Using data to enhance the international student experience

Using data to enhance the international student experience

It is summer Forum week on the EAIE blog and we will be covering the role of data in international education from different angles and perspectives. We will discover how data can be and are used, as well as collected, by practitioners. Today’s blog post takes a deeper look at how data can help to enhance the international student experience.

The number of students studying outside their home country has more than doubled in the last 15 years, from two million in 2000 to close to five million in 2015. As mobility grows, higher education providers work continuously to offer the best possible education experience for international students. Data on student expectations and perceptions can help to do this.

A world of choice

To improve the student experience, higher education providers must first understand it from the student perspective. The student experience begins long before setting foot on campus or logging on to an e-learning module – it starts when they first explore higher education choices, weighing options and imagining many possible lives in different countries, various campuses and assorted modes of study.
Understanding what drives a student to choose a particular institution is key to knowing what aspects of the experience are most important to them.  Looking at data from i-graduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB), an independent survey process implemented by 800 higher education providers around the world, sheds light on what factors are most important to first-year international students when choosing where to study.
For example, in choosing where to study, international undergraduate students at UK universities placed highest value on ‘reputation of selected institution’, ‘specific course of study’, ‘earning potential’, ‘personal safety’, and ‘research quality’, in this order of importance. On the other hand, ‘proximity to home country’ and ‘opportunities for permanent residence’ were rated as the least important factors.
What should a university in the UK make of this data? Knowing that institutional reputation is a very important factor, whereas proximity to home country is not, can act as a starting point to guide and shape myriad aspects of the student experience, including living and student support services, academic experience, and even marketing and recruitment practices. Data can help inform decision-making and create policies and practices that are well suited to the needs of students.

Nationalities are unique

ISB data sheds light on significant variations by country. Chinese, Malaysian, Nigerian and Indian international students in the UK, for example, all identify education agents as key influencers in deciding where to study. However, for Chinese students, teachers from previous learning institutions also exert high influence. Malaysian students, in turn, are more influenced by educational exhibitions.
Digging further, the role of rankings and league tables in decision-making also varies among nationalities, with a high influence on Malaysian and Indian students, but a weaker influence on Chinese students, who are also far less influenced by institutional websites – perhaps due to language barriers. These variations make it clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to international student recruitment.
In addition to understanding how students decide where to study, their satisfaction with their experience once on campus is also critically important. ISB data reveals variations by region. At UK, Australian, and USA universities, for example, undergraduate and graduate students from continental Europe report higher satisfaction with their experience than students from Asia and the Middle East. Is this due to a greater familiarity with the Western style of education, or other factors? Knowing that these differences exist can prompt a university to investigate further and take steps to improve the experience for groups with lower reported satisfaction.

Making data a call to action

Sometimes, the small tweaks gleaned from student data can have a large impact on the student experience. Following feedback from its international students, one university in the UK began to issue guidance – in the International Welcome Week pack – to set up bank accounts.
In another instance, after surveys detected discontent with internet access upon arrival, the international office linked up with the Head of IT to have a stand at the international orientation to help students set up their connections.  The stand made a big difference, and is now a recurring part of orientation.
A sense of belonging before, during, and after their study experience is linked to student satisfaction. I-graduate data shows differences in reported sense of belonging among international students, with graduate students reporting higher levels than undergraduate students; full time higher than part time; and female higher than male students. Knowing that these differences exist is the first step in making changes to ensure that all international students feel engaged and integrated during their time on campus and afterward as alumni.
Higher education providers often have, or aspire to have, student bodies hailing from all corners of the globe, from many different backgrounds, at all levels, areas, and even modes of study. This diversity cannot be achieved or maintained using a uniform approach to the international student experience, and this is where data can be useful. It is essential to learn from data gathered from the students themselves to inform the policies and practices that will determine their experience.
The findings presented in this blog post are based on international student experience data derived from i-graduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB), an independent survey process implemented by 800 higher education providers worldwide. The ISB dataset contains feedback from over 2.3 million students.
Rachael is Senior Researcher at The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.
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