Cara Skikne

How 2020 changed student interest and brought new challenges for European Universities


The data itself was quite interesting, however, the Q&A afterwards was even more interesting as the speakers have plenty years of experience in internationalization of higher education and I loved hearing their opinions and predictions of the market and challenges that await us.

– Webinar participant from Croatia


Recovery is the keyword for today’s analysis of international student interest in European study destinations. The region saw significant challenges throughout 2020, but signs of recovery are precipitating deeper conversations about the future challenges of higher education.

We welcome you into this fascinating webinar discussion alongside our star speakers: Michelle Stewart, President of the European Association for Education, Omid Feyli, Head of Marketing at Tilburg University, and Tim Rogers from the American University of Paris. The discussion is led by our Studyportals Director of Analytics, Thijs van Vugt.

International interest in European study destinations was slightly above 2019 levels at the start of 2020, predicting a strong year for the industry. That dropped dramatically at the outbreak of the virus in March of 2020 leaving us with a year that stayed markedly under 2019 levels of interest. However, December showed renewed signs of interest; a trend that has continued into the early months of 2021.

Overall, that accounts for a -2.9% change in interest levels across 2020. However, 2021 is already riding at a 4.0% growth over last year. During the pandemic, Europe saw a 5.4% drop in interest in campus programmes, which was matched by a 5.9% increase in online study interest. Undergraduate interest declined by only 2.7% – a small decrease when compared to the 3.9% drop shown by graduate-level interest.

With regards to individual countries, out of our top study destinations, only Switzerland showed an increase in international interest. All other destinations saw declines of between 2.7% and 19.4%, with Spain, Italy, Norway and Sweden largely affected. Conversely, most countries saw massive increases in online learning interest. Switzerland saw a huge 167% interest spike; Germany a rise of 84%, and most other countries seeing a growth of between 7% and 25%. Online France, Norway and Spain saw losses in online study interest.

These figures are a good indicator of the maturity of the European online market as we move forward into a more digital higher education landscape. As Michelle mentions, the move to virtual activity last year is obviously going to influence things in the future.” She goes on to explain how online learning has opened up new challenges in the industry: “Addressing the digital divide and also providing more remote and hybrid access to not just support services but also recruitment events…The key thing we have to acknowledge is that we’re still in a state of flux.”

Omid agrees that the market is still undergoing rapid changes. Universities have evolved, “from improvising recruitment, improvising learning and teaching online – we’re now going towards a real science behind it.” But despite the fact that distance learning has been a staple of the sector for years, there is still a lot of work to be done in legitimising the online degree – and especially degrees that came out of 2020. Whether the entire industry is ready for a master’s student who gained their entire degree in one year online – whether that will be perceived as the same diploma value as a regular student…I have my questions there. Those are the challenges our universities are facing.”

Amongst them remains the challenge of re-learning how to engage with undergraduate students via the new tools available for teaching and recruitment. Tim notes that the undergraduate market is an increasingly competitive place and that new content strategies will be key to winning future business: “Kids are after really proper content. [They want to know,] “if I’m studying business, what am I actually going to study? Really heavy content and proper tailored academic content does seem to get a response.” 

He insists though, that there is reason to be optimistic. “All of us here have weathered other storms before,” and, when it comes to the international market, “if someone has the ambition and the wherewithal to study overseas, they will make it happen…The drive for an international experience has not gone away.”

For more insights from our experts, make sure to check out the recording and the slides.

And don’t forget – there are more data-driven analyses from Studyportals to come.

Watch this space for upcoming webinars. We hope to see you there!

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