Where next? – what our survey reveals about trends on student higher education destinations

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Where next? – what our survey reveals about trends on student higher education destinations

Every year, Cambridge International sends a Student Destinations Survey to Cambridge schools to give me and my colleagues in the Global Recognitions team a ‘sense check’ on what the top destinations are, which ones are emerging and what impact world events have on destination choices. It’s a really useful way to spot trends, and helps inform the work we do to ensure Cambridge students can progress smoothly to universities worldwide.

The results of our latest survey (for the academic year 2020-21) show that 70 per cent of Cambridge students progressed to one of the world’s top 500 universities last year.

In total, 94 per cent of students who took the Cambridge International AS & A Level curriculum moved on to university. Of those, 58 per cent stayed in their own country, including many students from Pakistan, Indonesia and the US, who traditionally study locally. The other 36 per cent progressed to universities internationally and, despite the pandemic, the UK, US, Canada and Australia were still the most sought after destinations.

These findings were similar to our previous survey in 2019, which recorded 57 per cent and 37 per cent respectively. This is because students had already made their decisions about where to study in the 2020-21 academic year before the pandemic. Most countries hadn’t closed their borders, so students were able to go to universities in other countries.

The main exception was Australia. International students were not allowed to enter the country and so students had to start their university education online. For some, that continued for the whole year. I think that experience may influence the destination decisions of future cohorts. Students in Indonesia, for instance, paid the same fees as they would in an Australian university, but they were not able to go there.

While the data gives a good indication of preferences, it doesn’t tell us whether every student took up their place. There is a disparity between the number of students UCAS said had accepted a place in the UK and the number of visas issued – suggesting students may have deferred or reapplied for this year.



The Brexit effect

The survey shows that Brexit had little effect on the UK as a destination last year, but that’s changing. EU students starting courses in the 2020–21 academic year were eligible for the ‘home’ (UK) tuition fee rate for the duration of their course. However, when you look at UCAS figures for the 2021–22 entry, far fewer students from the EU have come to the UK – not only Cambridge students, but across the board – because their fee status has now changed.

Two countries that have gained from Brexit are the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. In both these countries, most degree courses are offered through the medium of English, the fees are cheaper and, because of free movement, European students know they’re not going to have visa issues. We have seen increased interest in our Destination brochures for these countries.

Financial concerns

The financial effect of prolonged lockdowns could result in other shifts in destination choices. More students may stay closer to home, especially in Asian countries. Asian universities are going up in the rankings so if students can get a good university education cheaper and closer to home, I think we will find a shift towards those universities.

The payment structure of university courses in the US and Canada, and in countries with US and Canadian campuses, may give those courses added appeal too. Students are charged according to the courses they do, rather than a fixed rate. Cambridge International AS & A Levels provide a lot of course credits – if you’ve done A Level Biology, for example, you could get a whole year’s credit. That will shorten your degree, reducing the cost.

Top subjects

Business and engineering have held as the two top subjects chosen by students from Cambridge schools, while computer science/ICT have replaced medicine at number three. The top 10 includes a wide range of subjects, which is testament to the fact that Cambridge offers students a pathway whatever their subject interest. This year in the top 10, you also find biological sciences, law, psychology and economics. That shows the strength of the Cambridge curriculum – we offer all those subjects.


STEM success

One focus of Cambridge International has been to encourage more young women to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This year, for the first time, the Destinations Survey gathered data on the gender split of students applying for STEM degrees. The gender split was 42 per cent female to 58 per cent male which really encouraging. I think again that shows the strength of the Cambridge curriculum.

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