How do students choose where to study? (Philip Warwick)

warwick international cover

Autumn is the time of year when many newspapers and journals produce their university league tables.   For example, September saw the publication of the Financial Times (FT) Business Education Supplement, and in the UK the Sunday Times Good University Guide, offering different takes on where to study.  These two are targeted at very different audiences.  The Sunday Times Guide is aimed at parents as much as students, recognising that parents have a significant stake in the decision making process that leads to undergraduate study choices, whilst the FT Supplement is written for mainly for business people intent on furthering their careers, by making a shrewd investment in a Masters level qualification.

So just what factors influence students as they consider studying at different institutions?   Over the summer, three masters students I have been supervising have been writing dissertations on just this question.  What was interesting for me was the different perspectives of the three pieces of work.  One focussed on decisions to study at international branch campuses, one at why Indian and Chinese students had chosen to study at Durham University and a third looked at why American students choose to study in the UK.

I can summarise their findings as follows:


Branch campuses attract by cheapness and good quality of education.

Branch campuses – students will choose to study at a branch campus if the quality of the programme is perceived to replicate the quality of the learning experience at the home campus and is a better quality experience than in an equivalent domestic institution.  The academic staff must be the same or of similar quality to those at the home campus and the costs of studying must be significantly less than if the student was to travel to the university’s home campus.  Preferably, students should be able to qualify with a high quality undergraduate or master’s degree more quickly than they would in the domestic system.

So institutions that run franchised operations do not seem to meet these criteria, whilst those that operate using so called flying faculty just might.

indian students

Programme content and the perceived career benefits are essential values for Indian students.

Indian and Chinese Students – Indian students tend to focus more on the programme content and the perceived career benefits of a programme, whereas Chinese students appear to focus most on the reputation of the institution.  For both groups the University’s rank in league tables is very important.  At masters level UK programmes are particularly appealing for both groups of students because they can complete a Masters in one year (October to the following September).

Indian students take more notice of the relative costs of study at different institutions than do Chinese students.  Chinese students are more heavily influenced by social media views on institutions (QQ and Weibo rather than Facebook and Twitter) than are Indian students.

american students

American students seek more for life experience rather than academic excellence.

American Students – This study was particularly interesting for me because it looked at students choosing to travel away from rather than towards the United States (students travelling against the tide).  The most surprising finding was how little research went into the decision compared to students choosing a branch campus option or those travelling to the UK for India and China.  US students appear to be most influenced by word of mouth recommendations from close associates.  Their focus appears to be much more on the experience of studying, living and travelling in the UK and Europe rather than on the reputation of the institution.  At Masters level, the duration of the programme is also appealing.  Completing a Masters degree in a year is not something that they can do in their home country.

The implications of these findings for institutions are wide-ranging.  For those institutions considering setting up a branch campus, the message is: aim to replicate the home campus experience as much as possible and aim to make the tuition costs noticeably lower than those at the home campus.  Those seeking to attract international students from far and wide need to make sure they are towards the top of all the relevant league tables, cultivate a good reputation through all forms of social media and make the most of information about career opportunities and alumni career successes.

University of Ulster  Super League Match

Modern sport facillities increase the quality of the student experience.

For those trying to recruit students from countries with high quality domestic higher education institutions, the experience of being at university becomes more important.  As it happens, investment in infrastructure and resources to help boost the quality of the student experience are also important to attract home students (and are often given a positive weighting in university league tables), so intuitions can at least take some comfort from the fact that the spend on a new student venue, sports facilities or en-suite bedrooms are as popular with international students as they are with home students while at the same time helping the institution’s chances of moving up the university league tables.

The duration of programmes is the final and perhaps most significant implication of this research.  It is clear from all the studies referred to that the length of study is an important issue. One year pre-work taught masters programmes have been common in the UK for some time, and are becoming more common in other European countries (especially in Business Schools).  Buckingham University, an independent, not-for-profit university in the UK has now started offering 2 year undergraduate Bachelors Degree programmes, reflecting the fact that many UK undergraduates receive between 80 and 100 weeks of tuition on an average 3 year undergraduate programme.  With careful scheduling and teaching staff who do not have research commitments, that type of programme can be squeezed into 2 full years with four terms or 3 semesters each year.

This type of intense programme does not leave much room for international study, writing dissertations, sports or other extra-curricular activities but in these tight financial times where there is going to be increasing pressure on universities who cannot fully recruit home or international students, perhaps the opportunity to complete a Bachelors Degree programme in 2 rather than 3 years might be just the sort of initiative needed to turnaround the fortunes of an otherwise struggling institution.  Who knows, what Buckingham University have started doing might just be a game changer.

PhilipWarwickPhilip Warwick

Senior Teaching Fellow
Durham University Business School

Prior to entering academic life Philip spent 17 years working as a manager in the National Health Service (NHS) in Yorkshire and the north east of England. While still a manager in the NHS he studied for a part-time MBA at Durham Business School. In 2000, he joined the University of York, where he stayed until moving to Durham in autumn 2012.

Philip has two main areas of research interest and activity, public sector strategy and internationalisation and the scholarship of teaching and learning. His public sector strategy interest encompasses health service management and university management, in particular the international business in higher education, which is the subject of his doctoral research. Much of his work in the field of teaching and learning also relates to internationalising teaching and learning, making teaching and learning more appropriate and relevant to an international audience.

See also:

Your foreign accent: Love it and never lose it

Don’t tell your English professor that I told you this. Foreign accents are wonderful and whether you are travelling for study, business or pleasure you should do everything to keep yours. They can be good for business too.

Business school performance culture. Are we targeting the right things?

cover pic publish or perishThose of us working in higher education at the moment must recognise that some of the targets to which are business schools work are leading to dysfunctional outcomes, for example staff being taken away from front line teaching and student support duties so that they can write articles for obscure academic journals.

From Harvard to GEM: Co-teaching on Strategic Management and Leadership

2012-11-30 14.02.39It was a great pleasure during the last semester to share a class at Grenoble EM with Dr. Gregg Glover. Gregg has been a good friend for many years (though he might deny this!) and I am delighted he accepted our invitation.

He did his doctorate in organization change at Harvard University and has worked there for over 25 years. He was able to bring his vast teaching and professional experience to the class and share some of the things he has learned and studied while working for the world’s most known university.

The Internationalisation of UK Universities – a progress report

Cover picThis week, Philip Warwick, Senior Teaching Fellow at Durham University Business School, UK, writes at guest blog on the state of internationalisation in British universities. Professor Warwick has been studying the international strategies of a number of universities in the UK and in other countries. He has found that approaches vary across countries. Within the UK he has identified four specific strategies to international development within the group of universities he studied.

How dependent on foreign (non-EU) student fees is the UK (2010-2011)?

GlobalHigherEd: Income from HE course fees by country of HE institution 2010/11 – table

Cover hbr cover
Sets out some of the challenges and external pressures on business schools today and the impact that may have for the coming years. Great book. Advocates the creation of a learning organization as a way of achieving sustainable competitive advantage over your competitors.
A collection of the ten most read articles that have been published by HBR on strategy.


Filed under Business, Business Schools, Careers, China, Great Britain, Higher Education, India, International studies, Travel

2 responses to “How do students choose where to study? (Philip Warwick)

  1. john lancing

    The article “How do students choose to study” states that the University of Buckingham has started offering two year undergraduate Bachelor Degree programmes. In fact Buckingham has delivered its undergraduate degrees programmes over two years ever since its inception in the early 1980’s and therefore it is not a recent development.

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