Where are you? The importance of location in international recruiting

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Both student surveys and the experience of international recruiters bear out the idea that location is an important factor in student decision making for study abroad
  • Whether you are in a major city or a small town, it is important to make room in your marketing effort for key points about climate, culture, recreation opportunities, and other location features
  • The following article features examples and insights from destination marketing strategies in Canada, Japan, the UK, New Zealand, and Spain

“Location, location, location” is one of the most famous idioms among realtors because it underlines the great extent to which a property’s desirability is tied to where it is. Which side of the street, near which stores, by what river, by which park, near what transit…the list goes on.

The turn of phrase extends beyond real estate to schools and universities. Prospective students don’t imagine their study experience as just sitting in classrooms and libraries and wandering the campus. International students in particular want to go somewhere, and they look carefully at the town, city, climate, and cultural and recreational opportunities attached to the schools they are considering.

Leigh Gauthier, acting director of recruitment and admissions at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, notes that “When you’re uprooting yourself and looking to invest two-plus years in a new location, you want to make sure you know that it’s going to be a fit for who you are, and what you’re looking for in a city.”

Best cities rankings

The importance of location is reflected in the fact that Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), which is known for its global and regional university rankings, also produces an annual index specifically devoted to the best cities in the world in which to study. This year, Paris tops the list, as it has done for four consecutive years. The Top 10 cities in 2016 according to QS are (in order) Paris, Melbourne, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Singapore, Montreal, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Seoul.

QS considers a number of factors in its ranking, and these fall under the broad categories of university rankings, student mix, desirability, employer activity, and affordability. The score a city receives on each measure is published as part of the QS index, so students can consider the rankings according to the factors that matter most to them.

How location can boost the attractiveness of a school

The Globe and Mail recently looked at how Canadian business schools are leveraging their location – and Canada’s generous post-graduation work rights for international students – to recruit students.

The Globe interviewed one student, Jean-Francois Sauger, whose decision to study MBA at the Schulich School of Business at York University was in part motivated by the fact that the school is in Toronto. On top of having already had a pleasant living experience in Toronto before choosing Schulich, Mr Sauger noted that the fact he would be offered a three-year work permit once he graduated from a two-year programme represents “a big advantage that Canada has over the US.” In this case, both Toronto and more broadly, Canada, factored into Mr Sauger’s choice of school.

In Vancouver, meanwhile, Laura Rojo, former director of market intelligence, recruitment and admissions at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, told the Globe and Mail that “the livability of the city, the diversity, the mild weather, the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and sport all year round is certainly something we highlight whenever we go abroad.” She noted that these factors are important competitive differentiators especially when students are choosing between different business schools in Canada.

Schools in Montreal gain an edge when students are interested studying in French, not to mention the fact that they are situated in such a cosmopolitan city. Federico Pasin, a HEC professor and director of international activities, notes that in webinars and at student fairs, Montreal “is a key element in the things we present to students.” He says that there is a growing segment of students from China who like Montreal in terms of career prospects, too, “because we speak French and they plan to work in Africa. For them, Africa is the next China and French would be a great asset.”

Cities investing in international education

On the other side of the world from Canada, schools in Kyoto, Japan, have also been attracting a growing number of international students. Daisaku Kadokawa, the city’s mayor and a former head of its municipal education board, is championing a mission to bring more foreign students to Kyoto, with a goal of enrolling 10,000 in the city’s institutions by 2017. Miki Tanikawa, writing for the New York Times, interviewed several students about Kyoto’s allure, and the students noted some of Kyoto’s advantages:

  • “Kyoto is a city and a village at the same time”;
  • “You can ride the bicycle and you literally hit the mountains in 20 minutes”;
  • “Tokyo is so huge … Kyoto is a more manageable city … not too loud, not too urban”;
  • “This is where I feel close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan.”

Mr Tanikawa added that on top of its historical and cultural richness, “Kyoto and its neighbouring cities Osaka and Kobe together make up the second-largest economic hub in Japan, after Tokyo.” To encourage more foreign students to choose Kyoto, “the city has introduced partial subsidies for international student health insurance [and] facilitated housing and offered to serve as guarantor.”

Mr Kadokawa is on the money in realising the huge impact that international students can have on a city’s vibrancy – and economy. The 2015 Class of 2020 Magazine used the examples of London and Amsterdam to make the point:

  • “In London, during the 2013/14 academic year, the net economic benefit [of international students] to the economy was €2.3. billion, of which €100 million alone was contributed by families and visitors [of those students] equating to 3,200 jobs created/supported.
  • In Amsterdam, each 1,000 international students create 290 jobs and bring €10 million per annum in receipts for taxes, tuition, accommodation, living, entertainment, travel, experience, and additional revenues generated from visits by friends and relatives.”

Don’t take location for granted

When you work at a university its location can seem all-too-obvious, both geographically (e.g., it’s in Spain, near fantastic beaches) and culturally (e.g., dance carnivals, flamenco). But students don’t know everything you know, especially when they’re thousands of miles away.

Maurits van Rooijen, rector and chief executive at the London School of Business and Finance, wrote in University World News recently about the danger of taking location for granted. He recalled a time many years ago when he took up a position at the University of Westminster and began attending recruitment fairs abroad as part of his job. He said of the enquiries he received while at these fairs:

“Almost all started with the same question: how far is Westminster from London? It made me realise we should not overestimate global knowledge about UK geography. We sensibly introduced the strap line ‘education at the heart of London.’”

When Mr van Rooijen spoke of his experience to Australian educators, they told him that the first question they always received was “How far is your university to the beach?” And accordingly, those educators made sure to include beaches in their promotional materials. Mr van Rooijen wrote, “The real lesson was: students are not just looking at the institution, they are equally interested in the lifestyle they offer. And quite rightly so.”

If you can leverage location, do

The point is, international students do care about where they will study – not just what they will study. Especially if your school or university isn’t highly ranked or is relatively unknown, using location-based selling points can be a major boost for recruitment efforts. One of the best examples we have seen of destination marketing is the City of Málaga, Spain. Sara Quintero Quesada, who as Executive Promoter of Language Tourism for the City of Málaga works to promote the student travel sector, told ICEF Monitor:

“We just try to show everything we have here – our weather, gastronomy, nature, sports. It’s also a cultural city with monuments and more than 30 museums. Málaga can present itself as a city full of life at any time of the day with numerous activities and events throughout the year such as Holy Week, the Spanish Film Festival, the Fair of Málaga, etc.”

Ms Quintero focuses much of her efforts online, where she seeks to increase interactions with both prospective and current students. On the city’s website, users are presented with numerous drop-down menus containing events, educational audio guides, 360º photos, and virtual walking tours.

New Zealand has also developed a notable destination marketing-based campaign. We’ve embedded the video here for your viewing enjoyment and to inspire your own ideas about how to think about what makes your school’s location unique and compelling.



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