05 Apr 2017

Reassuring international prospects in the current socio-political climate

In the USA and Europe, where nationalist rhetoric, fear of terrorism and hate crimes are on the rise, it’s more important than ever for higher education institutions to communicate to prospective international students that they are welcome on campus, are a valued part of the community and will be kept safe.
 
 
 
 
Understanding how current events may impact international mobility flows is always important — and not always obvious. We operate in a complex global system where exchange rate fluctuations, news headlines and political changes can impact student decision-making about where to study. Universities should take this opportunity to be more explicit about their goals for internationalisation and commitment to creating diverse academic communities.

Safety first

There are a few questions that most international prospects have to quickly answer ‘yes’ to before even exploring a particular programme further:
 
1. Am I eligible for this programme?
2. Can I afford it?
3. Will it help me achieve my professional and/or academic goals?
 
Their parents, who are key ‘influencers’ in many cases, often first consider one simple question: Will my son or daughter be safe?
 
Sadly, the current climate in the USA and some parts of Europe could mean that students who are openly and visibly Muslim, LGBTQIA, non-white or simply foreign might not feel as safe as they did even a year ago. This could mean students who speak with an accent, dress in clothing (religious or not) that makes them stand out, etc may be anxious about relocating to these destinations.

Show students they are welcome and safe

If international students are truly welcome, the burden is on the university to communicate not only how they will be kept safe from crime in general (well-lighted campuses, regular security, low crime rates, etc), but also what is being done to protect them from hate crime in particular. The latter requires moving beyond what is in the university’s purview and into that of the town or community at large.
 
Demonstrating that the university and the local community are welcoming places for international students and scholars is critical here. This could involve providing actual statistics to show how many international people are already there and how safe they are. Or it might involve sharing stories from the perspective of international students about what it is like to study at that university, to live in that town or even to come to that country.
 
Rarely seen on university websites or social media are stories or quotes from domestic students, town residents, and faculty and staff conveying how important they think it is that international students are part of their community, how much they enrich the lives and experiences of the local population and how truly welcome they are. If the mayor has said this, show the quote or the speech. If the local knitting club loves the fact that they’ve got new members from abroad, talk about it.

Make it clear: it’s not about the money

International students are not unaware of the fact that many institutions around the world are interested in recruiting them in large part because of the tuition fees that they pay. This is where the university can really step up and explicitly demonstrate what an important part internationalisation – and particularly having international students on campus – plays in fulfilling the mission of the institution.
 
Perhaps some EAIE members and readers of this blog take that last statement for granted; it is rarely given anything more than the most cursory lip service on web pages used to recruit international students. While it is important to focus on the benefits of enrolment to the student rather than to the university itself, consider how explaining your institution’s commitment to internationalisation might help put international students’ minds at ease.
 
Knowing that the faculty, administrative staff and university as a whole actually see international diversity as a critical part of their core mission – and not simply helpful to balance the budget – is a clear benefit for a prospective student who wants to know they will be safe, welcome and valued.

Be flexible and prepared

As a last thought, it seems prudent to note that no one knows where any of this is going; everyone has to wait to see how world events will develop. Now more than ever, it’s important to be ready, willing and able to adapt marketing materials (particularly institutional websites and social media) to react to developments in the news.
 
With new visa restrictions, for example, current and prospective international students will need up-to-date information and reassurance that their universities will be there to help. If something bad does happen to an international student on your campus (which will hopefully never be the case!), you should be aware that it could get reported broadly in your country and theirs and have a plan in place to reassure your current and future students.
 
While this may feel like a messier time in which to live and work than it was even a few months ago, it should strengthen the resolve of all of us involved in international education to keep ensuring that domestic and international students gain global competence and all our societies benefit from the exchange of people and ideas.
 
Megan is Director and Founder of The Brenn-White Group, an agency based in New York City that provides marketing, strategy and editorial services that help universities reach international audiences.