Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
10th Jan 2024

Could you be missing a competitive advantage in marketing to international students?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • An insightful analysis of recent UCAS research concludes that “joy is a competitive differentiator” for higher education institutions
  • UCAS data reveals that university-bound students in the UK are more optimistic than pessimistic about their future, but they are also pragmatic
  • Institutions are advised to offer sample sessions, feature stories from successful and happy alumni, and personalise content for prospects to key on this important decision factor

Looking for a compelling competitive advantage in 2024 that resonates with students hoping to study abroad? It might not be as simple as a price point, scholarship, or course offering. It might not hinge on your institution’s prestige or rankings. Those are solid potential elements of positioning, but higher education marketing consultant and strategist Kyle Campbell contends that institutions may be missing a key value held by today’s students: joy.

Students want a fulfilling journey towards an eventual career

Mr Campbell, the founder of Education Marketer, drew on UCAS’s Project Next Generation research among 1,000+ 13–17-year-old UK students to support his assertion that joy is a competitive differentiator. The research found that:

  • 59% of students see the benefit of sticking with what they enjoy and “the rest will take care of itself”;
  • 59% aren’t “trying to map out their future,” instead focusing on what they are good at.

Career aspirations remain the #1 driver for those choosing to go to university. However, Mr Campbell argues that students’ thinking about their careers may not be linear and is a bit more complex than we might assume. For example, the UCAS research suggests that students are first and foremost choosing courses that excite them and in fields they believe they have talent. The rationale here is that by choosing subjects that they love, they will be most likely have a fulfilling career. This suggests that an emotional aspect to marketing is something educators do not want to ignore.

Students also want to feel passion in their eventual career. The UCAS research found that the top career goal for student respondents was “enjoying my job” (47%). The next-most important goals, “earning a “sufficient wage to get by and be comfortable” and “having a secure job” (32% each) were significantly less important to students.

Leverage students’ optimism

As shown in the following chart, students are more likely to feel empowered to reach the goals they set for themselves rather than concerned about not meeting those goals.

Students are more likely to be optimistic than pessimistic about their future according to UCAS research. Source: UCAS

This is why it is wise to further boost that optimism by helping students to see a clear pathway to enjoyment and success. UCAS suggests that educators keep in mind these ideas when communicating with prospective students:

  1. Don’t forget the fun. Playfulness and happiness are important drivers for adolescent audiences, especially those facing big life decisions. Balance your awareness and decision-making campaigns with light-heartedness and levity.
  2. Demystify the process. This audience’s main concerns are all about the journey towards career choice and financial stability. Step-by-step guides and easy-to-follow breakdowns will be welcome for young people who don’t know where to start.
  3. Exposure breeds confidence. Those with more experience and stronger ideas about what they want to do are the least worried, so make sure you have a strong provision of placements, work experience, mentorship, and expert talks.

For his part, Mr Campbell suggests that institutions consider taster sessions, stories from graduates happy in their jobs, and personalised content to create a powerful image of what studying on their campus would be like. Short-form video is a natural choice for stimulating an emotional response – such as laughing or admiring – from students.

Responding to Mr Campbell’s post, Heather MacBain, Head of Marketing at the University of Edinburgh, wrote:

“Totally agree with this. Getting the balance of functional and emotional content to creating joy and surprise is key. Certainly something I will be focusing on for the year ahead.”

Digital strategist Joel G Goodman also related to the idea of joy as competitive differentiator, writing:

“We try so hard to get our institutional clients to think about the experiences students have in their various programmes. It’s really difficult for higher ed marketers to break out of the transactional facts and figures mentality of sales. But I think your takeaway is 100% correct. The community is the differentiator—what life-changing experiences and joy can we suss out of those communities to talk about in our marketing?”

For additional background, please see:

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