23 Mar

“Selling” the UK

How are you communicating the value and benefit of a UK education Daniel Cunningham Hobsonsto international students?

Nearly 20% of the output generated by UK universities can be attributed to the enrolment of non-EU students (£13.9 billion of £73 billion). The UK has consistently and ranked as one of the most desirable destinations for international study, however this status could be vulnerable to change. In 2013 we saw the first drop in international student entrants to UK higher education courses in nearly three decades.

The factors are wide ranging and well documented. But the reality is stark. If we fail to  understand the value and prestige of a UK education and successfully promote it to an international student community with more options than ever before, our market share will decrease.

We believe the opportunity for the global international education industry as a whole is to better understand what we are selling and why it is valuable. How in value terms is international education defined? What are the perceptions and expectations of prospective international students? How do we, as a collective or as individual
institutions, adequately and effectively communicate that value to their prospective students?

Over the last three years through our annual survey of prospective international students we’ve sought to provide you with this insight and competitive advantage. So how do prospective international students view the UK, and what can you do to stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace?

The answer of course depends on their motivations and what value they place on an international education. This year’s survey, which we will release later this month, heard from tens of thousands of prospective students from 210 countries. Based on our findings over the last three years, here are our top tips:

Market your course, then country, then institution
Students select a course to study first, then they evaluate the country, and only after doing that will they select the institution. We have found this order of priority consistent over the last three years. It demonstrates the importance of leading your marketing with what matters most to the prospective student at each stage and at enquiry stage, this is the course the student is going to be studying.

Highlight the subjects you rank well in
Subject or course rankings are more important in student decision-making than institution rankings. Institutions should lead marketing campaigns with their top performing courses.
Don’t underestimate the power of the ‘halo’ effect.

Tell them what they can expect
Graduate outcomes are a key factor in international students’ decision-making, especially when choosing between institutions. Different graduate outcomes for postgraduate and undergraduate students need to be clearly defined. Remember you are selling an aspirational vision as well as a product.

Start your marketing early 
Our findings show that many students start to think about going to university as young as age 11. Start thinking about your marketing early, particularly focusing on online channels.

Understand the role agents play
When asked if they intend to use an agent in their search process very few say they will always use an agent. Meanwhilemost say that they will never use an agent. Contrary to this, our experience shows that many students, whether they intended it or not, will use an agent to help them find a suitable institution. Consider how agents are supporting students – is it their evaluation of an institution and initial application, or in the decision making phase?

Know what’s important and how you can make a difference
When an international student makes that all important decision to study overseas, they do so based on five primary criteria. These are consistent regardless of where they intend to study:

  1. The quality of education compared to their home country
  2. International recognition of qualifications
  3. The safety of destination country
  4. Perceptions of personal safety
  5. The country’s attitudes towards international students

The first two considerations are the ‘why’ or the ‘push factors’. Three, four and five are the ‘where’ or the ‘pull factors’ – why would they choose the UK over our rivals?

Know your competition!
If the UK is falling behind in the recruitment race, it must be understood who the real competition is, and for which students. For students interested in studying in both the UK and Australia, their top three destinations in each case were the UK, Australia and the US and account for more than half the prospective students. Germany continues to rise up as an alternative destination, particularly for students considering studying in the UK.

Undoubtedly, there are many factors relating to international student recruitment which currently may seem out of the direct hands of universities. In the run up to the general election and in its wake, the direction of the UK with regards to immigration policy is yet to be determined, which will have implications upon the perceptions of international students and the choices they make. However, as we have seen there are many elements
to the decision making process which universities can directly influence. Our international student survey is designed to equip you as institutions to do just that, and we greatly look forward to delving deeper into the findings of the 2015 edition and sharing these with you in the coming weeks and months.

Daniel Cunningham, Head of Client Services, Hobsons.

Article first appeared in the 2015 Hobsons University EMEA Conference magazine.


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