study abroad destinations
New surveys show students would rather study in Canada than the US. Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

The UK and Canada are now more popular study abroad destinations than the US, according to several surveys by This speaks more for the waning popularity of the US than it does rising interest in the UK or Canada. A similar report surfaced last week —  international students who had planned to study in Australia are now switching to Canadian and British universities.

The US — ranked the top choice for international students in January 2018 — had dropped to third place by October 2020. In the same period, the popularity of Canada and the UK increased by approximately 3% among prospective international students. The US dropped 10%, which makes it a shadow of its former self although it is ranked higher than Germany (fourth place) and Australia (fifth place).

It’s no secret that 2020 was a tough year for the US. While the country struggled with a barrage of sociopolitical issues, COVID-19 raged on, facilitated by poor national health and safety measures. However, survey results show a gradual decrease in student interest since 2018, suggesting it is not tied to a specific event such as the pandemic. Students are considering several other factors, too.

Why are Canada, UK preferred study abroad destinations?

To answer this question, we must first ask: what attracts international students? Beyond high-quality institutions, dedicated staff, and impressive resources, students are looking for a country that not only welcomes them but also offers a shot at a brighter future.  This places the spotlight on immigration policies, particularly post-study or graduate visa options. Other factors prioritised when surveying study abroad destinations include language, culture, and safety.

Canada has proven to be a leading option for immigration, thanks to its permanent residency policies that aim to fill the country with skilled foreign talent. The country has also moved swiftly to protect foreign higher education interest during COVID-19. For example, most universities in Ontario are now ready to receive international students as long as they can arrange their own quarantine. Canada was also recently named a “safe and stable” country for international students in view of its pandemic management and response, alongside New Zealand.

On the other hand, the Trump administration created a largely unfavourable environment for immigrants since 2017. The Optional Practical Training programme hung on a thread and became plagued with delays, while those on other work visas also hit roadblocks. Only time will tell if the Biden administration delivers on its potential to save international education in the US.