International student numbers have gone from 2 million (2000) to 6.3 million in two decades (UIS, 2022).
And we also know that, along with the international student population continuing to grow exponentially, tomorrow’s international applicants arguably have more choice than ever before at their fingertips.
Students now have an abundance of universities to choose from, meaning higher education institutions need to try even harder to accommodate what prospective applicants want. Universities can no longer rely on their reputation to see them through another decade of immense change.
Aside from the worlds’ geo-political landscape affecting higher education (think COVID-19 and the cost of living), students are also dealing with a personal set of criteria when selecting a university. This includes, but is not limited to, socio-economic factors, career prospects, accreditation and familiarity.
BridgeU has run a number of international student panels in the past few months, as part of our wider Admissions Bootcamps series. In this article, we thought we’d share a few of the most prominent insights that international students have shared with us about their experience of the university application process.
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Whilst having a strong digital presence was always important, COVID-19 increased the importance of this for universities
Many students no longer feel it imperative to visit the university before making a decision, which is why it’s crucial to perfect your university's online presence.
However, not all students know somebody that’s had the experience they’re looking for, which is when students will often turn to digital means for answers.
The majority of students from our panel stated they used the internet to research universities that would fit with their chosen field of study, with a handful saying that their journey to university “started with a Google search.”
Students don’t just want to explore carefully curated content from universities - they also want to see a potential university through the eyes of their peers. Our students mentioned how friends and family reviews of institutions influenced their decision when it came to place of study.
The EDDY 2023 College report found that 52% of respondents found search engines to be important when searching for reviews, followed by social media at 34%.
This means it’s imperative for universities to make it as easy as possible for students to find important information, as this could be one of the deciding factors as to whether they study in your institution.
Another thing that students want readily accessible information on is cost.
Cost is one of the most important factors when it comes to students solidifying their choice in university, amongst other accessibility queries such as access to visa’s, scholarships and entry requirements.
Because of this, it’s important to ensure all information is readily available in a user-friendly format, taking into consideration language barriers and differences in curriculums and qualifications obtained.
Whilst practical information is very important in a students decision, it’s also important that universities provide the value of the institution outside of academics.
Students want to feel a part of a wider culture & community at their university of choice. All of our Bridgeu students emphasised the importance of partaking in extra curricular activities, and how joining societies and developing new hobbies led them to feeling a sense of belonging.
Making sure your digital footprint encompasses both informative and community orientated information is key.
Whilst academics aren’t the only thing that make up the university experience, they are a large part of a student’s initial decision, especially when that decision encompasses moving to a different country!
Because of this, finding the right institution for their field of study is something that students value when choosing a university.
Our BridgeU students generally noted that having a globally recognised accreditation was an important factor when deciding where to study.
However, it is important to note that accreditation isn’t the only thing that affects a student’s decision. Other factors such as cost and location are more determining. This was the case for one of our students who initially wanted to study at a renowned university in London, but after looking closely at the costs, realised that another university in the city was more in line with their finances.
It’s important to note that looking for accreditation shouldn’t be conflated with research affiliations or reputation (e.g. Russell Group universities, the Ivy League, or N8).
One student from India noted that their chosen subject was better accredited in a regular university than a Russell Group, and highlighted the importance of looking around to find the best fit for their subject rather than following the status quo.
This was echoed by another student in Belgium, who emphasised not to look for the best university by accreditation or Russell Group, but finding one that fit them and their personality.
Depending on the region, some students will apply to universities that emulate their home. This was the case for a few of our students.
“I wanted a university that suited me. I am Greek, and wanted to study somewhere that was similar to my home country and near the sea. I wanted a place that wasn’t as crowded as the capital but not as small as a village.”
Others will make a beeline straight to the capital and want a bustling cityscape, as one student explained: “My first choice was London because there’s lots of opportunities there.”
Generally, students agreed that whilst wanting new experiences, they didn’t want to draw too far from the landscape of their home.
However, it’s important to note that students are also increasingly looking for the flexibility of degree formats, whether that be hybrid or online. One example from our panel is that virtual university offerings became key in their first semester due to COVID-19 delaying flights and visas.
Not all students want to move across the world for their education, and emerging trends from our localised reports predict how this differs from region to region.
For example, in Bridgeu’s localised Asia report, one predicted trend since the reopening of China’s borders is seeing students increasingly choose to stay within the region. Offering a flexible degree could appeal to individuals who do want an international education without physically uprooting themselves.
Cultural identity is something that is undeniably important when it comes to feeling a sense of belonging. For those that have moved to a different country to study, it can be difficult adjusting from being part of the status quo to a minority.
Our students noted feelings of isolation, timidness and reservation when they first arrived at their campus.
International students who went on the study in the USA also stated they felt an acute culture shock as they began settling into their new university state.
For the majority, they are completely away from family, friends, and everything they’ve known for the first time. Their university campus will become their home away from home for the duration of their study, which will require additional support from higher education facilities.
International students in our panel valued the importance that their university placed on supporting them with their mental health as they adjust to their new home.
And whilst the majority of the students in our panel acknowledged that universities had good branches of support for them, cultural support was an area that could be improved. One student highlighted that they created their own cultural society because the support they required was lacking when they first joined their university.
It is important that culturally safe spaces are provided, especially in the first few months as students become accustomed to the university and country.
Student union clubs and societies were also a pivotal part of integrating into university life for BridgeU students. In general, all students were very keen to get involved in the universities extracurricular offerings, so it’s important to have a variety at your higher ed institution.
Many stated that joining in these activities was a great way to meet like minded people, make friends and find new hobbies: “It’s about creating a home away from home for international students,” said one student, “and providing an educational environment for local students.”
But it’s vital that universities don’t forget that international students need academic support too.
Our students noted that English conversational workshops, ambassador programmes and peer guides were useful, and gave them opportunities to connect with others in similar positions.
We also found that some students who didn’t study the IB before going to university felt a bigger shift in learning styles from school to university.
Therefore it’s important that universities ensure equity between students, no matter what curriculum they studied. This may mean offering more support academically to students who need it.
No matter which curriculum or school they came from, all students observed that having international student events and support made it much easier to get to know other students, shed a little of their reservations, and plunge into university life.
Some students coming from an international study background (especially those who have attended smaller international schools) are used to forging closer relationships with teachers and counsellors in school, which is something that continues being held of value when coming to university.
One member of our student panel stated that one factor for choosing their university was the smaller size of the institution, as this would allow for more meaningful relationships to be created with the university and its staff.
This rhetoric was echoed across the board, with a lot of students highlighting how important it was in their studies to forge an understanding of who their lectures and teachers are.
Creating a sense of home away from home is important. It’s vital that universities work on methods to create amicable relationships outside the lecture room, whether that be through the global office, international admissions teams or global lounges.
In conclusion, there are many factors that influence international students' decision making when it comes to higher education. Whilst many universities have rode on the wave of reputation, this is not enough. Rather, enrolment strategies need to be tailored to students needs, as this will ultimately play a big part in the deciding factor of where they decide to study.
If you’d like to learn more about participating in one of our admissions bootcamps or events around the world, click below to speak to our University Partnerships Team.
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