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Are universities listening to international students?

Written By: Nic Mitchell - May• 17•18

The need for universities to keep pace with the rapidly changing market place for international talent is highlighted in a new report from QS Enrolment Solutions based on responses to the 2018 International Student Survey.

The report ‘Harnessing Opportunities in Global Higher Education’ is the latest to call on universities to up their game and listen to how changing political and socio-economic dynamics are influencing the views of potential applicants from around the world seeking to study abroad.

Its findings echo some of the key messages coming out of conferences and events such as the Studyportals Amsterdam Academy 2018, which I reported on for University World News, and where the climax was a listening session ‘The voice of Generation Z’, – in which five Eastern European students spoke of their experiences of studying in the Netherlands.

The QS report adds to the growing mass of data warning universities that they ignore the voice of potential applicants – and their current international students – at their peril. The report was based on responses to the International Student Survey, or ISS, carried out from November 2017 to March 2018, with the participation of 67,172 students from 191 countries and 63 universities globally.

Listen, adapt and differentiate

Providing universities listen, adapt and differentiate their offer and develop strategic approaches to international student recruitment – including using big data in their decision-making – there is a bright future in the global Higher Education market, says the report. If they don’t they could end up like the Italian university, which told the Studyportals Academy it had been ‘cannibalising’ its own international students by introducing too many similar business and management programmes taught wholly in English.

So, with more students looking to study abroad and new locations trying to entice globally mobile learners to their countries, universities need to ask themselves whether they are listening institutions, or whether they are simply telling the market place what they have to offer.

And the perceived hostile environment towards ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigration’ in some leading traditional recruiting nations, such as the United States under Trump’s presidency – and the confusingly mixed messages from Brexit Britain – is further complicating the international student market.

Hopes and fears of those looking at the UK

There are several versions of the QS report. In this blog, I am focusing mainly on the one spelling out the hopes and fears of international students looking at studying in the UK in the near future. Of the 67,172 prospective international students surveyed by QS Enrolment Solutions, 28,020 said they were considering studying abroad in the UK.

Higher education media, such as University World News, seized on a key finding that Brexit hits European interest in studying in the UK with nearly two in five prospective students surveyed from within the EU being less interested in studying in the UK because of Brexit and nearly one in three not realising that EU students starting their course in 2018-19 will pay the same fees as UK students for the duration of their course.

Clearly, an urgent and effective communications job is needed to get more EU students applying before Britain actually leaves the European Union.

The ISS 2018 also found that awareness in the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF, remained low, with only 22% of respondents having heard of it. But 61% said recognition of teaching quality via a countrywide measurement scheme would influence where they studied – ahead of a university’s position in the rankings. Up-to-date technology and the university’s teaching staff were said to be the two main factors when assessing a university’s teaching quality.

A warmer welcome please

To me, the most interesting part of the QS survey looked at how both old and new recruiting countries need to offer a warmer welcome to potential international students who now have the world to choose from when considering studying abroad.

The big question is why should they pick your country?

As far as the UK goes, one bright spot in tackling Britain’s image abroad is the positive response to the #WeAreInternational PR and communication campaign launched by Sheffield University and its Students’ Union.

When shown adverts from the campaign, 45% of International Student Survey respondents said they were fully persuaded the UK is welcoming to international students, with a further 37% saying they were slightly persuaded. The campaign appears to be most effective among Romanian, Greek and German students within the EU and Chinese, Indian and Nigerians outside Europe.

But improving applications from abroad is only part of the challenge.

Meeting expectations of international students once they arrive on campus is also vital; as the QS survey showed “prospective international students are highly likely to know someone who is also studying abroad in their chosen location”.

So, word of mouth ‘Trip Advisor’ type recommendations – or otherwise – from fellow students can clearly influence potential future international applicants.

Affordability a big concern

The biggest concerns for potential study abroad students looking at the UK, according to the 2018 ISS, were affordability & cost of living; availability of scholarships; safety and finding accommodation.

Generation Z students given their voice at Amsterdam’s Studyportals Academy 2018

This echoed some of what I heard at the Studyportals Academy, where three Lithuanian, one Russian and one Bulgarian reflected on what it is like being international bachelor’s students at Dutch universities. See Study-abroad students want more responsive staff

One of their main gripes was teaching staff failing to understand the worries and concerns of international students. One of the Lithuanians said: “The worst problem for me is when I go to staff about getting a study grant or insurance and they are not aware of the kind of information international students need.”

A big attraction to studying in the Netherlands was the lower tuition fees, but finding suitable accommodation was a big headache.

Clustering leaves some students isolated

The Russian student also highlighted what he called the “clustering” of students from different nationalities, who tended to stick together – whether they were Dutch, Romanian, Bulgarian or from wherever – which left those who were the only student from their country feeling isolated.

I have seen cases of this in the UK when one nationality dominates the international student contingent on a particularly course, whether this be French students on a chemistry degree or Chinese students on a business programme.

Local students can also leave international students out of the loop socially when they refuse to talk in English outside class, complained one of the Lithuanians studying in Holland.

Communication and social media preferences

As someone who has worked in the communications industry since leaving college, I was interested to see what the International Student Survey report had to say about communication preferences and digital channels for universities hoping to influence prospective international students.

Unsurprisingly most prospective students want to see universities in the future putting most lectures online.

When it comes to investigating universities abroad, 83% said they used social media – with 56% using Facebook; 40% YouTube; 31% Instagram and 25% using LinkedIn. Internet forums were used by 20% of students researching where to study overseas.

But there are subtle variances, with 73% of applicants from Pakistan relying on Facebook while only 43% of US students do so. Weibo was used by 56% of Chinese applicants. YouTube was popular with students from Kenya, India and Pakistan. Twitter was most popular in Kenya, with a third of prospective globetrotting students using it to research foreign universities.

As for social media messaging channels, WhatsApp is by far the most popular with 79% of respondents using it daily; ahead of Facebook Messenger which had a daily usage of 57%. Twitter came third with daily use by 27% followed by Snapchat at 25%.

These overall usage levels only tell part of the story as 95% of Malay respondents used WhatsApp daily, compared to only 23% of Chinese applicants – of whom 96% use WeChat daily.

The immense usage of WhatsApp by post-millennials, or Generation Z, was highlighted at the Studyportals Amsterdam event, with German marketing consultant Elias Faethe recommending that universities use WhatsApp to follow-up leads.

Should we stop using email?

So, is it time to drop email and other traditional forms of communications?

No said both the QS report and Studyportals Academy, with 89% of ISS respondents saying they still like to use email when enrolling at a foreign university and 37% saying they like to use the phone.

As a half-Dutch and half Lithuanian student told the Studyportals Academy: “Email is OK when communications with a university get more formal. I prefer it for formal things rather than Facebook.”

* Download a free copy of the 2018 International Student Survey ‘Harnessing Opportunities in Global Higher Education report

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