The global picture for the international student experience: student happiness and wellbeing, the online learning experience, and student employability

As institutions globally rethink how they deliver education and the wider student experience, they continue to listen to the student voice. As such, i-graduate’s latest global surveys, the Covid-19 Response Barometer and the International Student Barometer (ISB) have been able to deliver valuable insight to the sector. Here we share just some of the findings. (The full global report, including regional focus reports, can be accessed here.)

Firstly we look at student happiness and wellbeing. The latest ISB data reveals a stark, yet probably unsurprising drop - 91% of international students were either happy or very happy with their life at the institution in 2019; in 2020 this declined to 83%.

We know the level of integration - the ability to assimilate into an institution - is vital for future success and that students really value the ability to build their networks. The isolation experienced by international students that haven’t had the usual opportunities to make friends, either from the host country or with other nationalities, clearly impacts levels of happiness - we have seen a drop of around 5% for students who were satisfied or very satisfied with ‘making a friend from the host country’; and a drop of 9% ‘in making friends from other countries’. Similar declines can be seen in students’ satisfaction with making good contacts for the future. Given that future career impact is the single most important factor for students’ choice of institution, the decline in happiness is even more obvious. Other contributing factors highlighted by the latest analysis are student engagement and community engagement.

To create happier, more successful students with a higher propensity to recommend, a good place for institutions to focus will be to develop better strategies to integrate their international students into student and community life, and help them create lifelong networks.

Secondly, we dissect the online learning experience. The latest analysis of the online learning experience indicates for the majority of institutions, student satisfaction scores are higher for face-to-face provision than online. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, 71% of students who are currently studying online indicate that they prefer studying face-to-face. We are already seeing institutions overall are making progress - the COVID-19 Response Barometer survey, conducted relatively soon after the initial transition to mass online delivery, found that overall, 70% of international students surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their online learning experience, compared with the pre-Covid benchmark of 90%. The latest Northern Hemisphere results indicate this figure is now at 79%.


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However, while seemingly more positive than the early days of the COVID-necessitated online student experience, it should be noted that international students studying online are less likely than those studying face-to-face to be satisfied with their learning experience; 79% of students who were studying online as a result of COVID-19 were satisfied or very satisfied overall with the learning experience, compared to 86% of students who were studying face-to-face. Drilling into the data further exposes a number of key areas that would appear to contribute to this gap, in particular support services, onboarding programmes, and feelings around value for money. The latter is an important one – students may have shown a certain element of patience so far, but institutions would be wise to better understand the perceptions and motivations of their students, in order to not test that patience, and instead create the right conditions for success across all their modes of learning delivery.

Thirdly, we consider student employability. Since 2018, Future Career Impact, at 96%, has been the number one reason for students globally when it comes to institution choice. The importance students attach to this area is reflected in the derived importance that we can calculate with the ISB data. ‘Derived importance’ is the correlation between a certain satisfaction element and students’ propensity to recommend. To underline the growing importance of employability, we looked into the ISB data gathered for Chinese students studying anywhere around the world across the last 5 years. The analysis showed the following top 5 aspects of their experience to have the highest correlation with their propensity to recommend:

  1. Overall learning satisfaction
  2. Overall support satisfaction
  3. Learning that will help me to get a good job
  4. Opportunities for work experience / work placements as a part of my studies
  5. Overall living satisfaction

(6.          Career advice coming from academic staff / faculty members)

The fact that employability carries so much value leads automatically to the question, “What can Higher Education Institutions do to support their students in bridging the gap from education to the world of work?” Further analysis of the ISB data suggests institutions can certainly look at career support as a starting point - globally 63% of students expect career support from their institution, but only 64% feel well or very well prepared in their career goals. Based on financial benchmarking data from Tribal we know that Higher Education Institutions spend 9 times more on marketing to students than on the future careers of their students. It would seem clear therefore that addressing this imbalance would predicate an increase in the ability to meet the student demand for support into successful careers. In doing so, institutions will likely find recommendations from their alumni begin to climb.

We’ve only touched upon three key themes here, and the underlying data would undoubtedly give rise to many more discussions, at regional, global and most certainly at institution level. What is hugely evident is Higher Education Institutions must now, more than ever before, make the right decisions about how they will give their students the best possible experience. Those that do might just find themselves spearheading a shift in market share across the global sector.


The ISB helps institutions make informed decisions to enhance the international student experience and drive successful recruitment and marketing strategies.

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