North America's appeal to postgraduates wanes as more European universities run courses in English

Europe is winning the battle for the most popular region for postgraduate study. According to preliminary 2009 statistics compiled by QS (Quacquarelli Symonds), the private provider of higher education information services, North America has continued to slide in the esteem of prospective postgraduates. There has also been a noticeable increase in the proportion of students studying international relations, communications and law, mainly at the expense of Fame (finance, accounting, management and economics) subjects .

The analysis is based on information from the QS World Grad School Tour. The company takes universities wanting to attract postgraduates to student fairs it organises in about 60 cities around the world each year. The information is provided by prospective students who must register on the company's website and complete a questionnaire to attend a fair. QS has consistent data for the past four years, obtained from 40,000 to 60,000 students annually.

"We've noticed that Europe is becoming more popular. People are turning away from North America as the destination for study," says David McClelland, senior operations manager at the QS World Grad School Tour. In general, 33.5 per cent of postgraduate applicants preferred North America (the US and Canada), and 57 per cent Europe in 2009, against 39 per cent and 50 per cent respectively in 2007.

The trend is clear across most regions. In North America itself, 27 per cent of prospective applicants in 2009 wanted to study in Europe, an increase of 8.5 percentage points over 2007, against a fall of 7.9 percentage points over the same period for candidates opting to remain in North America.

In Europe, just over 21 per cent of prospective postgraduate applicants wish to study in North America (a fall of 6.8 percentage points from 2007), and almost 76 per cent prefer to stay in Europe. In Asia, the latest happy hunting ground for universities, the percentage of prospective postgraduates wanting to study in North America fell by 7.7 percentage points between 2007 and 2009 to almost 46 per cent.

India is the outstanding example. About 34 per cent of prospective applicants wished to study in North America, down some 20 percentage points in two years, compared with 51 per cent who prefer Europe, up 18 percentage points on 2007.

The exception is Latin America, where preferences appear to have changed little between 2007 and 2009. Of prospective applicants, 57.5 per cent favoured Europe, compared with 27 per cent who opted for North America.

A twist to the tale is that men and women students have markedly different regional preferences. Of males, 54 per cent favour North America against 35 per cent choosing Europe. For females, the figures are reversed with 59 per cent favouring Europe and 33 per cent the US.

What explains Europe's growing popularity? One possibility is language. "It's grown more attractive to study in Europe because many more universities are putting on courses in English," says Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (Ukcisa). He also argues that North American universities are pricing themselves out of the market.

The UK is particularly attractive because of the Post-Study Work scheme, which allows foreign graduates to work for two years after finishing their studies. The UK has 11 per cent of the global student market, but Scott warns: "France, Germany and the Netherlands were nowhere five or six years ago. Now they're almost on a par with the UK."

McClelland points out that European universities have been more aggressive than North American competitors about recruiting overseas students, and the greater visibility of rankings has made students more aware of the high quality of many European universities. That is important because "the main motivation behind postgraduate study is definitely career progression", McClelland says.

However, explaining the declining status of Fame subjects seems to be less easy. Whereas the percentage of students choosing Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects has stayed stable at around 23 per cent for several years, Fame has tumbled from being the preference of 41 per cent of students in 2006 to 29 per cent last year.

One possible explanation is the corresponding increase in the number of candidates opting for international relations, communications and law in recent years. The trend is most noticeable among younger students: in 2009, 13 per cent of candidates for international relations and law were under the age of 21.

"In recent years, international relations has been an increasing part of the World Grad School Tour. Younger people are interested in the world and want to change it. A growing number want to work for NGOs and international organisations," says McClelland.

The next QS World Grad School Tour fair is on 11 March, from 4pm to 8pm, at Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel, 252 High Holborn, London, WC1V 7EN