There is certainly a sense today that the appetite and demand for international Masters and PhD programs is greater than ever before. More universities and colleges are aware of the positive impact international graduate students potentially have on their student body, while prospective students see advanced study, particularly away from their country, as a valuable asset in the development of their careers. It would appear that the appetite for international education is almost insatiable.

With such a hunger has come a great deal of innovation and change, the likes of which have never been seen in the 40 or so years that moving abroad for international education has become mainstream. Australian universities now teach Masters programs and provide tutorial support for international PhD candidates throughout Asia; banks and other financial institutions actively encourage graduate students to fund their international studies through flexible and low interest loans; mainstream UK universities offer their Masters programs online and in association with private US companies; and countries as diverse as Denmark, Estonia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates encourage students from all over the world to read graduate degrees in their institutions, supported by a range of special measures that include advantageous immigration policies and financial aid.  
Are there other discernible trends in the graduate world today? Undoubtedly so and a review of some of the most significant can provide useful information for the prospective applicant to an international grad school.

Growing numbers
Statistics released from national and international agencies indicate that the popularity of international study, and graduate-level education in particular, continues to grow. The most recent data from UNESCO and OECD, although not specifically split by academic level, confirms that the number of students pursuing education away from their home country has increased by 4.9 per cent, or an additional 127,336 in absolute numbers, on the previous data year bringing the total to 2.73 million students. Since 2000, the number of students enrolled in international higher education has increased worldwide by 50 per cent, underlining the rapid rise in popularity of this kind of study experience.

An Australian Government study released towards the end of 2007 indicates how the number of internationally mobile students is likely to rise in the coming years. By 2025 it is predicted that 3.72 million students will travel internationally for some part of their university-level education, a growth of 71 per cent over 20 years, or 2.7 per cent annually. Interestingly, the demand for international education is not even across all world regions and it is anticipated that most of the growth in demand will come from Sub-Saharan Africa (growing at 3.9 per cent annually over the next 17 years), the Middle East (4.5 per cent), South Asia (4.5 per cent), Central America (3.5 per cent) and Oceania (5.5 per cent). On the current forecasting model being used by the Australians, the demand will be greatest amongst Syrian (8.3 per cent), Pakistani (5.4 per cent) and Bangladeshi (4.9 per cent) students, although in actual volume, China (645,190 students), India (302,220) and South Korea (127,410) will produce the largest number of internationally mobile university students.

With a shift in the global economy, as many observers agree, to a more knowledge-based structure, the demand for highly skilled, internationally literate graduates is not likely to diminish. According to the Australian study, depending on the future nature of the world's economy, demand for graduate-level international education is likely to outstrip that for other programs in the next couple of years and by 2025, 62 per cent of mobile international students will either pursue a Masters or PhD program in another country. Data from the QS World Grad School Tour underlines how buoyant the interest in international Masters and PhD study already currently is: 8,000 more prospective students attended one of the graduate-focused events in 2007 than in the previous year, an increase of 30 per cent amongst those students most actively considering their future choices for advanced study.

New destinations
The variety of viable study destinations for international graduate students is now very different from just five years ago. Governments across Asia, Europe and North America view the recruitment of Masters and PhD students as an essential part of their immigration and human resources policy and have established strategies to ensure that many more students than ever before are aware of the advantages of studying in their country. Evidence from QS Research underlines how diverse the range of countries for prospective international graduate students now is, with 45 countries routinely considered as choices by those responding to the QS Applicants Research in 2008.  The table below lists the top 10 most popular countries for Masters or PhD study.

Most popular study destinations for graduate study
Rank               Country               Interest (percentage    preference)
  1                    USA                           80
  2                    UK                             63
  3                    Canada                       38
  4                    Australia                     28
  5                    France                        25
  6                    Spain                          20
  7                    Singapore                    16
  8                    Germany                      16
  9                    Switzerland                  15
 10                    Italy                           13
                                                               Source: QS Research 2008

Although the top four destinations of the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia are now well established as the most popular countries for international graduate study, it is significant that European countries dominate the remaining spots in the top 10. Since the widespread implementation of the Bologna Accord's reformation of Europe's higher education systems, it is much easier for international students to understand both the level of the qualification they hope to pursue and what it will qualify them to do. Coupled with economically priced tuition fees, improved student facilities, the ability to work whilst studying and an increasing number of graduate degree programs taught in English, the attraction of Europe for international students is easy to understand.
On top of more international graduate students finding Europe's universities attractive for their Masters or PhD programs, a number of countries themselves are taking the matter of attracting students more seriously than ever. Attractive marketing campaigns, with comprehensive listings of all programs offered in English, new and extended scholarship opportunities and a closer link between graduate degrees and the local labour market are all features of initiatives launched, for example, by the Danish and Norwegian Governments in recent months. This is undoubtedly a positive trend for students, making the decision-making process more transparent and easier for those considering an international program simply by virtue of the fact that more accurate information is available to them. Whether available through new websites, course searches, education fairs or advertising, officially sanctioned information can be a vital platform from which to choose your study destination.

Changing subjects
Whilst the majority of international students continue to pursue Masters and PhD programs in subject areas that are most directly linked to employment opportunities after graduation, there is evidence of subtle shifts in the popularity of some subjects over others. The table below illustrates the differences in subject preferences as expressed by those students attending one of the QS World Grad School Tour education fairs in 2006 and 2007.

Top 10 subject areas for graduate study 

SubjectInterest in 2007 (%) Interest in 2006 (%)
Finance, accountancy,management & economics (FAME) 3141
Science, technology, engineering& mathematics (STEM) 1922
International relations 55
Communications & media45
Administration 4n/a
Law & legal studies44
Biological sciences2n/a
Education & training23
Psychology 2n/a
Languages 22

                                                                 Source: QS Research 2008

With more than 55,000 prospective students indicating a subject preference, the evidence suggests that the interest in finance, accountancy, management and economics is waning and a greater range of other subjects, such as administration, biological sciences and psychology is becoming more popular.

Peter MacDonald, Director of the QS World Grad School Tour, notes that the breadth of subject interest has developed relatively quickly over recent years and is influenced by a number of factors: International students tend to choose those subjects where they have the greatest opportunity for employment after graduation.  Where a country's economy is developing quickly, students from that country tend to have more opportunities in a wider range of careers than if an economy is emerging. For example, as the Chinese and Indian economies have become more diverse, students from these countries are choosing a greater variety of subjects to reflect the improved employment prospects that they now have.

Subject choice is also being influenced by a change in attitude from many of the world's universities and colleges offerings Masters programs in particular. In previous years, students were offered graduate programs in distinct academic areas where a grad school had expertise, irrespective of the demands of the local or international labour market. Increasingly this approach is changing and Masters programs are being designed or revised, often with the direct collaboration of business or industry, with the intention of producing qualified graduates with the requisite skills to enter specific areas of the labour market. Academic areas as diverse as public policy, international relations, biological sciences and administration now benefit from this changed perspective and are increasingly popular amongst international graduate students.

Finance and funding
One of the single biggest issues for prospective graduate students is the way in which their period of study will be funded. With the cost of programs varying according to the location of a university, the perception of the quality of the program, an institution's career placement record and, on occasions, the popularity of an institution, students are constantly matching their ambitions with the amount of funding available to them. A number of trends have emerged in recent years that are directly related to the funding and financing of international graduate programs, the two most prominent of which are the widespread introduction of market-rate tuition fees for graduate programs and the increase in the number of loans available to fund international study.

Although tuition fees have become a common feature of Masters and PhD programs for international students over the last 20 years or so, the last year has seen more countries discussing the implementation of tuition fees for non-national students than ever before. Indeed, even amongst those countries that have charged tuition fees for a number of years, the debate around the level of such fees has also increased. The two most recent examples of this debate are both Nordic countries - Finland and Sweden - and the discussion has had very different outcomes. In Finland, preparation for charging tuition fees for international graduate students has been underway for the last three years, yet in the most recent parliamentary debate the decision was taken that imposing such fees was not in the best interest of the country, thus keeping Masters and PhD programs in national institutions free for all. In Sweden, however, the shock announcement in June 2008 that the Government intends to introduce legislation in November to begin charging non-European students in 2010/2011, marks a significant change that is likely to affect more than 25,000 international students a year currently enjoying free education throughout Sweden.
The implication of more countries charging tuition fees is obvious but, nevertheless, extremely important for all prospective international students: the cost of future education is likely to become more expensive and students will take the decision to study abroad much more seriously than ever before. However, with all evidence indicating that interest in international Masters and PhD programs will increase, the cost of tuition appears not to be a disincentive for students. Much of this is due to the explosion in availability of private finance for students, particularly at the graduate level, where banks and other finance companies now routinely provide preferential loans for those interested in studying abroad. Most students have access to a far greater range of funding choices than ever before, with loans available for tuition fees and living costs, depending on the status of the applicant and their family.

University league tables
It is only in the last five years that rankings and league tables have become commonplace in the world of international education. A range of publications now routinely produce annual rankings of national and international institutions based on a range of criteria, including research performance, peer review, employer perception, the number of international students, the average salary of graduates, employment rates and different academic prizes. Rankings, like the THE-QS World University Rankings, are very useful tools for prospective students to narrow their potential university choices by a set of criteria that are generally relevant to their period of future study. 

More students than ever before are turning to rankings simply because they provide an objective measure of performance for universities they may know little about other than the information they have gathered from official sources. Research indicates, however, that very few students use only rankings to make their decision, rather they are part of a process that involves web research, interview, attendance of education fairs, contact with academics and current students, alumni and the advice of friends and family before a university choice is finally made. Whatever the approach, rankings add a great deal to prospective students who are balancing a number of factors before they make their final decision on where to study.
With more rankings appearing, however, it is important to recognise that not all of them present the same information or use the same categories or criteria to compile their listings. That is not to say that rankings are not useful, rather it is a case of ensuring that what a student believes a particular ranking is presenting is what the compiler of the ranking intends.

The graduate world today is characterised by a greater interest than ever before from students who are focused on a diverse range of academic subjects offered in a, literally, limitless number of destination countries. The motivations for a period of study abroad leading to a Masters or PhD degree, however, tend to be a little more focused and to directly relate to the development of future careers, either in the country of study or elsewhere. But perhaps the most critical characteristic of the graduate world is its sense of dynamism, where innovation and change mark every aspect of the experience and the opportunity to benefit from the challenge of an international program is available to all of those willing to make an application.