ‘location of target institution’, may suggest universities’ efforts to raise their profiles internationally are paying off, so that applicants are making choices based more on the reputation of a specific school, rather than the broader reputation of the country.

Top 10 reasons for choosing a study destination*

Reason for choosing a country to study in

Percentage of grad school applicants citing this as a motivation



International recognition of qualifications



Cultural interest and lifestyle



Scholarship / financial aid availability



Would like to work there afterwards



Location of target institution



Improve language skills



Create a network



Family connections



It is (or is near to) the country I currently work in



Visa situation



The relatively stability of the reasons given for choosing a country suggest that while international students are increasingly considering a much broader range of locations, this does not mean they are changing their priorities.

Instead, a growing number of countries and institutions are gaining the international visibility and recognition prioritized by international applicants – as well as satisfying other criteria, such as costs and post-graduation employment prospects.

Why are more students choosing to study in Germany?

Germany is a good example of these points. One of the biggest trends in student mobility has been the rise in popularity of Germany (which is also, by the way, the most visited country guide on Between 2000 and 2011, the number of overseas students in Germany grew from 175,000 to 250,000, making it the world’s fourth largest study abroad destination (behind the US, UK and Australia). It was also the fourth most popular country in the latest QS survey, and gained the most between the two survey years.

So, why are more international students choosing to study in Germany?

Germany’s success in challenging the big four Anglophone destinations appears to be a combination of having strong universities, which are recognized in the international rankings; strong government-led programs to raise the country’s international profile; and (certainly not least important) relatively low tuition fees and attractive employment rights for international students.

With more than 40 universities in the top 500 of the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings, Germany offers plenty of choice for those seeking an internationally recognized qualification.

Like so many governments worldwide, Germany’s has also been investing in initiatives to raise the international profile of its institutions. For example, through one scheme run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), German universities can receive up to €250,000 per year to spend on projects aimed at increasing international visibility.

At the same time, Germany has undoubtedly benefitted from having relatively low tuition fees and also attractive post-graduation rights for overseas students. It’s also interesting to note that most of the other countries which gained in popularity between the two QS surveys were European destinations similarly known for having comparatively low fees – notably France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway.

Conclusions? It seems international students are increasingly broadening their search, though their priorities remain largely the same. The ‘big four’ Anglophone destinations are of course still well established, largely due to the international prominence of their universities. But as more countries and institutions attain greater international recognition, students will be able to place greater emphasis on other motivations, such as costs and culture, when deciding where to study.

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*Based on responses to QS’s international surveys of grad school applicants. Respondents were able to select as many countries and reasons as applied to them. The surveys gained more than 4,000 responses in 2012-13, and more than 3,000 responses in 2008-9.

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