Chelsea Samantha

How are student’s destination preferences changing post-Covid?


The way countries have reacted and managed their Covid situation has had a strong impact on where students are considering studying 

As restrictions continue to ease all around the world, a return to normality feels increasingly within arm’s reach. But many are starting to wonder: will things ever be the same again? There is a new world that seems to have emerged from the pandemic and it’s likely that many of these changes will last. 

One of the major patterns we have seen this year is the strong impact of how countries have managed the COVID-19 situation on student decisions, especially when it comes to where they will be studying. The actions that countries have taken in response to the pandemic affect major aspects of students’ lives, such as accommodation. 

More than 50 million students from 220 countries use Studyportals global study choice platform annually.  Student demand for programmes in different countries can be measured, with a good correlation between student searches and enrolments, within 18 months. 

Figure 1. Top study destinations as a share of student interest (Studyportals data) 

Winners and losers of student interest 

The pandemic shook up student destinations – to a point. While some destinations remained at the top of student’s preference (the USA, Germany, the Netherlands), the last year saw winners and losers alike. As the pandemic forced distance learning and the return to on-campus delivery was a far cry, online providers surged in popularity: British universities captured the lion share of this traffic. 

Once it became clear that the pandemic entered a more manageable stage, residential, on-campus experiences rose again in popularity. This trend took a dent in destinations that kept their border closed, like Australia, and boosted other destinations that had a positive message towards international students, such as Italy and Canada. Canadian institutions in particular enjoyed tailwinds in 2021, making them serious contenders to US institutions in the eyes of prospective students. 

Figure 2. Destination city shifts among prospective international students (2018 vs 2021) (Studyportals data)

The shift in student interest is not only present at country level: cities are affected too. 

 Cities in Canada and Germany appear to be capitalizing the most from the growth of student interest: Toronto and Vancouver, but also Berlin and Munich became more appealing over the last years, thanks also to the universities located in close proximity to their urban areas.  

Conversely, London, Amsterdam, Milan, and Barcelona, are decreasing in popularity. This decline is only relative though, as the overall number of students looking for options within these destinations is still increasing in absolute numbers; nevertheless, in the eyes of prospective students, they are becoming less attractive overall. 

For international students, finding their destination is not only a matter of choosing the right location, but also identifying with the country they will study in (often in terms of degree recognition, post-study work perspectives, presence of historical ties or expat communities). Within such framework universities can attract the interest of a global pool of mobile students, not only leveraging their strengths – academic prowess, facilities, an inclusive learning environment – but also focusing on offering programmes that are relevant to international students. 

While the drivers of international mobility have not changed dramatically, students are becoming more demanding of the countries they will choose for their education. This will have a long-term effect on countries’ appeal towards international students.  



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