A report for Marketing.ie by Padraic Regan and Sarah Browne
The Irish Government recently published its strategy to increase the value of the international education sector by 33 per cent to €2.1 billion (176,000 students) by 2020, but what is the role of marketing in achieving this target? Whether one takes Nelson Mandela’s view that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world, or Einstein’s somewhat more eclectic approach that it is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school, for the island of saints and scholars, it holds a cherished place.
The international education strategy for Ireland 2016-2020 claims that “extensive progress” has been made in its promotion and marketing. It presents Ireland as a “safe, English speaking country, with internationally recognised qualifications [and] supportive learning environments”. While these are core components of Ireland’s education offering, current marketing efforts by third level institutions may not be speaking to the deep-rooted desire of overseas students for a “total student experience” to which research studies have alluded.
You might have the likes of new cultural experiences and personal growth opportunities. Even the “Seven reasons to study in Ireland” marketing message that was introduced in 2012, is more future-benefit orientated (i.e. employability, future career potential and the stay back option for students), yet says little or nothing about the actual educational experience and journey itself. Experts argue that decisions about educational choices are considered high- involvement and high-risk, involving major personal and/or economic sacrifices.
Not surprisingly, mounting research also shows that students today are more critical and analytical in their choice of educational institution and that an intricate web of factors is at play in overseas students’ decision-making processes. Many may assume that the first decision for international students is to which institution they should apply. Interestingly, studies reveal that in fact the choice of host country variables supersedes that of institution.
Students studying abroad are seeking more than just an educational offering, but also enriching cultural experiences that give them a chance to experience different societies and cultures, expand their world view, and for personal growth and development.
‘Push or pull’ marketing?
From a marketing standpoint, exploiting so-called “pull factors” – those that make the host country attractive to international students – are as important as marketing the educational institutes themselves. In Ireland, we have some ‘pull-factors’ at our disposal for attracting international students. For example, there is our reputation for high-quality educational institutes, our unique culture and heritage, young and vibrant cities, beautiful landscapes, and, no doubt, the proverbial craic that most students crave.
But there are other factors which deter overseas students from selecting Ireland. Costs such as living expenses and accommodation are obstacles. Unfortunately, the current rent crisis means Ireland does not fare well when it comes to marketing ourselves to international students. In a survey by the Erasmus Student Network of 8,000 students across 600 European colleges, Ireland topped the list of 30 countries when it came to rents being higher than student expectations, with 77 per cent of foreign students in Ireland finding accommodation costs higher than expected, compared to an average of 43 per cent across all countries.
Brexit and its implications
Commentators are suggesting both challenges and opportunities for Irish educational institutes in the fall-out from Brexit. Visa restrictions and immigration regulation in host countries can be obstacles for attracting international students. The HEA report on Brexit and Irish higher education emphasises that as well as sharing a common language, Ireland and the UK share a common academic and research culture and environment.
That includes curriculum structure, pedagogya and programme accreditation. Sizeable opportunities exist for Ireland to capture some of the international student cohort who would, before Brexit, have been attracted to the UK higher education system. As the largest English-speaking nation within the EU, marketing efforts must focus on positioning Ireland as an attractive magnet for higher education and research talent and on developing new partnerships with other EU higher education institutions as well as appealing to large EU flagship research projects to Ireland.
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But to do this, a significant boost in investment in higher education and research is recommended by the HEA in order to send a strong message that “Ireland is back in business after a decade of austerity”. The report also points to some notable challenges for Irish higher education post-Brexit, namely the difficulty of attracting students from the UK.
Currently, UK, including students from Northern Ireland, students make up 1.3 per cent of full-time students studying in Ireland – 2,339 students. Any ambitions to increase the number will be made much more difficult post-Brexit. As non-EU students, they would not be eligible for the EU fees level under current rules unless the HEA negotiates a new arrangement or agreement regarding the fee status of Northern Irish or students from the rest of the UK.
So how can cutting edge marketing practice help to exploit these opportunities, and achieve the government’s ambitious targets? We outline three key success factors for marketing to international students that collectively enable a better understanding of students’ motivations, concerns, expectations, and decision-making, which we believe will help Ireland win in this growing, dynamic and lucrative sector.
1 Move beyond simple geographic segmentation to cultivate student intelligence.
A detailed student psychographic profiling approach to market segmentation, to identify segments that share common values, decision-making processes, motivations and ambitions, will be far more effective than simply grouping prospective students by nationality. To so this, you need data and insight.
Investment in more integrated technologies and customer engagement platforms such as customer relationship management, application processing systems and performance reporting, will reap significant benefits for gathering data that can assist in attracting, engaging and communicating with the right students at the right time, and beyond the initial enrolment, right through to graduation and alumni engagement.
2 Go to where the students are based
International students use social media at multiple stages of their decision journey. According to a global survey carried out by Hobsons Solutions, 71 per cent of prospective students use social media when researching universities, half of them use it to find information before making an enquiry and 26 per cent use social media when making an application.
If this is where students are spending their time seeking out information, then one must question the relevance of travelling thousands of miles to stand at a recruitment and career fair, handing out flyers. Social media as the channel to engage and interact with prospective students must be adopted.
3 Address the students’ concerns for a positive experience
Leaving your relatives and friends behind to study abroad in a new country and culture is a leap into the unknown. Make the jump a little easier for students by alleviating their main concerns – where possible. Cost and social integration challenges feature highly on many international student surveys- a staggering 80 per cent of students cited cost of course fees as a major concern.
Many others felt that host university support services for integration fell short of their expectations. The report indicates that offering services such as top-up grants, accommodation assistance, ‘buddy’ programmes, orientation weeks, and even cultural adaptation courses much appreciated by students, can help alleviate their main concerns and contribute to an overall positive student experience.
Padraic Regan is assistant professor in international strategic management at Trinity College Dublin (TCD); you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Browne is assistant professor of marketing and strategy at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) business school; you can email her at email@example.com