The reasons behind a student’s choice of one foreign educational institution over another are quite varied. After all, international students are not a homogeneous crowd; they represent a mixture of economic backgrounds, cultural preferences and individual aspirations. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
As an educator wishing to attract a more diverse and heterogeneous mix of international students, it is your responsibility to raise your institution’s visibility and make it as easy as possible for students to find, engage in dialogue, and, eventually choose you over someone else.
In this post we will look into the 9 most common factors international students take into account when making their choice where to study abroad. These factors not simply motivate their choice but represent the most common barriers they encounter and have to deal with during their course of study.
Think about the way your institution tackles these common issues and how you can design your international student recruitment and strategy to affect positively both the acquisition and retention of international students:
1. The language barrier
Students are naturally attracted more to universities that are able to offer the same language of instruction as their mother tongue, especially if they’re looking to take a full-course degree and not simply a year abroad.
While learning a new language in a year could sound like a fun challenge, for many students full-time classes in an entirely foreign language can prove a daunting task.
The most common solution offered by numerous institutions is formal tuition in English, but at the same time, far from all institutions have the capacity and resources to offer that to their international students on one hand, and to ensure a uniform level of English proficiency among the students themselves, on the other.
That’s why students from, let’s say, Brazil, will be naturally more willing to explore study opportunities in Portugal, and Spanish-speaking Latin Americans will be happy to join the ranks of universities in Spain.
In general, being able to offer courses in different languages is a viable long-term investment that will make your institution more attractive for international students. English is a must; Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, in fact any of the top 10 most popular languages in the world are nice to have.
2. High tuition fees
Everyone knows that quality education often implies substantial costs for students and their families. On the other hand, each institution’s fees are often determined by various factors including legislation, competition, local economic conditions, etc.
When investment in one country is considerably higher than in another, students will lean towards the cheaper option even if the quality of education offered is lower. In Europe, for example, countries where governments allocate substantial funding for higher education prove far more attractive to international students. As a result, it is no surprise that the leading markets for international student mobility in this region are Denmark and Germany.
If your country is less privileged in this respect, make sure your institution states in a clear and visible way all scholarship opportunities, if any, and have staff dedicated to consulting prospective international students about financial issues. In this way, you will maximize your institution’s potential to attract and retain international students, or, at least, raise informedness and visibility.
3. Poor infrastructure
With STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects on the rise globally, student preferences are clear: universities must have laboratories and facilities with up-to-date equipment. Nothing less: after all, how can you attract the brightest technological minds of tomorrow if the only tablet available in your university is better used as a cutting board?
Universities that boast the latest and most advanced resources and facilities alongside a modern curriculum that meets the demands of forward-looking students will always have an advantage over institutions with more modest means.
4. No follow up after initial contact
One of the biggest hurdles international students face during their research of foreign institutions is the lack of communication from the educator’s side. The results of a recent report by British Council are showing that even though 57% of top 500 universities in the world responded to student’s enquiries in a day or less, 68% of institutions failed to follow up and send a second email or a reminder. 21% of universities did not respond at all.
It is essential to remember that email is the primary form of official communication today, and on many occasions, calling the office is not an option for the student. This a huge missed opportunity for international student recruitment: students will be definitely more likely to engage with, and ultimately choose institutions that put effort into keeping communication channels open and maintaining dialogue.
5. No social media presence
While most universities are able to put together a decent looking website with all the relevant information available in one place and in several languages, far from all are able to utilize the channels that are playing an increasingly important role in everyone’s lives today, including students. Yes, we are talking social media.
If your last post on Twitter is from year 2015, your institution is way behind. If the content you share is mostly generic statistical updates, you are out of the loop. Make sure that your institution’s social media presence is relevant to prospective students and gives solutions to their major needs and pains. A well-maintained network of social media profiles may not be the core factor to determine students’ choice, but is definitely an invaluable asset for the university’s online image and reputation.
6. Fear of social isolation
Some of the biggest fears faced by international students are based on the perception that after they travel across half of the world to find themselves in a new country, they will have trouble fitting in. Feeling homesick and missing family and friends is a common problem that most of international students face. The only solution here is for universities to focus on inclusion and to be able to show results: building the culture of diversity, multiculturalism and openness, while celebrating various cultures and people that come from them.
Inclusion and multiculturalism can be fostered both inside the classroom and out – in the form of extracurricular activities, outdoor events, sports, arts, crafts and many more. Although budget and resources often play a big role in the design and implementation of such activities, the overriding principle here is that when there’s a will, there’s also a way.
7. Previous unresolved scandal
It goes without saying that international students need to feel safe and secure in the new environment – anything less than open, accommodating and inclusive surroundings will not do. Any links between a university and cases of discrimination, corruption or, in some terrible occasions, even sexual assault, need to be addressed clearly and resolved promptly.
Universities must present a strong stance that this kind of behaviour cannot be tolerated, it is not part of the culture, and steps have been taken to ensure that anything similar does not happen in the future. Shying off from the issue or even worse, trying to avoid or deny it, shows that the institution does not have the capacity to properly take care of its international students.
8. Lack of diversity in the international students department
This issue is very similar to number 6 from this list: fear of social isolation. If you want your students to feel at home, you need to build that home at the campus. Which doesn’t mean simply throwing cultural days once in a semester – it’s all about building your campus around the values of multicultural and diverse community and offering space for various student initiatives to flourish.
One proven strategy for success is having as many different nationalities as possible, putting all international student communities on equal grounds so that they have equal opportunities to voice their needs, concerns and suggestions. You got to admit that if 60% of your total international student body are Chinese and 5% are Iranian, there is hardly a way for the two groups to be equally heard and represented.
If you try to design your international student recruitment strategy in such a way that you manage to attract more or less equal groups of different nationalities and economic backgrounds, you can come up with a truly diverse, yet balanced mix. The idea is that each group should be fairly represented and every student feels welcome and included.
9. Poor word-of-mouth
Positive feedback about your university from former students and alumni is among the top factors that boost the number of fresh recruits. Friends and acquaintances are also a major source of information for all students seeking to explore study abroad opportunities. That is the main reason why treating your alumni right can help build a strong brand and create a network of university ambassadors, always ready to offer a push in the right direction to students who are not sure if they are willing to go to the admissions office.
Just a few bad comments (or poor ratings on social media) related to the university can be a turnoff for a large number of prospective international students. That is why having an strong communications team who are always ready to react to negative comments online and resolve issues on social media channels is always a big advantage for the whole university. After all, even the biggest enemy can be turned into an ally if treated right.
ETN Focus Workshops are educational events focused on diversifying your international student body. We connect local student recruitment experts with universities and institutions from all over the world.
If you are interested in recruiting international students from less explored markets, check out our events.