Students who study abroad are motivated by the desire to improve their employability and look to other countries to provide the best quality of education possible, research has found.

Career goals are important and many would stay in their home country if there were better alternatives and there is fierce competition in some markets, according to a new report which was conducted with 43,919 students of 208 nationalities in 175 different countries.

It found that the majority, some 61%, of students were intending to study at the post-graduate level, while 35% were aiming for undergraduate study. Just 4% were looking at foundation programmes, English-language programmes, or vocational programmes.

Almost half the students, some 46%, were from Asia, 20% came from Africa, 15% from Europe, 12% from North America and 7% from Oceania in the large scale study from Hobsons.

It also found that the majority of universities spend their international marketing budgets competing against each other in core markets in South Asia, Southeast Asia, China, and Europe, leaving vast territories and student segments under served.

This is against a background where students remain convinced that university represents the best way to prepare for their careers, but they are highly aware of, and could potentially be dissuaded from pursuing university because of the costs of obtaining a degree.

The availability of post-study work opportunities in a destination country matters to many international students, and the employment outcomes associated with a field of study are highly influential to students’ decisions about what they will study.

The research also found that the vast majority of students, 89%, pursue their studies on the basis of what interests them and many make a firm connection between what and where they will study and their career prospects. Some 40% said they would go where there is high demand for employees, and 38% would choose based on expected high earnings associated with the industry their degree prepares them for.

However, the costs of obtaining a degree weigh heavy on many students and 43% said that they would consider not attending university if the cost was too high, but 81% of students agreed that university is the best way to prepare for their careers.

However, 25% said they would consider not attending university if there was a better way of getting an education and 42% would prefer to stay in their home country if the quality of education was similar.

Studying abroad was an important part of their education plan for 47% of students and they can be influenced by the visa and immigration policies of destination countries, and this can be seen in the effects in the fluctuations in destination countries’ market share of international students when rules are changed.

The report suggests that the most striking example of this recently is in the UK, where the more restrictive immigration policies of the past couple of years are taking a toll on institutions’ ability to compete for international students.

Students are also interested in staying in their chosen country after graduation with 32% indicating a desire to stay temporarily in a destination country on a post-study work visa, compared with 23% who planned to return immediately to their home countries after finishing their studies. A smaller but significant proportion, 15%, said they wanted to migrate permanently to the destination country after finishing their studies.