International Students Choice Of Tertiary Education Destination Education Essay

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More and more organizational scholars are paying increased attention to international students' choice of tertiary education destination (e.g. Cubillo, Sanchez, & Cervino, 2006; Joseph & Joseph, 2000; Nguyen & LeBlanc, 2001; Srikatanyoo & Gnoth, 2002). The reason for their interest include that ample evidence that shows the growing number of international students in search of higher education and the inclusion of new countries as destinations for this purpose have increased the need for understanding the behavior of consumers from a cross-national perspective (Cubillo et al., 2006). In the context of increasing competition for home-based and overseas students, tertiary educational institutions need to market themselves in a climate of international competition (Hemsley-Brown & Oplatka, 2006). Those universities that have a strong, distinctive image will be in a better position to face successfully the new reality which will take shape in the near future (Palacio, Meneses & Perez Perez, 2002).

Higher education literature suggests that several factors should be taken into consideration when analyzing college preference (Hoyt & Brown, 2003; Stanley & Reynolds, 1994; Joseph & Joseph, 2000; Cubillo et al., 2006). Chapmen (1981) identified three major external influences: (1) significant persons (friends, parents, and high school personnel); (2) fixed college characteristics (cost or financial aid, location, availability of program); and (3) college efforts to communicate with students (written information, campus visits, and admissions / recruitment).

Study on choice criteria of Indonesian students by Joseph and Joseph (2000) revealed the choice criteria on five dimensions in rank order were; (1) course and career information, (2) physical aspects and facilities, (3) cost of education, (4) degree (content and structure), and (5) value of education. Moreover, Cubillo et al. (2006) identified four factors in the international student choice process which include personal reasons; country image; institution image; and program evaluation.

The research purpose is to examine the relationship between personal reasons, country image, institution image, and program evaluation with international students' intention on tertiary education destination. In addition we want to investigate the interaction effect of institution image and country image on students' intention as well as program evaluation as a mediator to this relationship.

To what extent personal reasons are important in the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

To what extent is institutional image important in the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

To what extent is country image important in the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

To what extent is institution and country image interaction play its role in influencing the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

To what extent is program evaluation mediated the relationship between country and institution image with international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

The context of our study is tertiary education in Malaysia and the research questions addressed are as follows:

Does personal reasons, country image, institution image and program evaluation play an important role in influencing the international students' intention on tertiary education destination?

Does the interaction effect of country image and institution image play its role in influencing the international students' intention on tertiary education destination?

Does the program evaluation mediate this relationship (RQ2)?

Theoretical Background

International Tertiary Education

Higher education is a pure service and is characterized by a greater amount of interpersonal contact, complexity, divergence, and customization than other service business (Patterson, Romm, & Hill, 1998 cited in Cubillo et al., 2006). This nature brings difficulties to the evaluation of a degree program, especially for an international student (Patterson et al., 1998; Srikantanyoo & Gnoth, 2002). In addition the quality of servie has different meanings for different consumers (Ahmed, Johnson, Ling, Fang, & Hui, 2002) and even within different countries (Srikantanyoo & Gnoth, 2002).

Gronroos, 1997 (cited in Cubillo et al., 2006) argued that it is usually impossible to determine when the service begins. In the case of international tertiary education, the service will probably begin when the student first contacts the institution via various mode i.e., mail, e-mail, or phone, acquiring information about the program, the institution, the entry requirements, or when the student requests the residence visa at the host country's consulate.

Recent developments in the international education industry are notable in three respects (1) international student mobility has more than doubled in the last two decades or so, (2) programme mobility encompassing distance education has also led to new forms of cross-border education, and (3) institution mobility through such commercial deals as franchise and twinning arrangements are becoming an increasingly important feature of cross-border education, although on a limited scale (Naidoo, 2006). According to Naidoo (2006) in his study on tertiary-level international education: future of cross-border education, there were three level of changing dynamics in the international education industry (1) status quo (short term), (2) increased competition (medium term), and (3) capacity development (longer term). In the longer term, some source countries that are currently embarking on a capacity building rationale to the internationalization of their education sector would by then be in a position to become international education 'hubs', for example Singapore and Malaysia. Having seen the boom in the export value of cross-border education, these countries would aspire over the years not only to increase access to local education opportunities but also to attract international students as a source of exports earnings. Over time, these countries might even become more competitive in attracting international students than the traditional western countries.

Research into higher education choice, or consumer behavior in higher education markets, although not extensive, has principally been stimulated by an individual institution's need to anticipate the long-term implications of choice and to understand the key factors involved in student choice (Foskett & Hemsley-Brown, 2001).

Students' Intention

Relatively few researches have been written on the education selection within international market. In general there is scarce literature analyzing the intention of prospective international students in regard to personal reasons, institution image, country image, and program evaluation on tertiary education destination.

Intentions are the single best predictor of any planned behavior, including tertiary education destination. Student's intention on choice of tertiary education destination is measured as four behavioral intention (Nguyen & LeBlanc, 2001) namely the student's intention to consider the school as his or her first choice for education; the student's intention to continue his or her program at the school; the student's intention to encourage friends to study at the business school, and his or her intention to recommend it as the best in the area. This is supported by theory of reasoned action by Ajzen and Fishbein (1975).

Theory of Reasoned Action

The Theory of Reasoned Action was introduced by Ajzen and Fishbein in 1967 (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1975). The theory is based on the notion that a person's behavior is determined by what information that person happens to have available to them. It is stated that a person's behavior is determined by their behavioral intentions. A person's behavioral intentions are a function of two different factors, first attitude toward the behavior and the second factor is subjective norm. An attitude is defined as "a person's salient belief about whether the outcome of his action will be positive or negative" (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980, p63). Subjective norm is refer to beliefs about what others will think about the behavior. They are perceptions about how family and friends will perceive the outcome of the behavior (normative belief) and the degree to which this influences whether the behavior is carried out (motivation to comply). The theory stated that a person's behavior is predicted by their attitude toward the particular behavior and how they think other people would view them if they did the actual behavior. Both of those factors determine a person's behavior intention which leads to whether the behavior is done or not.


Subjective Norm

Behavioral Intention


Figure 1: The Theory of Reasoned Action

Factors Influencing Students' Intention

In a study done by O'Brien and Deans (1996), there were two distinct areas which were perceived as being of principal importance influencers on choice of institution, first, the flexibility and range of courses on offer, and second, the employability value of a certain course. These were not the only factors influencing student choice, but they were put forward as being the most important. Other influencing factors which contributed to the choice, but as a lesser priority were: reputation of the institution, perceptions of the institution on an open day visit, parental influence, prior knowledge of the institution, and location of the institution. The fact showed that students' are becoming much more discerning in their choice of institution. Therefore, there is the need for universities to access as much customer (in our study, the international students') information as possible in order to create awareness and interest in their product offering prior to competition.

Nowadays brand image is of great importance both in the context of companies and in the non-profit field (Palacio et al., 2002). With reference to the higher education university environment, which is the context of this study, there is no doubt that it is becoming increasingly important that universities have a distinct image in order to maintain their competitiveness in the market (Parameswaran & Glowacka, 1995, cited in Ivy, 2001).

Although there was not much study done on the influence of institutional image solely in international students' intention, but there were several studies done on factors contributed to students' perception and service quality measures on higher education. For example, the empirical surveys which were conducted in Japan and Thailand by Gamage, Suwanabroma, Ueyaman, Hada, and Sekikawa (2008) focus on several factors that were perceived to reflect on service quality in higher education according to student opinions. The study suggests that those factors could influence a students' decision to enroll in a particular university. They proposed that in selecting a university campus there are 10 factors to be considered and these factors had been categorized in three groups;

Academic aspect;

Non-academic aspect; and

Facilities aspect

In terms of academic aspect, students considered quality of academic staff, quality of programs, and university reputation as important factors that influenced their perception of service quality. In the case of non-academic aspect, financial assistance and tuition fees, counseling and support services, job placement services, and grievance procedures have contributed to students' perceptions of service quality. In respect of facilities aspects, students consider physical plants and facilities, library and computing facilities and student organization as important factors in their perceptions of service quality. Out of the above 10 factors, university's reputation, academic staff, quality of the programs, and job-placement were the most important factors.

Furthermore, Nguyen and Le Blanc (2001) claimed that the element such as faculty members and facilities on campus were critical factors that helped determines students' perceptions of the image or reputation of a higher education institution. However, according to Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka (2001), it's important to note that the concept of institution image and reputation might interpret differently in higher education with other services organizations. A company's high image and reputation, for instance, is usually connected to high sales and high demand from customers. In contrast, a higher education institution's image and reputation is often linked to minimal "sales", i.e. the more prestigious the higher education is, the fewer students it often accepts onto its educational programs.

Ivy (2008) in his latest study presents a new higher education marketing mix that is physical evidence and processes as well as people in selecting the university and program. Physical evidence is the tangible component of the university offering and there are variety of tangible aspects been evaluated by target markets, ranging from the teaching materials to the appearance of the buildings and the lecture facilities at the university. While processes are all the administrative and bureaucratic functions of the university: from handling of enquiries to registration, from course evaluation to examinations, and from result dissemination to graduation. The people element includes all the staff of the university such as academic, administrative and support staff that interact with prospective students and indeed once they are enrolled as students of the university. The role of image and status of academic staff at a graduate level student perception can play an important role in the choices process and it is supported by Cubillo et al. (2006) and Ivy (2001). For example, some students may be influenced by the number of academic staff who are PhD holders or have a Professorial title, others by academics' public profiles (as experts for television interviews or other publicity).

In this study, we would like to consider several factors which had been identified by earlier researchers as important factors influencing students' in selecting the university. We categorized it into four main group factors as suggested by Cubillo et al, (2006) in their theoretical model:

Personal reasons

Country image

Institutional image

Programme evaluation

Personal Reasons

Binsardi and Ekwulugo (2003) argued that when considering core benefits, students are buying the benefits that a degree can provide in term of employments, status and lifestyle. Thus, among the main personal factors influencing the choice, Bourke (2000) found enhanced career prospects and higher status implied in studying abroad. Recommendation from family, friends, or acquaintances who have already selected the services is one of the most important factors included in the choice (Bourke, 2000). Other reasons are the attraction of the experience of living in a different culture, meeting new people, making international contacts, and improving language skills.

Country Image

The decision of acquiring a product or a service can be positively influenced by the country image (Agarwal & Sikri, 1996; Han, 1990). Some studies show that the country image influences the evaluation of a product or service much more than other variables (e.g. Ahmed et al., 2002).

Country image effect or country-of-origin refers to the reputation, the stereotypes that consumers attach to products or services of a specific country (Nagashima, 1970, cited in Cubillo et al., 2006). Han (1989) identified two ways consumers use country image, i.e., halo or summary. He argued that when consumers are unfamiliar with a product, they use country image to infer quality when true quality is unknown (halo), and indirectly influences consumers' attitudes through inferential beliefs. As consumers face with a more familiar country's products, country image is used to summarize their beliefs about the product attributes and directly affects their attitudes toward the brand (summary).

The country image seems to play an important role in the selection of international education choice. Srikantanyoo and Gnoth (2002) defined country image as students' cognitive beliefs about the country's industrialization, national quality standard and other information that is associated with its products and services. These beliefs may be driven by various factors such as consumers' direct experiences, word of mouth, or exposure to communication and promotion devices.

Institution image

According to Srikantanyoo and Gnoth (2002), institution image is students' overall perceptions of institution quality. Furthermore Gavin (as cited in Ivy, 2001) argued that an institution's actual quality is often less important than its prestige, or reputation for quality, because it is the university's perceived excellence which, in fact, guides the decisions of prospective students and scholars considering offers of employment, and federal agencies awarding grants.

Barich and Kotler, 1991 described institution image as the overall impression made on the minds of the public about an organization (cited in Nguyen & LeBlanc, 2001). The image portrayed by institutions of higher education influence the attitudes of the institution's public towards that institution. Paramesawaran and Glowacka (1995) (cited in Ivy, 2001) in their study of university image found that higher education institutions (HEIs) need to maintain or develop a distinct image to create a competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive market.

The institution image according to Kotler and Fox, 1995 (cited in Ivy, 2001) is the sum of opinions, ideas, and impressions that prospective student have of the institution. Moreover, Ivy (2001) argued that this opinion about the image of the institution is formed from word of mouth, past experience, and marketing activities of the institution.

Program Evaluation

Subject content of curriculum and the applicability of knowledge were addressed by students as important elements that were influencing their perception of quality programs (Gamage et al., 2008). The nature and purpose of higher education should be more focused on preparation for development, skill, and knowledge in providing a good job.

Program evaluation is conceptualized as the attitude of consumers toward targeted programs (Peng, Lawley & Perry, 2000 cited in Cubillo et al., 2006). The elements that influence the program evaluation are a wide of courses (Joseph & Joseph, 1998), availability of courses, entry requirements (Bourke, 2000), international recognition, programs suitability, program specialization, programs quality, recognition by future employers, and total costs and finance (Cubillo et al., 2006).

Therefore, base on the above arguments, the hypotheses of our present study are proposed as follows:

Hypotheses 1: Personal reasons influence the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

Hypotheses 2: Country image influence the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

Hypotheses 3: Institution image influence the international students' intention on tertiary education destination.

Hypotheses 4: Institution image will interact with country image such that high institutional image will influence more international students' intention than those with low institutional image regardless of the level of country image.

Hypotheses 5: Program evaluation will moderates country and institution images' relationship with international students' intention on tertiary education destination such that the relationship will be stronger when program evaluation is high rather than low.

Hypothesized Model

The preceding arguments produce a hypothesized model in which personal reasons, country image, and institution image as a predictor of international students' intention on tertiary education destination. It also shows the interaction between country image and institution image towards international students' intention on tertiary education destination and program evaluation as a mediator to this relationship.

Personal Reasons

Institution Image

International Students' intention on Tertiary Education Destination

Country Image

Program Evaluation

Figure 2: Hypothesized model of factors influencing international students' intention on tertiary education destination.


Sample and Procedure

The international students' registered with Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education and University Students' Affair in the year 2007 will be used as the sample population and expected respondents are 500 of these students.


All variables will be measured using adapted measurement from Cubillo et al., 2006 and the response scale range from (1) not influence to (5) much influence ever.

Students' Personal Reasons. The personal reasons consist of (1) personal improvement such as enhance career prospects, future job prospects, future earnings prospects, higher status, live in a different culture, make international contacts, and improve language skills, and (2) advice such as family recommendation, friend's recommendation, and professor's recommendation.

Institutional Image. Institutional image will be measured using three items (1) corporate image which include institution prestige, ranking position, brand reputation, academic reputation, researcher reputation, and quality reputation, (2) faculty such as expertise and professional experience of teaching staff, and (3) facilities such as campus atmosphere, social life at university, safety and security, library facilities, availability of computers, availability of quiet areas, availability of areas for self-study, and sport facilities.

Country Image. Country image effect includes cultural distance, social reputation, development level, cost of living, immigration procedures, opportunity of working during the course and time to get the degree.

Programme Evaluation. The measurement for program evaluation consists of international recognition, programs specialization, quality programs, recognition by future employers, and total cost and finance.


To test the hypotheses, we will use hierarchical multiple regression analysis. The predictor, institutional image, country image, personal reason, and program evaluation will be centered before forming the interaction to reduce multicollinearity. The predictor variables will be entered in the regression equation as step 1. Then, follow by the two-way interaction institutional image x country image on international students' decision making on tertiary education destination as step 2 and finally, in step 3, the mediating effect (program evaluation) will be entered.

Expected Result

All the hypotheses are supported. For Hypotheses 1, 2 and 3, there is a positive relationship between institutional image, country image, and personal reason respectively with international students' intention on tertiary education destination. It means that the predictors will influence students' choice on tertiary education destination.

The expected result for hypotheses 4 and 5 are shown in Figure 3and 4. For hypothesis 4, the institution image will interact with country image in predicting the international students' intention. When high institution image regardless the country image is high or low, there will be more influence on the international students' intention. However, the relationship between country image and international students' intention is stronger when the country image is high compared to the low country image. It is similar for hypothesis 5, where the expected result showed that program evaluation play an important role in influencing students' choice of international tertiary education destination by strengthened the relationship. When there is high interaction between institution and country image, the high program evaluation will strongly influence students' choice on tertiary education destination.




Country Image

International students' intention

Low institution Image

High institution image

Figure 3. The Relationship between Interaction Effect of Institutional Image x Country Image on International Students' Intention of Tertiary Education Destination.




Country x Institution Image

International student's intention

Low program evaluation

High program evaluation

Figure 4. The Mediating Effect of Program Evaluation on Institutional Image x Country Image and International Students' Intention of Tertiary Education Destination.


This study focused on four factors that were perceived to reflect the international students' intention on tertiary education destination. We expect that personal reasons, country image, institution image, and program evaluation are the most important factors that influence students' intention to enroll in a particular university. A direct comparison of our expected result is consistent with earlier work done by Binsardi and Ekwulugo (2003), Gamage et al. (2008), Ivy (2008), and Joseph and Joseph (2000). On top of that, the interaction effect shows that high institutional image will influence the decision making regardless the level of country image and the mediating effect shows high influence on students' choice in selecting university. The university authorities would be able to use this information at their discretion to improve the quality and capabilities of their academic staff, academic programs, services and facilities provided to improve the university's reputation in retaining the current students as well as in attracting increasing numbers of prospective international students. In addition, the government authorities could use this information to improve the country image such as social reputation, development level and immigration procedures.