International Students’ Perceptions of Their Needs When Going Abroad

Services on Demand

Authors: Adriana Perez-Encinas and Jesus Rodrigues-Pomeda
(Universidad Autonoma de Madrid)
Article summary: Dr Stephen Whitehead

In 2019, international students contributed US$300 billion to the global economy.

Big money by any measure.

Not surprisingly, those countries benefiting from this income want to see it grow. The UK, for example, is aiming to increase the number of international higher education students studying in the country to 600,000 by 2030, up from 485,645 in 2019/20. Let us hope they achieve that growth because a lot of UK lecturers’ jobs are riding on those students duly arriving at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports.

With so much money and so many jobs at stake, you’d have thought every university with any degree of global ambition would be well versed in exactly what their overseas clients are looking for when they arrive on campus, and what support they expect thereafter.

Well according to this article there is still a lot of work to be done in identifying international student expectations and needs:

‘The trend towards internationalization and the increase in mobility drives the agenda for globalization in many higher education institutions, and in some cases without any clear strategy for identifying international students’ perceptions and needs.’ (p.20)

As one might anticipate, a key component in the successful integration of international students into what is for most an alien culture and learning environment, is student services.

Yet how many universities actually know what such students want from these services?

‘Despite the growing sense that student services matter, very little research has shown exactly what degree-seeking students desire and expect from support services…Universities are eager to assess issues that concern academic curricula and the learning environment, although little research exists on the organizational elements related to support services and student needs and perceptions.

To provide an holistic approach to the internationalization of higher education, we need to focus on all aspects and activities taking place in institutions as well as in university strategies (both program-based and organizational) in order to ensure the mission of the institution. (p. 22-23)

US$300 billion is a massive pot but if any university wants to ensure its share then it needs to avoid complacency and especially any notion that its global academic reputation will be enough to satisfy international (or for that matter, national) student expectations.

‘Higher Education is changing swiftly, as is the perception by international mobility students of services and quality of institutions. Among the indicators for analysing the quality of higher institutions, De Wit (2010) mentioned that internationalization is an indicator of quality in higher education, although from a student satisfaction perspective, the educational quality is not the only factor. International students place greater emphasis on their stay in the county than on the quality of their studies. Hence, one of the key drivers for campus internationalization could be the level of satisfaction of students with a comprehensive provision of support services’  (p. 25) (our emphasis)

That is one takeaway every university leader needs to pick up.

The Methodology

The data informing this study was collected from the extensive StudyPortals database and their platform, STeXX.

The data collection began in 2011 and ended in 2014, during which 73,715 reviews were written by international students from 167 countries. STeXX is a social platform on which students share their foreign study experiences and review their university. It is an initiative of StudyPortals together with renowned international student associations such as AEGEE, ESN, ESTIEM, and SIU. STeXX is also supported by the European Commission.

Following ‘pruning’ the authors’ final database informing this research consisted of just under 60,000 reviews.


The authors identified a network of 19 most common topics amid the 60,000 reviews, ranging from weather to expenses, with each topic connecting to key words:

            Topic                                                   Indicative words

1.     Buddy services:           students, friends, events, ESN, people, trips

2.     Living expenses:          expensive, food, rent, living, cheap, room

3.     Language skills:           language, English, Spanish, German, French, speak

4.     Academic level:           high, university, good, education, quality, level, education

5.     City offerings:             city, people, big, great, recommend, cultural, town, nice

6.     Abroad experience:    experience, life, abroad, learn, lot, culture

7.     Seeking university:      university, wanted, study, choosing, choice, reason

8.     Good university?        Good, university, friendly, teachers, professors, atmosphere

9.     Enjoying life:               time, enjoy, life, stay, friends, experience, advice, fun

10.  Expensive country:     expensive, money, country, living, costs, prices

11.  Accommodation:        find, accommodation, place, room, flat, house, residence

12.  Expensive/Cheap?      Expensive, cheap, food, buy, transport, beer, bus, eat

13.  Weather:                     winter, cold, weather, warm, clothes, summer, snow, spring

14.  Future benefits:          strong, international, study, research, world, work, future

15.  Solid teaching:            courses, teaching, methods, good, teachers, professors, exams

16.  Interesting courses:    courses, good, study, interesting, subjects, level, faculty

17.  Travelling abroad:       city, travel, countries, beautiful, visit, history

18.  Academic burdens:     time, work, hard, semester, problems, study

19.  Friendly people:          people, nice, amazing, culture, life, place               

The topics were ordered by weight in the composition of the whole set of reviews  and therefore by importance.

The following topics emerged as the most popular:

  1. what compromises a good university;

  2. living expenses;

  3. sound teaching;

  4. expensive country; 

  5. city offerings.

The analysis duly identified some interesting aspects within these five most common themes and discussion areas:

1.     How do international students perceive what a good university is?

Answer: Friendly teachers and professors who generate an ‘agreeable atmosphere’ for their students.

2.     What were students’ perceptions about living expenses?

Answer: That costs are high and students’ main concerns are their living expenses (food, rent, accommodation). These take precedence over other costs such as transport, medical costs, insurance and academic expenses.

3.     What do students identify as ‘sound teaching’?

Answer: The quality of the teaching is largely determined by the individual teacher/professor and this varies. Students expect to have well organised learning, a fair assessment and expect the lessons to be delivered via suitable teaching methods.

4.     What makes a country expensive to study in?

Answer: Obviously the local living expenses but students also widened this out to include macroeconomic issues such as exchange rates.

5.     What makes a city university attractive to students?

Answer: The people they encounter in the city, diverse cultural experience, lots of variety of activities.

The authors final analysis of all responses concludes them to offer the following suggested actions for universities interested in attracting and satisfying, overseas students:

1. How to make a good university: Improve teaching techniques; shorten student/tutor ratio; enhance the university experience; offer comprehensive information; offer internationalisation at home.

2. How to ease and justify costs: Build facilities and alliances to offer a good value-for-money relationship.

3. How to provide good teaching: Design and develop updated and internationalised curricula; encourage good teaching techniques; apply better student’s evaluation schemes.

4. How to lessen country expenses: Implement deals with public agents to smooth student’s cost, considering that the host country benefits from mobility student’s expenses.

5. How to improve city offerings: Develop integrated networks for the full enjoyment of all the city aspects (cultural, social)


A university’s reputation matters when it comes to the perceptions of overseas students. Though not as much as many Pro Vice Chancellors would like to imagine.

Taking the UK as an example, do the upper-middle ranking universities (e.g. Keele, Leicester, Leeds, Birmingham, York, Lancaster) really imagine their reputations to be so global and elevated that they percolate to all four corners of the globe?

I would hope not.

Ask most Asian secondary students to name a UK university and the chances are 90% will come up with just two names and we all know which they are.

The rest of the university pack are competing virtually anonymously, not only with other UK universities but with every other HE institution around the world which considers itself a credible international destination for capable overseas students.

What is revealing in this study is that while a university’s academic reputation may count for something, it pales into insignificance when set against the reality of that university’s offer to individual students and the wider cultural/social experience which such students encounter.

Students are paying clients and like it or not, university’s need to treat them as such.

This is not to dilute the academic rigour of a programme but to at least ensure teaching methods and curricula are up-to-date, accommodation and living costs are maintained at a reasonable level; and the whole learning atmosphere is friendly and supportive.

It is also a big mistake for any local authority to forget its role in ensuring overseas HE students leave their region happy and contented with their learning experience. As the study stresses, local and regional bodies need to be enlisted to ensure overseas students are welcomed, supported, and safeguarded in all respects.

Get it right and the university is going to be presented in a very favourable light on social media by current students and alumni. Get it wrong and those same individuals will have a rather different story to tell, one which no amount of digital marketing can readily counter.

In other words, satisfy your current clients and you are likely to get more in the future.

Every university executive should read this article and act on the recommendations presented in its conclusion.

‘It would be advisable for university executives to follow up student perceptions on the services provided, using a methodology similar to ours…it is clear that universities must prioritize their main actions such as improvements to teaching quality, enhancing learning methods, upgrading course organization, and ameliorating student assessment…The aim must be to implement a more inclusive university’s internationalization strategy.’ (p. 23-24)



Perez-Encinas A, Rodriguez-Pomeda J. International Students’ Perceptions of Their Needs When Going Abroad: Services on Demand. Journal of Studies in International Education. 2018;22(1):20-3


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