Destination anywhere: how business students decide where to study

This month’s guest article takes a look at some of the factors influencing business students’ choices, how they make decisions and what makes them choose one business school and a course over another.

Paul Clark, Regional Director at Hobsons, shares some insights:

Last month, in time for party conference season, Universities UK released International students in UK higher education: the UK and its competition which pointed to ‘concerning’ trends in international student recruitment. This report covered a lot of what we already know; recent changes relating to course provision and the wider funding environment have had and continue to have a detrimental impact on the UK’s position.

The report highlighted that a country’s attitude towards international students and whether they can expect a warm welcome is one of the most important factors for applicants in selecting their study destination. So how does the UK stack up?

With the abolition of the post study work visa and other countries introducing more generous arrangements – not that well.

At Hobsons we are in the lucky position of talking to thousands of international students each year. For the last two years we’ve asked what they think is important when deciding where to study. Beyond the Data, our 2014 survey, is the largest of its kind and provides a wealth of information on prospective international students.  I’ve pulled out a few key recommendations from the survey, focusing on business students.

Understand your prospective students

This sounds very simple, but it’s our experience that at many institutions it’s ignored. Through the two surveys we’ve found that it is relatively straightforward to group prospective students based on their characteristics. Doing this at the outset suddenly makes marketing to and communicating with each of the groups a lot more effective.

We have established that there are six clear student segments. Students interested in business are predominantly from what we call the ‘Prospect Improver’ and ‘Want It All’ segments. ‘Prospect Improvers’ are particularly concerned with their post study work options, and are therefore especially influenced by employability rates. ‘Want It All’ are characterised by a broad array of factors, making them a particularly difficult group to market to.

What’s important to prospective business students?

Teaching quality  is consistently the most important factor in student decision making.  Students interested in studying business attribute the highest importance to the perceived reputation and quality of education that they will receive. Worryingly for all of us in the market for international business students, the welcome or perceived ‘general attitude’ of the country towards international students is the second most important factor in their choice.
Where do they get their information?

Not surprisingly, the “university website” is the top source of information for all students. Where business students differ is the importance they attribute to attending university fairs. 46% indicated that university fairs were the first or second most important medium for information gathering, compared to just 34% for all other respondents. This means fairs and exhibition visits, probably tactics being replaced by more virtual options, may still be a tool effectively used to target business students. This is something that we are looking into in more detail.

What does all this mean?

We all know that the UK higher education sector is working in a more competitive climate in the face of the gains made by other countries with increasingly (and competitively) open and welcoming attitudes towards international students.

We know there is no silver bullet and we are operating in an environment where genuine USP’s are hard enough to come by.  So in this market. it is critical to have an in depth understanding of your prospective student’s motivations at all stages of the student lifecycle.

Prospective international students are not one homogenous group, but by asking some simple questions when they enquire to your university and finding out a bit more about what’s important to them, you will be better placed to engage and encourage them to pick you in the increasingly crowded market place.

Some questions to consider

  • Do you have a clear idea of what type of prospective international students you are attracting?
  • What information do you collect at the outset? How does this help you understand your prospective international students?
  • How are you collecting and using it? Do you have interest pages on your site that feed into a CRM system and inform your communications strategy?
  • Do you have a clear idea about the factors that international students consider, and the weighting they give them?
  • Do you have appropriate tracking and reporting in place to measure the success of your processes and technology managing offer conversion activity?

If you are interested in what factors students use to evaluate teaching quality eg rankings, teaching hours, student satisfaction etc please download the full Beyond the Data Report.

Hobsons are a corporate member of the Association of Business Schools. For more information on Hobsons, please visit or email or email