Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
19th Jul 2016

Global survey highlights the importance of peer review and detailed insights for prospective students

A new study from QS, What Matters to International Students?, provides some interesting new insights on the types of information and information sources that students value most in decision making for study abroad. The report is based on findings from nearly 60 focus groups as well as 1,800 survey responses from prospective international students, a combined sample that all together spanned 15 cities and 11 countries. The two methodology cautions here are (1) that the sample sizes, on a per country or per city basis, are generally modest, and (2) the prospect pool was mainly oriented to master’s or doctoral studies. But there are some interesting findings arising that the survey team found to be quite consistent among prospective students, many of which build on observations from other recent research efforts. First and foremost among these is the importance of employability as both a motivation for study abroad as well as a significant factor in selecting an institution or school. "In the midst of the many different factors influencing prospective students, employability is the one overarching theme, uniting students across the globe," says the report. "This is often one of the key drivers underlying the decision to pursue further levels of study, and to do so abroad." "Employability" in this context is really a combination of factors, but it refers largely to students’ expectations or ambitions in terms of improving employment prospects, advancing in their careers, and/or boosting earning potential. The QS research team also found a number of other motivational factors to be common among prospective international students, including the following:

  • Quality of teaching. This refers mainly to student expectations or beliefs that they will find a superior quality of teaching abroad relative to their home countries. The researchers also found that many students were actively searching for detailed insights on the quality of teaching in programmes or academic departments they were considering, even to the point of following faculty research in the field or trying to sample the teaching experience by attending guest lectures.
  • Specialisation. Many students, and this may be particularly true in the QS study given its weighting toward prospective post-graduate students, were drawn to study abroad by an interest in more specialised programme options not available in their home countries. This idea extends to an expectation among many students that they would have more flexible and customisable study options abroad, and the option to tailor their programme to yield a distinct set of knowledge or skills.
  • Personal networks. There is an important social dimension to study abroad for many students that reflects in part their interest in acquiring international experience and being exposed to new cultures and new perspectives. But there is an employability aspect here as well in that students are also aiming to build professional networks across borders through study abroad.
  • Soft skills. Many respondents in the QS study also highlighted their interest in building advanced professional skills through study abroad, and were especially interested in boosting their interpersonal and leadership skills.

Diving for details

The QS study looked closely at how students use institutional rankings, and here again there is an employment connection in that the research team observed that students strongly associate rankings with employment prospects. The study also found that most students give greater weight to subject-specific tables as opposed to broader institutional rankings. Indeed, the researchers detected a strong interest among students for more “granular comparisons” comparing specific programmes and courses (as opposed to rankings just at the subject level). This is in turn contributing to the growing importance of peer reviews in decision making for study abroad, particularly those from current students or alumni of the specific programme the student is considering. Students are really looking for insights on teaching quality, reputation, and graduate outcomes. And, if institutional or even subject rankings are broad directional indicators in this respect, many are prepared to drill down further. As the report notes, "While many students associate rankings with quality of education, they also understand that rankings provide only a partial picture, to be supplemented by other sources." Picking up on the importance of peer review again, word of mouth recommendations or personal advice from family, friends, teachers, or other students, remain influential sources of information for prospective students. This points to the high value attributed to any such personal contacts by students, but also a drive for more detailed information and background on institutions they are considered abroad. In contrast, many students in the global QS survey said they were frustrated by university websites, often because they could not find sufficient detail or because the websites were difficult to navigate or understand. Each of these information channels - and others, such as virtual tours, education fairs, social media, email communications, print materials, personal contacts with institutional staff - contributes to the student decision. As the report highlights, "Applicants feel most confident about choosing a university abroad when able to access multiple sources of information, which add up to provide a consistent picture."

Takeaways for recruiters

Needless to say, there are a number of important insights for international educators in the QS study. First, it underscores the importance of emphasising employment outcomes (or other indicators of employability, such as employer reputation or rankings) for prospective students. This also connects to the attractiveness of “employment” features in academic programmes, including work placements or other campus-to-workplace linkages. The study also highlights students’ keen interest in very detailed information on all aspects of their study abroad experience, and argues that educators need to go further in the information they provide. "Our conversations with students often unearthed a significant gap between what they expect or want, and the level and quality of information currently available - presenting a challenge for institutions to be more transparent, improve user journeys on their websites, and commit to regular updates," says the report. In some respects, this need for more detailed insights explains the emphasis on peer input, or personal advice from other trusted sources, in the student decision-making journey. The implication for many educators will be the need to make more space for peer reviews and testimonials in their recruiting effort, to facilitate peer-to-peer connections via social media or other channels, and to also engage international alumni to a greater degree. This extends as well to the value that students place on personal contacts with staff or faculty in institutions that they are considering, whether face-to-factor or online. "Students in all the countries we visited said they value a personal quality in interactions with universities - whether this means meeting a representative in person, or receiving a personal response via email," concludes the report. For additional recent research on student motivations and decision factors for study abroad, please see "New survey reinforces career goals a primary motivation for study abroad", "Survey says employment prospects the key for postgraduate applicants", and "New report tracks key influencers for international students."

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