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Social media helps students decide where to study abroad

More than 8 in 10 prospective students looking at studying abroad in 11 European Union countries turn to social media when applying to university – with 65% using it as part of their research into where to study and nearly 30% to help make their application, according to the 2018 International Student Survey.

Despite being sometimes written off as a fading star, Facebook remains the most popular form of social media when potential students are investigating where to study in another country, writes Nic Mitchell.

The findings come as EUPRIO prepares to discuss the challenges of the digital transformation of Higher Education communications at its annual conference in Sevilla from 3-6 June.

QS Enrolment Solutions obtained the views of 67,172 prospective students from 191 countries for its latest International Student Survey (ISS) and produced a report ‘Harnessing Opportunities in Global Higher Education’based on the findings.

Several versions of the report were produced, including an EU version based on views of 22,838 prospective students considering studying in 11 European Union countries – Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Spain, the Czech Republic and Latvia.

This blog looks at their responses to help understand the thought processes of international students thinking about studying in a European university. (I’ve looked at the responses of those considering studying in the UK in a blog on my own website, which considered the impact of Brexit on interest from EU students to studying at British universities).

Focus on European universities

Introducing the report on the EU 11, Andy Nicol, managing director of QS Enrolment Solutions, said: “The international students we surveyed expect the universities of tomorrow to offer a very different experience to today (with) a greater emphasis on digital delivery, with lectures delivered online and students able to get a qualification from any university, regardless of which country they live in.”

Nichol added that if Europe wants to continue being a leading destination for Higher Education in an increasingly competitive market, “it is crucial that institutions listen to the views of prospective international students carefully, particularly in terms of what they expect the universities of the future to offer and move quickly to prepare for changing expectations.”

He also suggests they should do more to celebrate “the qualityof teaching provided” to help European universities to attract more international students.

“Communicating the passion staff have for the subjects they teach and their ‘real-world’ experience beyond academia could have a major impact, as opposed to purely communicating their academic credentials.,” said Nicol.

Communication preferences

As to how European universities should communicate with potential international students, there is a whole section devoted to ‘Communication preferences and digital channels’.

It reminds readers: “Social media is the principle medium by which prospective international students gather information and communicate with their peers.” Social media is where 65% find information before making an inquiry about studying abroad and it is where 29% look when making an application, 22% when planning their move if accepting an offer; and where 22% look to help decide whether to accept an offer, according to the ISS survey.

Of those looking at studying in one of the EU 11 countries, 60% use Facebook for research when making decisions about studying overseas; 42% turn to YouTube; 31% rely on Instagram, with 28% using LinkedIn and 19% turning to Internet Forums such as The Student Room.

But that’s only part of the story as there are significant variations between the countries of the prospective international students. Applicants from Bangladesh are most likely to use Facebook (79%) or YouTube (52%), while 58% from Indonesia favour Instagram. Kenyan students use a wide mix of social media and are the highest users of Twitter (35%) among the countries highlighted in the report. Indian students are the highest users of LinkedIn, at 40%, and 44% of Chinese students rely on Weibo.

Spread social media efforts

What this means is that if European universities want to make effective use of social media for recruiting international students, they need to spread their efforts across multiple services and platforms and consider which types are best to reach their target audience.

Adding another layer to the data, the International Student Survey also looked at specific social media messaging channels and found that WhatsApp was way out in front, with over half the prospective European-bound international students survey using it several times a day, compared with less than a third using Facebook Messenger more than once every day.

But again, there was considerable variation by nationality, with 94% of Kenyan and Nigerian respondents using WhatsApp daily compared to 31% of prospective Chinese students. Facebook Messenger had its highest usage in Bangladesh (91%) and Pakistan (74%).

This backs up research by German freelance higher education marketing consultant Elias Faethe, who recommended to the Studyportals 2018 Academy in Amsterdam that university recruiters use WhatsApp to follow-up leads as it provides “a low effort way for the whole marketing funnel in the digital age”.  See more in my report for University World News. 

However, don’t abandon email and the telephone just yet, as 89% of respondents to the International Student Survey said they liked to use email to communicate with universities and 38% like a telephone call. As a Lithuanian student studying in the Netherlands told the Studyportals Academy in Amsterdam: “Email is OK when communications with a university get more formal. I prefer it for formal things rather than Facebook”.

Download the report on the 2018 International Student Survey findings here