UK Universities get International student recruitment all wrong

By Lucy McLaren

‘’International education is one of the UK’s few globally competitive sectors. Income from it makes it possible to undertake loss-making research and deliver strategically important lab and studio based courses.’’

This quote from former Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, is part of the How to put the bounce back in Global Britain report carried out by The Policy Institute at Kings College London and Harvard Kennedy School.

The report highlights the economic vulnerabilities many Universities will be experiencing as a result of a 50 – 75% drop off in International students.

Our Universities’ marketing themselves effectively to overseas students is not only vital for their own future prosperity but also that of our own research endeavors. For which we are currently held in such high regard.

Working in the sector we worry (without naming names) that many of the UK’s Universities are getting it wrong. And those outside of the prestigious Russell Group will suffer the most.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. A report from EY predicts International numbers will rebound in 2021 and beyond.

This presents an opportunity for the sector to sharpen its brand messaging to drive International marketing efforts and ultimately successful recruitment.

Over the last three years we’ve spoken to prospective students from across North America, Africa, Europe and Asia as part of a number of Higher Education branding projects. And below we’re going to share a few of our insights for future proofing International student marketing and recruitment.

First, prospective International students are looking to develop international fluency, and the diversity of our campuses is vital for achieving this goal.

Highlighting diversity puts those students (and importantly their parents) at ease. Learning they’re not only going to be looked after, but also have the opportunity to learn alongside and communicate with students from different cultures and backgrounds, many of whom don’t speak the same languages is a firm step towards reassurance.

It’s also vital to tap into specific student drivers. And from our conversations we’ve identified three profiles of prospective International student.

The first of which is the Destination Home student.

Of the three categories, these are the most heavily influenced by their parents, who are keen to see both value for money and also that their child, a future local leader, is going to be looked well after.

The parents have a clear path in mind for their child, and are principally interested in the transactional benefits (reputation, grades, facilities) that a UK University education offers, while being a flight away.

Having reaped the benefits of up-skilling at a UK University their end goal is to return home and utilise the experience to become leaders in either local business or politics, benefitting their wider community.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s the Destination Global student.

More independent from parental influence, these students see London or the UK as an opportunity to start building a global network and a global career, with international fluency at the heart of that ambition. 

They often remain in the UK to take advantage of our graduate schemes, but also aren’t intimidated by the prospect of exploring other international cities such as Zurich or Toronto.

Finally, there are the Destination Capital students who sit somewhere in the middle. Most commonly originating from South East Asia their ambition is to take their international fluency and launch International carriers in nearby hubs such as Singapore or Kuala Lumpur working for global corporate organisations, who greatly value their international fluency.

So what is it that we recommend?

An overarching brand positioning for International students, that differentiates your institution. But also making sure that there’s flexibility for tailored messages to connect to the drivers of each the key audience profiles, recognising they are not one homogenous ‘International’ group.

A great example of this style of brand messaging was the GREAT Britain campaign the government’s most successful international campaign, rolling since the beginning of the last decade, and delivering billions of pounds of investment back into the UK.

It’s success hinges on one memorable core GREAT message, with cleverly used, locally sensitive sub-messages unpacking what GREAT means, depending on the location and its interests.

Lastly, it’s important to lightly touching on the recently departed issue - Brexit. We’d echo Jo Johnson’s recommendation that UK Universities send a clear message - post Brexit Britain is a positively Global Britain.

Well and truly open for business!

Written by Lucy McLaren and Max du Bois

Image by Marjan Blan