What motivates Brits and Americans to study abroad?

Students from the UK and US have different reasons for overseas study. British students say a major motivation is to work abroad and prepare for a career with international companies, while most US students view a period abroad as an opportunity to travel and explore other cultures, with less emphasis on the academic experience or job prospects afterwards.

Despite the oft-repeated notion that students in these English-speaking countries lack foreign language skills, four out of five respondents considering overseas study from both countries said they felt confident using a foreign language – and of the top 10 overseas study destinations chosen by UK and US students, seven were non-English-speaking countries.

Nonetheless 29% of UK students considering studying overseas said the US was their first choice destination, while 22% of US students chose the UK, according to a new British Council survey, Broadening Horizons: Breaking through the barriers to overseas study, released on Wednesday during the council’s Going Global conference in Dubai.

Only one in five UK students but just over half (56%) of US students surveyed were considering studying overseas, according to the survey of more than 10,000 students from both countries.

A large number of UK students – two-thirds of respondents – said they were not considering overseas study and many said they did not have enough information to make an informed decision about overseas study.

Among the British students who were considering studying abroad, almost half wanted to do so at undergraduate level and half said they wanted to study abroad as postgraduates. In the US, 82% wanted to study overseas at the undergraduate level.


British students have a more utilitarian attitude towards overseas study; 82% of UK respondents considering overseas study believed they would need more than their current qualification to stand out from the crowd and secure a good job.

Nine out of 10 UK respondents believed an overseas study experience could give them an edge when applying for jobs, according to the report. Just 28% said they wanted to have fun and explore other cultures, compared to four out of five students who mentioned this in America.

Among US students, 30% saw study abroad as an opportunity to start an international career and 19% as a chance to improve employment prospects. More than British students they pursued study abroad “to develop soft skills and add non-academic weight to their resumés”, the report said.

For UK respondents the top three countries for study abroad are English speaking – the US (29%), Australia (10%) and Canada (10%), followed by France and Germany – with foreign language students preferring European countries and Japan, and business and management students preferring the US, Australia, Canada and China.

Italy is popular among those interested in creative arts and design. And China was one of the most popular destinations with students at UK universities that had institutional partnerships with Chinese universities.

Improving language skills was also an important motivation for British students, with half of all of those thinking of studying abroad citing this.

For US students, top countries for study abroad were the UK, which was named by 22%, France 11%, Spain 11%, Italy and Australia.

For US students, business and management, health and medicine, and languages are the most popular study-abroad disciplines – the UK, Australia and South Korea in particular are popular destinations for students of health and medicine, while engineering students prefer Japan, Germany and China. China is also the most popular destination for students of business and management.


The main barriers to overseas studies were cost, including the cost of healthcare while abroad, as well as language, visa issues and leaving behind friends and family.

While for British students “there is a small but increasing consideration that a destination’s tuition fees may be cheaper than those in the UK”, the report noted that some 37% of US students said that access to financial aid directly affected their decision.

The report estimates that overall, for at least two-thirds of US students, financial issues were a potential barrier to overseas study. But being away from home was also a consideration.

“Many students explained that taking a year away from their established course companions, circles of friends and sports teams would, in their opinion, have an adverse effect on their future progress and success, both academically and socially.

“Establishing and maintaining such networks was often seen as more important than pursuing an overseas study experience,” according to the report.