Based on findings from i-graduate's International Student Barometers conducted in 2014, covering feedback from 365,754 students globally and more than 100 institutions in the UK, the International Unit (IU) said the UK had higher rates of recommendation and satisfaction than its major English-speaking destinations (USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand).
Ninety-one per cent of international undergraduate students in the UK, 89 per cent of postgraduate taught (PGT) and 90 per cent of postgraduate research (PGR) students were satisfied with UK higher education, putting the UK ahead at every level, IU said.
In terms of recommendations, 85 per cent of the UK's undergraduates, 86 per cent of PGT and 85 per cent of PGR students would actively recommended their UK study experience, all increases over the previous UK barometer in 2007/08.
IU said the UK ranked highest in most measures, including 15 of the 23 teaching and learning measures at undergraduate level and 47 of the 85 indicators at PGR level.
Although the UK has increased satisfaction levels across most measures, there were areas that had declined, particularly in relation to employment and visas at PGT and PGR level, IU said.
"The areas of greatest concern - where satisfaction levels have fallen markedly since 2008, are around employment and visas, earning money and financial support - are beyond the immediate capability of universities to resolve. Meanwhile, the UK's competitors appear to be more agile and responsive, taking advantage of the UK's perceived weaknesses," the authors noted.
The vital role of agents in the student decision-making process was highlighted in each of the reports commissioned by IU.
For PGT students, agents were the second most cited factor overall, behind institution websites (40 per cent). However, for students from several key recruitment markets profiled, the agent score was considerably higher, notably: China (57 per cent), India (48), Thailand (53), Taiwan (60) and Hong Kong (57).
At undergraduate level, agents were cited as one of the top five key factors in choosing, with a mean score of 24 per cent, behind family, friends, institution websites and institution ranking. In several markets agents were the most significant factor, including the two largest recruitment countries of China and India - at 46 and 50 per cent respectively.
The authors of the undergraduate report said, "For students from the UK's leading UG student source country - China - a distinctive pattern of influence is apparent. Here education agents, in tandem with family and friends, play a much more influential role. Similarly, students from Malaysia, Nigeria and India identify agents as key influences. This is a trend that is difficult to discount."
Agents played a less influential role at PGR level, where it was ranked as 11th overall, although higher for Saudi Arabia (fourth), Iraq (fifth), China and Nigeria (both eighth).
Analysing the differences, the authors said, "Ultimately, this data demonstrates that international PGT student choice is primarily driven by a combination of a university's web presence, education agents (in the case of South East Asia and India), friends/families and league tables/rankings. Interestingly, this pattern of choice varies somewhat from that reported by international PGR students, where university staff and former teachers were identified as more influential."
Commenting on the reports, Vivienne Stern, Director of the UK HE International Unit, said, "The responses of international PGT students studying in the UK clearly indicate the top decision-making factors are institutional reputation, the specific course of study and the quality of research. However, in today's highly contested and transforming international educational environment, the UK must act strategically to maintain its comparative advantages and sustain growth."
The full reports are available on the International Unit website.
By Matthew Knott