Keep it real – marketing universities post-Brexit

In a competitive and uncertain market, universities must satisfy international students’ search for authenticity.

By Emma Leech,

Few vice-chancellors will be welcoming 2019 with open arms. Headlines in early January warned that a no-deal Brexit was the “biggest-ever threat” to universities, citing the potential impact on research and the downturn in applications from the European Union.

There are also fears that the government’s proposals for post-Brexit restrictions on EU students, published before Christmas in a white paper on migration, could cause universities a huge visa headache.

Five months earlier, in July last year, the education secretary had guaranteed that EU students applying to universities in England for 2019-20 would continue to have “home fee status” beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. For anyone involved in student recruitment, the implications of such lack of clarity and certainty are huge.

An excellent round-up of international facts and figures, published by Universities UK International in August, shows that the UK remains an extremely popular destination for international students. It attracts more students from abroad than any other country except the United States, and from a growing range of origins.

But the good news stops there. The UK’s closest competitors—the US, Australia, France and Germany—all continued to grow international enrolments at a faster rate than the UK between 2014 and 2015 (the latest figures available)—at 9.4, 10.7, 1.8 and 8.7 per cent respectively. Over the same period, the UK’s international enrolments grew by just 0.5 per cent.

This has an impact not only on university fees and recruitment but on the economy as a whole. UUKI’s report notes that £25.8 billion of economic output in 2014-15 was generated for the UK economy through spending, both on and off campus, by international students and their visitors.

Different priorities

How should universities be marketing themselves in this brave new world? To some extent it depends on the type of institution—its location, strengths, USP and strategic objectives. But there are also subtle differences to consider between the priorities of home/EU students and non-EU international students.

A recent blog post by the market research company YouthSight on What Really Matters to Non-EU International Students identified that while course and employability rank first and second respectively for both groups, reputation ranks as the sixth most important factor for home and EU students but third for their international peers. It also picked up on the importance of softer factors, such as a sense of belonging and initiatives such as virtual open days.

The QS 2018 International Student Survey went a step further, surveying some 67,172 prospective students from 193 different countries to get under the skin of international decision-making. For marketers, who should be increasingly savvy around personalisation, differentiation, the power of digital and the importance of advocacy, the results are invaluable.

Like YouthSight, QS acknowledges that course choice is still the main driver, but teaching quality, student experience, graduate outcomes and feeling safe and welcome all feature too.

The power of belonging

A recurring theme is the power of belonging and the need for authenticity in a world of fake news. When I wrote an article in November about Loughborough becoming the first UK university to make live student reviews available on its website, 12 other universities were on the phone to our partners at StudentCrowd within the week.

What universities can learn from this is that while they need to know, love and interrogate the data that’s available, they must also take the time to speak to different types of students from different countries and understand what they are looking for. They need to draw this out in campaigns and, wherever possible, integrate PR, social, content strategy and customer relationship management activities so that they work seamlessly.

Blogs, podcasts, social media groups, vlogs and videos, customised and appropriate agent training and a great digital strategy are the basics, while using appealing imagery and case studies is invaluable. It is also important to reach out to alumni and their networks and to spend time working with passionate students on micro-engagement and advocacy strategies.

Budgets are tight and everything needs to earn its keep, which requires interdisciplinary planning and working together across teams to minimise duplication. It also means being on point with internal communication so that everyone can access the tools that help them do their jobs better. Sharing resources, messages, USPs, course information, latest scholarship offers and related news (including big PR stories on research, teaching, investment, ranking and the like) with in-country representatives is important—anything that helps them better understand and promote the university above its competitors.

Latest tech

Universities need to think digital first and put time and effort into their websites and digital and social channels. SEO is everything and it’s a mobile-first world.

Artificial Intelligence is big news in communication and marketing circles, so organisations need to take the time to see what that means for them and check that marketing teams are up to speed with the latest tech. Voice search is one emerging area that will be interesting for higher education marketers to explore.

But above all, institutions need to personalise, to be authentic, to make finding the right information easy and to be responsive. Everyone wants to belong, including potential students.

Emma Leech is Director of Marketing and Advancement at Loughborough University and CIPR President 2019.

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Image courtesy of public domain pictures

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