This article is more than 2 years old

To attract international students, let’s be bolder, braver and louder

With the UK rated as one of the best study destinations according to current international students, Andy Howells urges institutions to push that message
This article is more than 2 years old

Andy Howells is Assistant Director for External Affairs at Universities UK International

IDP recently shared insights from their latest global student survey, Crossroads 4, which showed that prospective international students looking at destinations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, felt these countries’ universities would look after them better than the UK’s.

However, international students who began UK study in the 2020-21 academic year – as well as study in the aforementioned competing destinations – stated the UK was actually among the best destinations for looking after their welfare and wellbeing. So, it seems there is a gap between perception and reality.

Perhaps this is not a new thing in UK higher education: when we do something well, we fail to shout about it. We tend to whisper it for fear someone may say something negative in return – we prefer to be cautious when it comes to talking ourselves up.

Student support

The support we have scaled up and provided to international students over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic has been immense. The IDP survey noted that airport pick-ups were one of the things we did much better than competing destinations, and the previous iteration of the survey, Crossroads 3, also put us top for things such as quarantine support. Thirty-four per cent of UK students stated that they’d received support for physical and mental health, against a global average of 24 per cent.

In response to challenges around hardship, we’ve also seen universities scale up support, as outlined in March 2021 with the publication of the London Higher and UUKi international student guidance, providing equal eligibility for home and international students for hardship funds, flexible and coordinated student fee payment plans, and proactive engagement with all students to ensure they know what support is available and how to access it.

This has contributed to us being viewed as one of the best destinations for looking after international students by those who do come, if not yet by those still contemplating their arrival.

We should develop and enhance this, and indeed, some universities have started to offer to cover the cost of quarantine for international student arrivals.

Flexible starts and positive policies

Another offer we have developed during the pandemic, which is putting us ahead of competing destinations, is the flexibility that many universities have provided international students – start online, travel later; multiple start dates; travel now and quarantine. Again, the IDP student insights show that the UK is out in front in this regard, and the news that temporary blended and distance learning concessions will be extended until 6 April 2022 is a welcoming message for international students.

This is further evidence that the UK government wants to support international students and is doing all it can to deliver welcoming policies during challenging times. Remember, the UK kept its borders open when others, such as Australia, closed theirs.

Let’s take these new offers, continue to develop them, and hold them up as further examples of why the UK is one of the best study destinations in the world right now, according to what current international students are saying.

And yet Canada, as confirmed by the IDP research with prospective students, is out in front of us in terms of the perceptions of prospective students.

IDP also points out though that the propensity for prospective international students to change destination to get what they want – for the majority, an on-campus experience – is high and getting higher. There is opportunity here for the UK, if only we can get these positive messages to break through.

Graduate route

Canada has an established post-study work offer, and even recently made a number of international students permanent residents. The UK is catching up though, but again, seems to not like to shout too loudly about it.

The UK announced in September 2019 that it would bring back its own post-study work offer, the Graduate Route, but IDP data shows that the message is not getting through to recruitment markets, with student perceptions of the UK offering rated behind that of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Graduate Route launched recently, on 1 July 2021, and we must see this as an opportunity to better promote it moving forward.

Over the past year, Canada has had issues with visa processing; in fact the Crossroads research shows that 32 per cent of current students studying in Canada stated that their expectations hadn’t been met when it came to the ease with which they could gain a visa compared to only 9 per cent for UK students.

The Crossroads survey also showed 81 per cent of international students in the UK rated their happiness on a scale of one-to-10 as six or above, which was higher than international students in Canada. Surely if we got better at shouting more about what we do well, we could seize an opportunity to increase market share from Canada?


Speak up

Universities UK International (UUKi) made a successful foray into student-facing campaigns last spring to autumn, with the #WeAreTogether campaign reassuring 67 per cent of prospective international students surveyed to continue with their plans to study with a UK university (and getting itself shortlisted for marketing campaign of the year at the upcoming PIEoneer Awards). It is currently working to gain earned media in key recruitment markets to achieve a similar thing.

UUKi has ambitions, at a national level, to start to speak more boldly about what the UK HE sector does well, to try to affect some change on the perceptions outlined here and encourage its members to continue to develop and enhance the offerings we have discussed.

So, there is no point moaning that we are underappreciated or bewailing our lost market share, we need to get out there and change it. We need to look forward and make a commitment as a sector to be braver in being bolder – let us shout loudly about what we do, because we clearly do it well.

– with input from Jonah Duffin, Director of External Relations at IDP Connect

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