Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
7th Nov 2013

How Estonia established its international education brand

In a previous post, we discussed what can be done at the national level – particularly via harmonised policy and other coordinated efforts – to establish an effective national recruitment strategy. Today, ICEF Monitor takes an in-depth look at how Estonia – often called "Europe’s trendy Baltic Tiger" – has successfully launched its national international education strategy, and highlights valuable insights for other small markets.

International students on the rise

Nestled in Northern Europe, the Republic of Estonia was home to approximately 1.3 million people in 2010, according to the OECD. After years of Soviet occupation, the country regained its independence in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004. The University of Tartu, Estonia University education has been offered in Estonia since 1632. Here are few facts about studying there today:

  • In 2010/11, there were nine universities in Estonia and 22 professional higher education institutions.
  • In 2012, the total number of people studying at Estonian tertiary institutions was almost 65,000, including approximately 3,000 doctoral students.
  • In the academic year 2014/15, Estonian universities will offer more than 100 recognised degree programmes in English.

But perhaps one of the most striking facts about the Estonian market is the significant increase in the number of international students coming to study in the country. It’s something Eero Loonurm, Head of Communications for Estonia’s Archimedes Foundation, recently discussed at the 2013 EAIE Conference in Istanbul. During a presentation on “How to use country branding to strengthen international marketing and recruitment”, Mr Loonurm explained that the number of international degree students in Estonia has more than doubled from around 900 in 2008/09 to around 1900 – from over 80 countries – in 2012/13. As reported in the Statistical Yearbook, approximately 1,500 (the majority of Estonia’s international students in 2012/13) came from Europe and approximately 300 came from Asia.

Cooperation is key

So why are more international students coming to Estonia? According to Mr Loonurm, Estonian universities initially carried out separate marketing activities, even though “they were all doing the same things.” That began to change in the mid-2000s with the establishment of Estonia’s Higher Education Internationalisation Strategy 2006–2015. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that things really kicked in with the launch of a related marketing campaign: Study in Estonia. Students in front of the library of Tallinn University of Technology Financed by the European Social Fund and coordinated by the Archimedes Foundation under the DoRa (Developing Doctoral Studies and Internationalisation) programme, Study in Estonia takes a coordinated approach to promoting Estonian education abroad and enhancing the visibility of Estonia as an attractive study destination for international students. As ICEF Monitor has previously observed:

“Explicit and coordinated national organisations or initiatives like these can ensure that the desired features of a country’s higher education system are communicated in as compelling and clear a way as possible.”

Under the Study in Estonia umbrella, seven Estonian universities with degree programmes in English have teamed up to promote the Estonian brand, visiting embassies and doing industry events together, among other activities. But Study in Estonia also counts foreign embassies (e.g., Estonian Embassy in Moscow); Estonian government ministries (e.g., Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Education and Research); commercial networks; and non-profit organisations among its valued partners. Mr Loonurm has said that this partnership and cooperation is essential. The Estonian government in particular takes care of the campaign’s overall online activities and social media channels – such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube – and all public relations activities.

Estonia’s top priority targets

The Estonian approach to attracting international students is not only coordinated, it is also strategic. It involves identifying the top markets with the most potential to send students to Estonia and concentrating on these: Finland, Russia, Latvia, Turkey, and China. Mr Loonurm has explained that these markets were chosen because of their economic strength, openness, and cultural similarities to Estonia, as well as their ties to the country: embassy connections, alumni relations, and numbers of current and returning exchange students. This can be a wise move. Targeting students from specific countries allows promotional efforts to be more tailored to their needs and circumstances, and thus more appealing. Figures from 2010/11 suggest that Estonia’s targeted approach is working. During that period, 44% of international degree students in Estonia came from Finland, 8% from Latvia, 8% from Russia, and 5% from China. As part of its targeted approach, Estonia also identifies where it excels in the International Student Barometer and promotes those rankings. For example, the Study in Estonia website advertises that 90% of international students are satisfied with their living standards in Estonia, a figure that is above the European average of 86%.

Promoting a safe, stable, wired Estonia

Indeed, that quality of life is just one of the national strengths – inherent national factors that can be used to draw overseas students – emphasised in Estonia’s branding. Study in Estonia’s marketing materials, for example, stress that the country is a safe and stable Nordic society with relatively low tuition and living costs. But Estonia is also developing and capitalising on its niche areas of specialty to help it stand out from the fray. As the OECD noted in its publication Education at a Glance: “Estonia is well known for being the most wired and technologically advanced country in Europe.” Estonia managed to avoid the “digital divide” by rolling out a national programme in the 1990s that connected all schools to the Internet and by building a huge network of innovative teachers, creating a huge potential in the combination of new technology and education. As Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonia’s Minister for Education and Research, explained in an article published earlier this year:

“I realise it is 1000 times smaller than China, but Estonia can figure as a kind of ‘experiment’ to explore the possibilities of ICT. The costs of making a mistake are relatively small.”

Estonia’s country branding efforts accordingly emphasise its high level of digital literacy, ubiquitous Internet access, e-government, large numbers of ICT start-ups, and international cachet as the birthplace of Skype. The country's impressive technical infrastructure continues to fuel the adoption of new technologies and new innovations today. "In the early 1990s, the government and the private sector collaborated to build a country-wide secure network called X-Road," recalls Märt Aro, head of international operations at DreamApply, an Estonian application developer. "All systems that need to securely exchange data in Estonia can now be linked to X-Road. This makes the cost of buying software development in from the private sector much less expensive and allows modern ideas to foster. For example, to link the DreamApply online admissions platform with the Estonian National Student Admission system we needed to build only one integration with X-Road. All universities receive the data to their student information systems (SIS) through the same channel. In many countries, building a similar system would have meant direct integration with each university's SIS, which would have made the setup time and cost much greater."

Successes and challenges

There are many signs that Estonia’s national recruitment strategy is proving to be a success. By banding together, Estonian universities have made it easier for students to work in Estonia, thereby strengthening its international appeal. As Mr Loonurm explained:

“Universities were able to push legislation changes through because they showed their will and their commitment in internationalisation … It used to be that when students graduated, they had to leave the country for a work visa. Now all students can stay for six months after graduation to look for work, which is a good benefit for the state.”

However, there have been some occasional communications challenges, resulting from staff turnover at the government level. Nevertheless, Estonia’s ability to double its foreign student population during the global economic downturn suggests the country is on track, and will reach the government’s goal of enrolling 2,000 international students by 2015.

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