Increasing the competitiveness of a nation’s universities - examples of student experience data supporting national strategies

This article looks at three different examples where national agencies have used benchmarks of the student experience to help achieve strategic objectives, and to inform decision-making and policy at national and institution level. It also considers what approaches might be relevant for Japan’s higher education strategy and institutions. 

The notion of ‘being more competitive’ requires an element of comparison whatever the context, be it sporting achievement, the pricing of products, or universities competing effectively on the international higher education stage. Taking the last example, the reasons for setting objectives to attract more international students may differ from one nation to the next, but the modus operandi is invariably the same – perform better on multiple fronts. 

National agencies in Germany, Estonia and New Zealand each have their own reasons for, increasing the attractiveness of their country as a study destination but they all share one approach to improving performance - namely they seek to facilitate the comparison of their institutions’ performance at the national and global level by evaluating and benchmarking their international student’s views and experiences.. This is achieved through the International Student Barometer (ISB), the student survey tool tracking and comparing the decision making, expectations, perceptions and intentions of international students from application to graduation. 

Germany: Informing the global positioning of the national study experience 

In Germany, international student market research is commissioned by GATE-Germany, a consortium for international higher education marketing of German universities, which is part of the marketing department of the German Academic Exchange Service (the DAAD). GATE-Germany utilises various sources of data, including student surveys, to inform its marketing strategies. The national agency has been running the ISB since 2009. 

GATE Germany’s Dr Calagan, in charge of studies and publications on international higher education marketing and responsible for the supervision of the latest International Student Barometer (ISB) report within DAAD, explained what the report offers German universities: 

“At GATE-Germany, we provide evidence-based marketing expertise to German universities. We offer a worldwide network and a broad portfolio of marketing instruments to enable German universities to position themselves internationally. 

As an international benchmark study, the ISB offers the DAAD and the German universities the possibility to compare their own status quo with a European and global comparison. The ISB benchmarks can be tracked over a long period of time. Findings from the ISB offer universities new food for thought, in order to match the international students with the appropriate host universities and thus ensure their academic success. The results of the study enable German universities to adapt their marketing measures to the current needs of international students.” 

From 2016 to 2018, GATE-Germany noticed a decrease in the likelihood to recommend Germany as a study destination, as well as lower student satisfaction in the global comparison. Analysis of the ISB findings indicated this was largely down to two main factors - lower satisfaction around the arrival phase, and lower satisfaction around employability measures. One of the other main conclusions from the survey was that Germany offers a high-quality degree at a relatively low cost. Such findings are important when developing strategy at the national and institution level, and GATE-Germany’s 2022-23 survey results will show the distance travelled for these, and all other aspects of Germany’s international study experience, as well as giving the latest picture of how Germany is perceived as a study destination against other countries of interest such as Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.  

Considerations for Japan 

Understanding how Japan compares as an international education destination against the likes of China, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong would provide institutions with not only a marker of their relative position and their progress over time, but it would also highlight Japanese institutions’ strengths and weaknesses in the global market. And as Japan’s international student intake becomes more diverse, institutions would be able to track and compare the overall experience, as well as ensure they foster a sense of community that includes those international populations and domestic students alike. 

(See the article, “Japan – rebuilding the international student market” for a detailed look at the factors affecting international students’ choice of study destination. )

Estonia: A “text-book” approach to internationalisation 

Estonia’s success on the international higher education stage has long been lauded by HE experts: 

"The Strategy for the Internationalisation of Estonian Higher Education over the Years 2006-2015 has been considered by experts consulted informally for this report as a classroom example of how things should be done and was indeed very effective. While not necessarily adopting a comprehensive approach to tertiary education internationalization, the case of Estonia is a good practice example of setting ambitious performance targets to measure progress with regard to internationalization goals." 

- World Bank Group 

The Estonian Education and Youth Authority has been promoting Estonia as a study destination for over 15 years with great success, increasing the numbers of international degree students by over 500%.  

Eero Loonurm, Head of International Higher Education Marketing at the Estonian Education and Youth Authority started the international marketing for Study in Estonia in 2008/09, having quickly acknowledged that success would depend on the full cooperation of the institutions and their stakeholders. To position and market Estonia effectively as an HE destination, and focus on their initial target countries of Finland, Russia, Turkey, China, Latvia and Ukraine, they needed to create synergy. But they also needed to take into account the early student journey from the very first contact until arrival, to offer Estonian institutions multiple opportunities to implement their strategy. 

Early on in that implementation, in 2009, Estonia decided to engage with the International Student Barometer (ISB) in order to understand how Estonia and its universities were performing against other destinations around the world. They needed to see the satisfaction rates of their students compared to students globally so they could better understand and utilise their strengths, and directly tackle any perceived areas of weakness. For Loonurm, the decision was a simple one: 

“ISB was and still is the only way to really measure and compare international student satisfaction rates in different countries on the global level.” 

Estonia’s first results against the global average were largely favourable. They were ahead in three out of the four main ISB categories - Arrival, Living, and Support. In fact, only the category of ‘ ‘Learning’ fell below the global average. However, this lower score took into account a number of survey topics that, at the time, were not necessarily considered by Estonia’s universities as part of academic delivery – namely ’Career counselling’, ‘earning money during study’, and ‘employability’.” 

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Participation in the ISB highlighted the importance of addressing these particular areas to improve student satisfaction as well as impacting students’ propensity to recommend Estonia as a study destination. This became fundamental to their strategy to be more competitive on the international higher education stage. 

“It’s a really good tool for assessing performance and results, and planning for the future,” comments Loonurm. “For every university and every country, there is something to analyse and improve. For every stakeholder – from the Minister of Education, to Department Heads of Internationalisation or Student Support or Finance, to academic staff – there is so much rich data and useful material to work with.” 

Considerations for Japan 

Year-on-year, the ISB reaffirms that the biggest factor driving study decisions for international students is ‘future career impact.’ With the need for talented international students to fill the job vacancies created by the declining birth rate across Japan, it would seem essential for Japan to provide a clear path to work and successful future careers for its international students. If institutions and government are able to achieve this, then success in growing the international student market is likely to follow. So, understanding the current status of students’ perceptions of employability, and then tracking the changes as initiatives are implemented and evolved will provide Japan’s institutions with the evidence base to impact decision-making and strategy. 

(The article, “Filling the employment gaps in Japan” analyses the data associated with providing a clear path to work and successful future careers for international students.)  

New Zealand: Sector-wide participation strategy at institutions and government  

New Zealand universities adopted the ISB in 2007 to establish a comprehensive picture of the international student experience in New Zealand. Since then, the survey has run in New Zealand on a biennial basis with either all or the majority of universities participating in each wave, either self-funding or with the support of a government subsidy.  

At a high overall level, the experience of international students in New Zealand compares well against the global benchmark with satisfaction remaining high even throughout COVID when global satisfaction levels saw a notable fall.  

Such high participation within the sector on an ongoing basis provides a strong national benchmark that gives institutions hard evidence of how they compare against their peers and how results are tracking over time. New Zealand universities use the ISB results for making changes to enhance the experience of their international students, optimising resource allocation, informing recruitment and retention strategies, and setting/monitoring key performance indicators. National results have also been used by government departments to inform relevant strategies and policies.  

Considerations for Japan 

Continued tracking of international students’ motivations, perceptions and experiences provides institutions with the objective, time series data to inform strategy at any level. Whether or not such in-depth understanding of the student experience helped New Zealand’s institutions remain more robust against the impact of the pandemic is difficult to say, but simply by understanding the nation’s position of strength as the world started to recover from COVID gives New Zealand a competitive advantage. 

What all this means for Japan 

For Japan to compete on the international higher education stage, increase its attractiveness as an international education destination and therefore attract the desired quantity and calibre of international students that results in the development of globally competitive human resources, certainly the right policies need to be in place. But equally as important is the need for insight into what ‘being competitive’ is.  

Benchmarking provides the evidence-based key performance indicators at national and institution level, putting performance into context. It also brings focus to strategy and operational improvement so Japan’s institutions can concentrate efforts and resources on those areas scoring less favourably against the global or regional picture. Benchmarking provides valuable insight into the decision making and experience of particular groups of students, including priority groups, enabling institutions to be more targeted in their communications and initiatives. And finally, it can help bring synergy between national agencies/government departments and the institutions themselves, by all parties contributing to the same big picture of the status of the nation’s international higher education provision.  

The Student Barometer helps institutions make informed decisions to enhance the domestic and international student experience and drive successful recruitment and marketing strategies. 

Watch a short presentation for leaders in Japanese universities:  

Improving the student experience, creating a network of international alumni, and making your institution a top choice for international students globally – an introduction to the Student Barometer


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