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Words from our CTO: A deep dive into ways to make international students feel welcome

The international recruitment challenge

We’re already seeing that 2024 is the year of significant change in the higher education sector when it comes to international recruitment.

From Brexit to policy changes and those Sunday Times articles, it’s no surprise that we’ve been seeing an effect on how appealing it is to study in the UK. According to Enroly, deposits from international students are down 37% compared to last year and when our sector is currently relying on a fifth of total income from non-EU students’ tuition fees, those are some troubling numbers.* Trust in UK HEIs is seemingly at an all-time low and the welcoming and friendly feeling that international students once had towards the UK is understandably not what it once was, so, where do we go from here?

Can digital help?

Chatting with our university partners across the sector, it’s great to see that digital transformation has emerged as a core function of recruitment operations. No longer a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic, it’s business critical to have an efficient, modern techstack.

With the ability to connect in person through open days and campus tours so abruptly removed from the recruitment toolkit, there was a wave of ‘quick win’ tours and events being hosted online but as we approach our fifth UG cycle since COVID first hit, are these still fit for purpose for today’s student?

For international recruitment to return to a position of sustainable, overall growth for the sector, it’s important to look at ways to increase the attractiveness of the UK’s position on the global HE stage, as well as the awareness and appeal of individual institutions. QS Recruitment Edge report** shows that 78% of international students interested in studying in the UK say that a welcoming environment is the most important factor when choosing a town or city.

But communicating that feeling of a welcoming environment is not an easy thing to do online. For obvious reasons, international students need to be engaged through a stellar online experience, and for many across the sector, this is one of their ‘wobbliest plates’.

Not for all universities; Paul Ferguson from Queen’s University Belfast describes how they are using Vepple as their “main gateway for international students to experience campus from the comfort of their homes. As they can’t physically be here, Vepple recreates the atmosphere seamlessly, offering an immersive journey through our stunning buildings and campus life. Vepple continues to be the driving force behind successful conversions to leads”.

The Student Room’s 2023 International Student Survey*** suggests that 68% of respondents want UK universities to include a virtual tour of campus in their virtual open days and 62% want a virtual accommodation tour. This marries with our own findings and if you put yourself in the shoes of an international student, it’s easy to see why. It’s scary enough going to university for the first time but to be doing it in another country, with a different culture makes that decision even bigger.

While rankings and course information are essential qualifiers, the gap lies in understanding the living environment, the vibe of the city or local area, and whether they will feel as though they belong. For any student, it is generally more reassuring to have looked around where you’ll live, where you need to go on campus, and what the area is like. However, when you’re considering universities a flight away, that’s not always possible (and even when it is, having a great online experience might help to inform where you choose to visit).

What we can learn from the data

Our virtual experience platform, Vepple, steps into this void by delivering an immersive online experience that helps to alleviate any concerns and anxieties that accompany such a significant and life-changing decision.

When a prospective student visits a Vepple-powered experience, they can personalise the content they see based on what type of student they are, what topics they’re most interested in, and what stage they are at in their decision-making journey.

Over the last six months**** , nearly 35% of traffic to all Vepple platforms has come from outside of the UK.

The top markets within this period included India, the US (may in part be users from China accessing via VPN), Nigeria, Pakistan and China. Students from Nigeria are proving to be the most engaged with an average engagement rate of 82.39% (vs UK 79.67%), an average session duration 05:58 (vs UK 04:57) and viewing 6.8 pages of content per session too. A promising sign given most reports would suggest that the volatility of the Nigerian market is here to stay.

The most popular content for international students are 360s of accommodation and guided tours – a curation of content around a given topic supported by interactive maps and student ambassadors – this content serves as an excellent tool for providing students with authentic and relatable perspectives that offer a first-hand view of campus life. As an example, we’ve seen universities touch on how speciality supermarkets can give international students a taste of home, both literally and emotionally. Likewise, signposting to places of worship and hairdressers that are particularly good for Black hair is a way to signify that your local area is an inclusive one. We have recently launched new social embeds for TikTok and Instagram; we are excited to see what impact these will have on engagement times and sentiment. They provide universities with a way of housing authentic, student-generated content in a contextual, user experience that feels ‘real’ and well-considered.

By humanising the digital experience in this way, Vepple helps to amplify the voice of students who share their personal connections to specific spaces. It’s about bringing that authentic day in the life tour alongside buildings and campus facilities, showing geographically how it all fits together to give a sense of space and place. We know from our own research with Cosmos***** that this is key, with 100% of prospective students surveyed considering it to be important. This not only reduces anxiety around belonging by addressing concerns about accommodation, social life, and local amenities but it builds a sense of welcoming by connecting the user to students who are sharing their genuine thoughts on student life.

Not only do we see great engagement from international students on the platform but we also see that they’re happier than their domestic counterparts to be part of your ongoing communications. They want to hear from you. Vepple can optionally facilitate the capture of leads and the numbers speak for themselves.

Looking at the data for two of our university partners, we can see a higher proportion of international students willing to share their personal data and give consent to marketing.

University% of leads giving marketing consent
Example A70% – international44.2% – UK
Example B48% – international20.3% – UK

Clearly, international students want to hear from you with relevant content and virtual experiences are a fantastic way of engaging them when you do.

Seeing the problem from both sides

Our Product Manager, Esther, recently studied in the UK as a Postgraduate student from Uganda (top of her class in her Masters!) – Esther’s perspective is incredibly valuable for us as a team as we continue to build out the platform and add new features to help support students in their decision making, as well as support our university partners to reach their recruitment goals.

I talked to Esther about her experience of researching universities from overseas – here’s what she had to say:

“Sorting out my Masters as an international student was a roller coaster and I found the accommodation options really difficult in particular. The information is just not there and when it is, it’s not explained properly. I had no idea what an ‘en suite’ was! I didn’t have pictures, I didn’t have guidance on what would be the best accommodation to choose for postgraduate and it was really tricky. I would have loved to see 360 photographs of what the rooms would actually look like and how I would find my way from there to the campus. I also didn’t know about the local area well enough and that made my initial transition to the UK quite stressful and isolating.

Things like transportation and the practicalities were a bit difficult, honestly. We don’t have trains back home so when I was leaving the airport by myself, I just didn’t know how to get around.

I love working on Vepple because I can see how helpful it is for international students like myself to view content in an immersive, experiential way that covers so much more than just what I’ll be studying on my course. You’re not there physically, but you can see what you need to see so much more easily through Vepple.

I’m really glad I chose to study in the UK and I’m excited to be helping other international students make their decisions to study here too”.

Based on Esther’s experience, to consistently draw in international students, we must refine our approach to effectively convey the nuances of studying in the UK so that they perceive it to be an exceptionally welcoming destination. Because let’s face it, there are plenty of other countries where they could choose to study instead.

To summarise

It saddens me to see what’s happening when it comes to how the UK is positioning itself on the world stage. My kids are growing up in a society where generally speaking people are more able to be themselves than they were, even 20 years ago and yet, as things currently stand, it strikes me that if they choose to go to university, they may well have a less diverse experience than I was lucky enough to have. What a backwards step.

Naturally, policymakers play a massive part in making sure that this doesn’t become a reality but universities are incredible organisations that help millions of people make better lives for themselves and others and this should not be forgotten. It’s imperative that we collectively work together to rebuild trust and better communicate that UK universities genuinely represent an amazing option for international students to work, rest and play.

If you’d like to talk about how your university could use Vepple to support international recruitment get in touch.

Sources

Financial Times – UK universities risk falling into deficit as foreign student numbers fall

** QS recruitment edge report 2023 – 62,000 prospective student responses

*** TSR Insight (part of The Student Room), International Student Survey. Base: 289 responses between 24th February – 6th March 2023.

**** Data from all active instances, 180,000+ users. 8th August 2023 to 7th Feb 2024

***** What prospective students want from a Virtual Experience, Cosmos 2020

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