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Posted by Nat Walker on 20 October 2016

Learn how a digital strategy can help your university post-Brexit

Over the last few decades the internationalisation of UK universities has been huge, demonstrated by the fact that in 2014-15 71% of full-time master's level students, and more than half of PhD students in the UK came from overseas.  This has brought significant economic benefits with international students contributing £14bn a year to the UK economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs across the UK.

What will happen post Brexit, in terms of the extent to which universities can continue to recruit students from outside of the UK, still remains to be seen but there is unity in the view that international students are key to the future growth of UK universities - not just from a financial contribution, but also from an intellectual, cultural and research development perspective.  

Steps therefore need to be taken to ensure the UK continues to be successful in attracting and retaining international talent.  Prior to the referendum many universities will have actively targeted international students as part of their marketing strategy.  Now, more than ever universities need to find effective ways of actively engaging with prospective student audiences abroad in order to communicate the important message that UK universities still actively welcome international students.  

And a key aspect of successfully communicating this message is the adoption of a strategic digital marketing approach.  So in this blog post I'm going to outline 5 ways in which universities can use digital marketing to effectively communicate to international students exactly why they should still choose to study at their institution.

Higher Education in a Post-Brexit World

The UK higher education sector is experiencing a period of considerable uncertainty following the referendum, but there has been some encouraging news recently with the announcement that EU student funding in the UK will remain the same in 2017. Meaning that EU students applying to study at English universities from autumn 2017 will continue to pay the same fees as domestic undergraduates and will remain eligible for the same loans and grants.  

Any longer term changes are still unclear at this point - and whilst EU students look to be unaffected for the time being, how the intake of international students by UK universities will change following the referendum is still unknown.  

What we do know is that there has been widespread criticism within the universities community of the recent Government announcement by Home Secretary Amber Rudd of a proposed drive to reduce the flow of overseas students from outside Europe. Plans being discussed include a move to introduce a multi-tiered student visa system that would tie the post study student's right to work, go on to post-study jobs etc. to the quality of the course and the university involved. The strong opposition to this announcement very much signals that for UK universities it's business as usual in terms of international recruitment.

The Need to Engage Closer with International Student Audiences

So how are international students feeling about Brexit? Well, a recent study by student recruitment consultancy Hobsons would suggest that there's considerable uncertainty amongst this audience group with findings showing that;

  • 30% of international students said following Brexit they wouldn't be likely to come to the UK for study
  • 6% said they would definitely not choose Britain as a study destination as a result of the EU referendum.

When asked for alternative study destinations a range of answers were given including Canada, Germany, Australia and America. Making it evident that Brexit has given competitor countries to the UK higher education market a strong boost.  

And when quizzed about what could be done to address the concerns they now had over applying to UK universities the responses focused on the need for reassurance over factors such as the admissions process, volatility of the exchange rate, and reassurances that their stay wouldn't be stressful.

There is therefore an urgent need for UK universities to carefully consider and evaluate how they are communicating with prospective international students, and to make sure their digital presence (often the first touch point any prospective student will have), is providing the best possible experience, and fulfilling its key role of generating admission enquiries. 

5 Digital Marketing Tips for Universities to Attract International Students

To help your university improve its digital experience for prospective international students we've put together our top 5 recommendations - outlining exactly how you can start taking advantage of digital tools to engage better with your international audience;

1. Review and Improve Your Website Content

How students behave when they are selecting universities is changing and international students are no different, they now gather information from a wide variety of online sources such as social media, blogs, student forum, videos, virtual tours etc.

When it comes to your own website you need to carefully consider the experience which a non UK based website visitor will enjoy (or not!) when they first visit your website.

Firstly, we recommend reviewing the content which you include on your website for your international audience - what information is important to somebody moving to the UK to study? This content may include;

  • Visa information
  • Details on your International Office
  • Societies and groups for international students
  • University accommodation / facilities
  • General local area information

Consider what questions a potential international student has about attending your university following Brexit - what information are they likely to be looking for? What concerns can you answer? An addition of a regularly updated FAQ area will help address a number of their concerns, and also demonstrate that you are taking a proactive approach and that your doors are very much still open to international students.

What are your unique selling points?

It's also important to consider how you can make your university stand out, even more so now with the fact that potential students will be directly comparing you with a number of different universities in different countries - what makes you unique?

Start at a country level and promote the reasons why the UK is still a great place for international students to study, highlight local and regional attractions, and start to paint a picture of what the life of an international student is like when studying at your institution.  Then consider exactly why your university should be chosen over a neighbouring rival - what makes your university different?

  • Do you have first class facilities? 
  • Do you have a strong research reputation in particular subjects?
  • Are you award winning? 
  • Do you have a diverse student population? 

We recommend carrying out research amongst your current international student population to find out exactly what factors influenced their selection decision and to start building the results of that research into the online content which you create. 

How well are you communicating your content?

A further element to improving the experience which your site delivers is to consider how well you are communicating this content? What translation options do you provide?  Auto-translating tools are great but they aren't a substitute for specially translated content. Taking the effort to translate your content also offers a happy side-effect of improving your SEO.  A word of warning though, if you make the decision to provide translated content then allow visitors to choose the language they view the site on - making assumptions about their chosen language can be annoying to users so don't make decisions for them! 

2. Take a Strategic Approach to Social Media 

The importance of social media as part of a university's student recruitment strategy is steadily growing (and if you want to delve deeper into this topic then take a read of our recent blog), and this is particularly true for your international audience who will be exploring a wide range of information sources in order to inform their selection decision. 

When using social media as an international student recruitment tool you need to research what channels your audience in different countries are actively interacting with, and adapt your social media strategy on a country / region specific basis. For example, many of the more popular social networks are banned in China so if the Chinese market is a key priority for your university then consider alternative channels such as Qzone, WeChat and Weibo.

Consider how you can use social media to build communities of prospective, current and alumni students, and provide easy ways for potential students to gather the information they need. A key benefit of a social media strategy is user generated content which may provide the 'unfiltered' view that your international audience is looking for as part of their decision process.

3. Use Current or Alumni International Students as Ambassadors for your University

It's evident from the Hobsons study that prospective international students are looking for reassurance that the UK is the right place for them to study.  Therefore, we recommend utilising your current international students or alumni as voices about what life is really like at your university as an international student.

A student or graduate who has experience of being an international student at your university will be a much more reliable and trustworthy information source to prospective students. They have first hand experience of what it's like to move to a completely different country to study and how to adapt to university life.

They can highlight all of the positive sides of their experience as well as helping prospects prepare for the more difficult aspects of being an international student. One of the easiest ways to make these ambassadors accessible to prospective students is to utilise social networks such as Facebook. By creating a Facebook group for prospective international students you can both post information relevant to them, and help them to get in touch with the people who can best answer their questions.

Another method of sharing this ambassador content online is through YouTube video content - we recommend building up a bank of video diaries created by current international students and promoting these on other social channels for prospective students to find.

Selecting a university so far away from home can be a really stressful situation, so make it as easy as possible for your international audience by giving them a direct view into what the life of an international student at your university is like.

4. Provide a Virtual Welcome to your University

One of the overriding feelings that anyone moving into a new environment has is a fear of the unknown. Therefore, the more content you share online about exactly what your university can offer, the better.

Providing a virtual tour of the university is one way to achieve this. Technology now allows a prospective student to explore a university campus at 360-degree angles as if they were actually on the campus grounds, allowing your university to recreate the experience which the student would have if attended a campus open day, as doing this in person is impractical for the majority of international students.

It's worth remembering that the student will often not be the sole decision maker in choosing a university, he/she will involve key influencers such as their parents, family and friends. By providing virtual tours, prospects (and their influencers), can get a real feel for what your university offers, without relying on assumptions.

5. Keep it Personal and Accessible

This is really important when engaging with all students, but even more so for those moving thousands of miles from home - it could make all the difference to their decision if they feel that your international admissions team is easily approachable and that they can quickly get answers to any queries or concerns which they have.

You might consider organising web conferences using tools such as Google Hangouts or Skype in order to closely engage with prospective students and provide a safe and comfortable environment for them to ask any questions they have - both generally about the university, and more specific about post Brexit queries.

Interacting via social media can seem much less daunting for prospective students as it's a more informal environment for them to post questions, rather than completing a form on your university website. So, consider how you make your social channels as open to encouraging conversations as possible. You should also consider using polls to collect data about exactly what your prospects might be interested in so you can tailor your content in response to these findings. 

Conclusion

It's evident that the landscape for recruiting international students is changing, and what the full Brexit consequences will mean in terms of the UK Higher Education sector still very much remain to be seen. 

What is clear though is the fact that international students contribute a significant amount to the success of many UK universities, and also to the UK economy.  As such, universities need to ensure that in this time of confusion and uncertainty, that they're carefully considering how they use digital marketing to effectively communicate a welcoming message to their international audience - and most importantly that they use their digital tools to address the many concerns that prospective overseas students will be experiencing following the EU referendum results. 

If you're interested in keeping up to date with our digital marketing content focused on the higher education sector then please subscribe to our blog on the top of this page or download our FREE student recruitment eBook, for some tips and real life examples. 

And if your university requires any help with your international student recruitment strategy then please do get in touch, either by giving us a call on 0191 338 8090 or getting in touch with our team here.

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