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How do students make decisions about overseas higher education? : A case study of Chinese international students at a regional Australian university

Wu, QA ORCID: 0000-0003-3921-1107 2019 , 'How do students make decisions about overseas higher education? : A case study of Chinese international students at a regional Australian university', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This research was triggered by my personal experience of choosing to undertake a doctoral course abroad. Another motivation of selecting this topic was from my observations, that is, in recent years a growing number of Chinese international students have “gone off the beaten track” to receive higher education in regional Australia. The research examined how students make decisions about overseas higher education by investigating Chinese international students at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), a regional Australian university.
The reviewed literature suggested that international students’ decision making for higher education abroad encompasses three major constructs: choices, factors and processes, which work together simultaneously. The interactions and the relationships among these three elements constitute international students’ decision-making models.
To integrate these constructs and to include ideas from relevant studies, a literature-derived framework for making choices was developed in order to holistically and systematically interpret international students’ decisions. Six major choices and a tentatively logical (top-down) hierarchy of these choices are embodied in this framework.
Guided by the literature derived framework for making choices and the relational framework of relevant constructs, the study focuses on the major research objective to examine how Chinese international students make their pre-departure decision to enrol in a regional Australian university. This objective was explored through research questions:
• What are the factors and decision-making processes influencing the choices of Chinese international students to enrol in a regional Australian university?
• Can the choices, factors and processes be used to derive decision-making models relevant to the Chinese international students?
• Is it possible to derive more general decision-making models for overseas study?
The methodological principles underpinning this study were located within a convergent mixed methods research approach. This research involved two phases of data collection and analysis. In phase one, 459 (valid) online and paper questionnaires were gathered from Chinese international students studying at the UTAS Tasmanian campuses. Also, there were face-to- face semi-structured interviews with 23 graduating UTAS Chinese international students. There was a second phase of data collection in which 21 of the first-phase interviewees were followed up through phone or online calls. The purpose of the follow-up contact was to ask the students to evaluate their UTAS experience to ensure that the original decision making had led to reasonable conclusions. Systematic grounded theory was the underlying method guiding the qualitative data analysis and the entire study. Theories were inductively formulated by merging and generalising the results.
The consistent results drawing from both interview data and survey data reinforced the assertion that the overall decision of (Chinese) international students to engage in overseas (UTAS) higher education consisted of six individual choices: (1) to receive higher education, (2) to study overseas, (3) to pick the host country (Australia), (4) to choose the region (Tasmania), (5) to pick the host university (UTAS), and (6) to select the course.
The initial results including choices, factors, processes and decision-making models came from a case study of Chinese international students at UTAS. The results of the case study were then generalised to a more global context of international students from different countries who are seeking overseas higher education.
The six choices were incorporated into a representation of the decision-making process. The degree of influence of each of the choices varied between students, so each choice is shown as a spectrum between “very important” and “very unimportant”. Each individual had a position on each spectrum reflecting the importance of choice in their decision- making process. The six choices were shown as interlinked as there were influences from one choice to another in the decision-making process. The interlinking in the representation also acknowledged the finding that the choice sequence varied between students in their decision-making process.
Three decision-making models integrating choices, factors and processes of (Chinese) international students emerged from this research, labelled according to the motivational orientations. The first one was the qualification-oriented decision-making model, which could be divided into the joint education program model and the non-joint education program model. The qualification-oriented decision-making model (for joint education programs) started with the choice to receive higher education since a qualification was their primary goal. They then sought higher education abroad. Sequentially, they chose the country (Australia), university (UTAS) and a course in that order. The joint education program in which they had enrolled limited all these three choices. The choice of region (Tasmania) was shaped by the location of this particular overseas university (UTAS). In terms of the qualification-oriented decision-making model (for non-joint education programs), (Chinese) international students were keen to gain a qualification and therefore sought higher education as their first choice. They then chose to travel overseas for that education due to a lack of access to higher education in their home country. The subsequent choice for bachelor’s degree seekers was the specific country (Australia), which was made by their parents. The students then chose a particular course on the basis of their own interests. The fifth choice for them was then for a specific university (UTAS) based on reasons such as the arrival of a quick and an easy offer, a higher quality-cost ratio, and acceptance of credit transfer. The particular region (Tasmania) was the last choice. A conducive study environment in the region (Tasmania) where the university (UTAS) is located would propel them onto accepting the university offer.
The second decision-making model was career-oriented. It started with the choice to receive a higher education. For students who want to be promoted in the same career field, a tertiary qualification was a requirement. For the group who hoped to transit into a new career field, higher education could speed up that transition. For students who had a qualification, but could not find a satisfying job, upgrading their education was seen as a way to improve employment opportunities in the future. The next choice was for a specific academic course. Studying in their job-related field could help improve their employment prospects in that area. The ease of admission and graduation was a key principle that could help them select a particular course in their expected domain. They were pushed to study abroad by limited choices of specialist courses or difficulty in gaining access to a high-quality higher education in their home country. Also, a belief that better work opportunities could be theirs if they had an overseas university qualification. Their fourth choice was for a country (Australia). Those who took specialist courses were limited by their availability. International students who hoped to enrol in non- specialist courses were enticed by the accessibility of higher education in a particular host country (Australia). A specific university (UTAS) was then selected. For those who had already selected a specialist course, they only had to choose a university (UTAS) which offered that course. For those taking a non-specialist course, a higher quality-cost ratio, and a quicker and easier offer were the two key attractions that guided their choice. The particular context (Tasmania) of the study was limited for them to the location of their chosen university (UTAS).
The last model was the immigration-oriented decision-making model. In this model the (Chinese) international students initially chose to travel overseas. Migration to another country was motivated by employment prospects. They looked for a particular country (Australia) with high immigration possibilities by comparing the migration policies of diverse countries. Social links in that country (Australia) could also lure them to it. After deciding on their country of choice (Australia), receiving higher education in the host country (Australia) was always the easiest and most useful way to seek immigration to this country (Australia). Their next decision was about courses, which boosted their prospects of immigration. They then selected a specific region in that country (Tasmania) as a study destination, which could bring them regional immigration advantages. Finally, a particular university (UTAS) was then selected.
The findings in this research contribute to new and in-depth knowledge about international students’ decision making at two levels. At the theoretical level, this research made a comprehensive and systematic presentation on factors influencing international students to undertake overseas higher education based on six choice themes. International student decision-making processes were identified on the basis of the choice-strength framework. This research constructed three international student decision-making models through the integration of choices, factors and processes. At the practical level, this study could be potentially useful to help stakeholders of international higher education (such as frontline international student recruiters, international marketing managers, international education agents, international higher education providers and government policy makers) develop a better understanding of the international higher education market.
The identification of choices, the representation of factors and the decision-making processes, as well as the decision-making models were developed from a case study of Chinese international students choosing to study at a regional Australian university. Through a process of generalisation, choices from the literature-derived framework, the representation of factors, and the decision-making processes, as well as the specific student decision-making models can be applied to the decision making of international students in other contexts. The representations and models will still be applicable in the future when factors such as economic growth and the development of university systems affect patterns of international student movement from particular regions. The generalised choices, the representation of factors and the decision-making processes, as well as the decision-making models will be able to accommodate to changing circumstances and incorporate new influences.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Wu, QA
Keywords: Overseas higher education, Chinese international students, regional Australian university, choice-strength framework, decision-making processes, decision-making models
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Copyright 2018 the author

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