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Rankings direct US postgraduates’ UK study choices

Debate over the validity of global academic league tables may be brewing within the international education sector, but the British Council’s latest Student Insight Special about the decision making process of US postgraduates underscores that students do still pay attention to rankings.

University of OxfordThe University of Oxford (above) was ranked the top UK university by both THE and US News and World Report – a fact US postgraduates may have noticed. Photo: Flickr/ Tejvan Pettinger.

42% said a telephone, Skype or WhatsApp conversation with someone at the institution was particularly helpful

Prestige, rankings performance and a broad course choice are what set UK universities apart as an attractive study option for prospective postgraduates from the US, according to survey of US postgraduates studying in the UK carried out by the British Council.

Focus groups and a survey of 236 US postgraduate students gives insight into the decision making process of this valuable cohort of globally mobile students.

“I figured that the best information is how a department and school choose to present themselves”

When asked to list which sources of information they found most useful when deciding where to study, more respondents cited an institution’s rankings and prestige more than any other factor.

In fact, more than half of the students surveyed cited rankings as one of their top deciding factors in the decision making process.

“I figured that the best information is how a department and school choose to present themselves,” one student said.

“[By looking at rankings] I was able to eliminate many schools fairly quickly as not being right for me.”

Students also said they found academic biographies and interests as useful sources of information when deciding where to study, along with the availability of funding.

University websites were students’ first port of call when researching where to study.

However, despite the apparent utility of websites, students who took part in the focus groups reported that they preferred dynamic and engaging content, delivered through social media channels such as Snapchat, over generic university webpages.

Students also said they valued the personal touch when researching a specific institution. Forty-two percent said a telephone, Skype or WhatsApp conversation with someone at the institution was particularly helpful.

Webinars on life in the UK, videos about courses and 360-degree campus tours were considered the least helpful

When asked about the information universities provided, most said they found having guidance about visa requirements and applications most useful, as well as specific details about courses, accommodation and the university itself.

In contrast, a number of respondents said they didn’t find some of the information universities had provided to be very useful in their decision making process.

Webinars on life in the UK, videos about courses and 360-degree campus tours were considered the least helpful.

Meanwhile, students noted a range of material that wasn’t provided by universities that they said would have been helpful. Specific details about course content and timetables, help deciding what to do after graduation and employment figures for recent graduates were among the misses pieces.

The number of US postgraduates in the UK has remained stable for more than a decade. Last year, just over 11,000 students came to the UK from the US for postgraduate degrees.

The British Council collaborated with the National Union of Students to collect data for the report. Three small online focus groups formed the basis of the final survey in which the students took part.

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