At the start of June, thoughts start turning to long summer evenings and holidays to come. But as we head for the pub garden, we should spare a thought for students heading to the exam hall. The pressure is particularly palpable for those students beginning their A-levels, Baccalaureates or Highers. For those sitting on University offers, their performance over the next few weeks will decide where they spend the next three years of their lives.
Universities put time, effort and money into recruiting these students, particularly those from overseas who pay significant fees. The number of international students attending UK universities is projected to grow by 126,000 to more than 550,000 over the next decade, so getting the marketing offer right is critical for universities who want a share in that growth (British Council ‘The Future of the World’s Mobile Students to 2024’). We wondered what factors really sway these students to choose one institution over another.
We set up a social listening monitor (Crimson Hexagon) and listened-in on the social media conversations of international students over a one year period. We collated conversations from Twitter, Facebook and a number of other channels where these people were discussing their university choice. We then grouped those conversations according to the major issue under discussion. The results were interesting.
University reputation and the perceived value of specific courses were the most prevalent influences on international student decision making (featuring in 42% of social posts). Concerns around costs, particularly tuition fees, featured in 25% of conversations. But, perhaps surprisingly, the social and physical environment was also hugely important, featuring in 21% of conversations. Students were involved in widespread discussions about the way their halls of residence could enhance, or set back, their ability to make new friends.
So what are the implications?
For Universities, reputation, league table results and course quality remain significant. But the softer side of university life is clearly important too. This presents a huge opportunity for student accommodation providers. Figures recently presented by Unipol identify more than half a million purpose built student accommodation beds in the UK.(LD Student Housing Conference, 18 May 2016) These units accommodate more students than there are people in Liverpool.(Liverpool Council Key Statistics and Data) They are part of a growing phenomenon as universities outsource non-core business to focus on the things they do best; research and teaching.
If student accommodation providers can package the ‘student experience’ in the right way, then they have a great offer not just for student customers but for universities too. With significant funding on the line, good accommodation providers can sell themselves as partners to universities by showcasing their value as a magnet for international students. With the student experience set to become even more important, through the emerging Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the financial benefits to a university of good accommodation look set to grow still further.(TEF) Universities that perform well in the TEF look set to get flexibility to increase their fees. Those that don’t, won’t.
Ultimately, providing an environment which appeals to international students influences university choice. Student accommodation providers would do well to highlight that they can provide an environment where international students are able to make new friends and have an enhanced ‘student experience’.