Chelsea Samantha

Shifts in student interest Before and after the pandemic 


A new report from Studyportals gives insights into the lasting shifts brought on by the global pandemic by tracking changes in student interest between 2018 and 2021. 

This analysis is based on real-time student interest collected on Studyportals websites and measured as pageviews. It is representative of a global audience of tens of millions of prospective international students looking for English-taught programs. 

Studyportals data shows a significant increase in interest in Master’s programmes over the last two years. This could mean that the search for education accelerated in the post-Covid period, potentially as an outcome of pent-up demand in 2020.  

Bachelor’s programmes have largely maintained stable levels of student interest. Interestingly, other programmes offered by higher education institutions (i.e., PhDs, short and preparation courses) have attracted less and less student demand.  


  • Covid-19 had a significant impact, on student preference for methods of education.  
  • During the pandemic, there was a 9.6 percent increase in page views for online courses.
  • This increase was driven largely by student interest in European programs—particularly those in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain.
  • Page views were also up among prospective students in emerging markets such as India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.
  • Online & Multiple options attracted a stable amount of student interest from March 2018 until the beginning of 2020.
  • From February 2020 data shows a steady growth of interest for these methods, except for a slight decline in November 2020, as traffic for on-campus options resumed.
  • The rise continued for the rest of the measurement period till November 2021.
  • After the Covid-19 breakout Studyportals recorded a significant drop in interest for on-campus only programmes.
  • After the introduction of lockdowns in Europe, Oceania and North America and the closing of borders, interest in on-campus programmes dropped to a 3-year low.
  • From November 2020, Campus only programmes rebounded, the interest for these programmes became less predictable.
  • For short courses, the large sub-disciplines decreased in relative market share, while the small ones increased. This means an immense amount of subject diversification took place.  This reflects the fact that prior to the pandemic, institutions focused on launching their top courses online. As the pandemic progressed, they had to launch a greater range of online courses – and demand followed. 

Shifts in destination countries 

Over the last 4 years, the biggest players in the education market in terms of student interest have remained in the leading positions. The United States however lost two positions falling to 4th position and making space for Canada. Even before the pandemic, there was a decline in student interest for the US. During the Trump administration, unwelcoming visa policies and anti-immigration rhetoric put a dampener on demand for US programmes. 

According to Margaret Cook, Senior Vice President at Studyportals, ‘The decline of international students to the US is not a temporary change but a trend. Canada makes it very easy to stay in Canada to work, and the US doesn’t’. Australia’s relative decline accelerated, likely caused by tight Covid-19 restrictions and border closures. Moreover, there was a rise in interest for education in Poland, Austria and Finland, and a fall of interest in Turkey, Denmark, Spain and Sweden. ‘Poland is investing more in international recruitment and trying to increase the volume of applicants to international programmes. We see a similar trend from Finland as well.’ says Fabrizio Citto, Business Unit Manager for EMEA at Studyportals. There were also interesting changes in interest in education in Lebanon which gained 35 positions and Malta 32 positions. 

Student interest from source countries

In terms of interest from origin countries, there were many significant changes over the last years. We can see that India remained the largest student’s origin country for international students for the past 4 years. There was also a big drop in interest from the United States and the United Kingdom both falling from the top 3. 

Emerging markets are growing in importance 

One of the most significant changes was an increase in interest in studying abroad in countries like Turkey that entered the top 5. Iran rose 5 positions into the top 3, and Nigeria rose two positions taking over the second position on the leader board. 

Turkey, Nigeria and Iran all face critical shortages of university spaces. The demand-supply gap in higher education may well create opportunities for new universities or TNE, although other factors should also be considered. 

Moreover, new significant players have emerged. Vietnam made the biggest leap, gaining 22 positions up and setting close to the top 10 in the world.  Sri Lanka caught up to 12th position rising from 17.  

This hints at the potential of those countries to become important recruitment markets at a time when geographic diversification is a key strategy, to mitigate risk and improve education quality.  

A new skillset for the post-pandemic world 

While Higher Education tries to adapt to a post-pandemic world, it is necessary that it provides students with the skillset required to thrive in the near future. This means while making sure that tprogramme portfolios are up-to-date, as well as catering to the needs of a changing context. 

With the world changing at lightning speed, it is crucial to determine the direction of student interest over time. The mainstays of English-taught international higher education are still in high demand, with programmes in Business & Management, Social Sciences, and Engineering & Technology capturing historically more than 40% of student interest. Nevertheless, major changes emerged over the past years.    

Studyportals ranked individual subdisciplines before and after the outbreak of Covid-19. Taking two snapshots of student interest – one representing 2018 and another representing 2021 – we can take a long-term perspective. 

The big picture has been dominated by a sway in student preferences among STEM subjects: Engineering & Technology appears to be on the decline, while students refocus their preferences onto Computer Science & IT. 

There have also been notable changes in the popularity of sub-disciplines, with the biggest move from Cyber Security which is now the 45th most sought-out discipline by students after gaining 74 positions since 2018. 

Other digital-related disciplines such as Digital Marketing, Machine Learning, Digital Communication, and UX design also increased sharply popularity. This reflects the emerging trend of the world becoming more digital with an emphasis on a user-centred approach. 

As the world rebounds from the outbreak of Covid-19 by transitioning to digital solutions, students seem to be ever more attracted by programmes providing them with the tools to take an active role in this transformation. We expect this upward trend in digital subjects to last as industries further progress focus on digital transformation. 

The other sub-disciplines which have gained student interest are Clinical Psychology and Environmental Economics & Policy. The two sub-disciplines went up by 55 and 37 positions respectively since 2018. 

The huge rise of Environmental Economics & Policy is contrasted by the fall of Mining, Oil & Gas, which took the biggest fall amongst 200+ subdisciplines from the 122nd position to 161st . This trend comes as no surprise considering the increasing urgency to address climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing humanity.  

These changes reflect Gen Z’s commitment to environmental values, and the growing role of sustainability in student decision making.   Furthermore, Dentistry, Communication Sciences and Water Management have all dropped in popularity by at least 30 positions. 

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