What Really Matters To Non-EU International Students? | HE Research Snippet #34

HE Thinking | 26 Nov 2018


International students mean big business for Britain and its universities. The UK played host to 438,010 foreign under- and post-graduates in 2015-16, generating an estimated £25.8 billion for the country's economy.  

And while the number of non-EU international students studying in Britain continues to grow - to 442,375 in 2016-17 - it’s not growing fast enough. Against a backdrop of Brexit, visa restrictions and a gloomy immigration debate, the world's second-most popular destination for international students is being caught by Australia. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that UK institutions are spending more and more on international agents and recruitment teams. Coventry University alone spent £10.2 million on agent commission, taxes and other related fees between 2011 and 2014.

In order to stay ahead of the chasing pack, UK institutions must convince foreign students that they remain a viable and attractive place to study.


While reputation is particularly important... 

Our Higher Expectation (HEx) study reveals that while university reputation ranks as the 6th most important factor for Home-EU students, it ranks as the 3rd most important factor for international students, ranking higher than cost, location and the quality of social life on offer. 

Ranking Non-EU international students Home/EU
The course 1 1
Employability 2 2
Reputation 3 6

YouthSight, Higher Expectations: How important were each of this factor about which University to choose - % very important (2017 wave, typical base size 11,000 respondents for Home-EU, 1,000 for international students)

Unfortunately, not every university can have a top league table ranking, hence the idea of leading on institutional reputation won’t necessarily work for every HEI. According to Phil Batty, editorial director of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Oxford and Cambridge remain the top two institutions on the 2019 list, but although British universities score consistently well for their international outlook, there are only nine other UK institutions in the top 100. It is impossible for every institution to trumpet their overall reputation scores simply because everyone can’t be top. However, institutions have many facets and as marketers it’s our job to make the right case to the right prospective students. And we believe that means removing as many ‘friction points’ as possible from decisions.  We want to focus on the way you, as an institution, make prospective international students feel welcome.


Making international students feel welcome

Although UK universities retain a reputation as places where international students will feel welcome and can excel, some issues, such as Brexit and the UK’s visa arrangements, will always be out of your control and mean potential applicants may have second thoughts. It is paramount, therefore, that you foster a sense of belonging for your international intake before they even step foot in the UK. Your first encounter with these students is likely to be a virtual one. Our HE Marcomms study shows that international students are around twice as likely than their British counterparts to use a virtual open day in lieu of attending one in person. So are your virtual open days sending out the right messages, offering the right features and tours?


  Intention of using virtual open days
  Non-EU international students Home/EU
I would be happy to use a virtual open day instead of a standard open day 30% 17%
I would be happy to use a virtual open day in addition to a standard open day 41% 40%
I would be unlikely to use virtual open days at all  20% 36%

Source: YouthSight HE Marcomms, 2017 wave, typical base size 7,000 Home-EU, 500 International students (Think about virtual open days in the context of applying  for a UG/PG course, which of the following statements best applies to you)


As technology has advanced, so have the virtual tours on offer. The University of Hertfordshire, for example, gives prospective students the opportunity to explore accommodation, teaching facilities and their campus using 360-degree videos, Google street maps and drone footage on YouTube while offering Q&A sessions on Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook. This is a great way to give those students an insight into what they can expect from life at your university.

Our Higher Expectations (HEx) study shows that international students value facilities - accommodation, communal spaces and sporting facilities - higher than their British counterparts. Again, looking for a home away from home.

Factor Home students Overseas students
Good quality accommodation 70% 78%
Communal space on campus 55% 66%
Good sporting facilities 38% 52%

YouthSight Higher Expectations: How important were each of this factor about which University to choose - % very important (2017 wave, typical base size 11,000 respondents for Home-EU, 1,000 for international students)


An excellently executed virtual tour will give these prospective students the opportunity to project themselves into your campus, beginning the process of making it their home without the prohibitive cost of attending an open day in person.

Whether it's the University of Sheffield’s #WeAreInternational campaign - which included a video explaining the visa process - or the initiative at Nottingham Trent that invited foreign students to host a lecture on their home country, the goal of ambitious universities should be to make prospective international intakes feel welcome, included and give them a sense of belonging. And this should start from the first moment the university is being considered.

We offer a full range of "made-to-measure" research services plus a suite of four "off-the-peg" online dashboards, instantly available to help you benchmark, track and identify best in class.

Speak to our HE team


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