Coventry University: Enhancing the student experience as part of a successful long-term internationalisation strategy

Coventry University currently attracts over 30,000 students from around 150 countries. Overseas students are primarily located in the major campuses in Coventry and central London, both of which have seen significant increases in international numbers, particularly since the introduction of its comprehensive internationalisation strategy in 2013 which placed global engagement at the heart of the University. However, the university has committed to international engagement and internationalisation of the student experience for around 15 years under the leadership of the DVC International, Dr David Pilsbury. As part of that, since 2006 it has been conducting i-graduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB) - the global benchmark for the international student experience, comparing the decision-making, expectations, perceptions and intentions of international students from application to graduation.

Here, Emma Middleton, Deputy Head of International Conversion at Coventry University, shares her experience of coordinating the ISB.

Evaluating and addressing focus areas
When the university started the ISB, safety was an area of concern with students reporting a satisfaction rate of just 76%. In the first 10 years of their ISB participation, they saw this climb to 88%. Comparing this to the global benchmark of 92%, the university were reassured their strategy in this area was working well. Emma acknowledges the pandemic will naturally impact the development of their strategy now, “Of course, the kind of safety messages that we push out would be completely different now, because of the pandemic, but student safety is still an area we wish to improve upon.”

Emma also explains how in the past, accommodation had been one of the areas where the student satisfaction scores were lower compared to other universities and were therefore a cause for concern. Since 2018 however, the university has significantly invested in new accommodation, opening approximately 2000 more beds and new accommodation blocks. We've started to see that improve, and it’s a good example of how the university uses the ISB to uncover and then address any perceived problem areas.

Satisfaction with quality of accommodation (2006 – 2019)




Coventry University



Global Benchmark




Elsewhere, significant improvements in student satisfaction scores have also been achieved in the Finance Office (Arrival theme); work experience and careers advice (Learning theme); host friends and living cost (Living theme); and catering, Accounts and Finance, and Residential Assistants (Support theme).  

Disseminating critical information across the whole university
Emma not only coordinates the ISB survey, but also disseminates the results across the university so different departments and functions are able to see their year to year progress, or alternatively be made aware of any dips or areas for concern. As such, the data is shared with the senior executive team of the University and there is a workshop, delivered by ISB staff, where the results of each wave are analysed and reviewed by the entire team who support international engagement across the university – both academic and professional services staff. This working across organisational boundaries is one of the key differences of the Coventry approach and ISB really fosters and facilitates that interdisciplinary working.

There are also specific foci – and one particular person Emma shares the data directly with is the university’s Head of International Student Support. Drilling down deeper into the data has enabled him to drive and implement changes within the team to improve things across the critical area of support, such as welfare support, the pre-arrival process, visa-related advice and the immigration support the university offers.

When it comes to satisfaction with learning, naturally faculties and academics have a keen interest, and it’s not unusual for Emma to hear from Heads of Schools requesting for their specific data, so they can drill down into more detail to inform decisions. “It is definitely being used to influence things across the board,” she notes. To help further the impact of the ISB, Emma is considering setting up an internal working group of stakeholders to further disseminate crucial information making sure it can be fully utilised by every faculty and department. In this way, Emma can help drive increased value the university derives from an already valuable management tool that is embedded in the university’s annual processes.

Protecting a growing global reputation against the background of a global pandemic
Coventry University’s expansion and internationalisation strategy has seen them become the third highest recruiter in the UK of international undergraduate students, and their strong global reputation is something they have both earned, and value a great deal. Although UK institutions’ September 2020 intakes have naturally been impacted by the global pandemic, Coventry University has still seen over 2,500 enrolments, a clear testament to their reputation as a high-quality education provider on the international stage.

The relevance, above and beyond the obvious financial implications, of maintaining the student numbers, isn’t lost on Emma. The 2019 survey saw nearly 2,000 student completions, and Emma is confident of a strong sample size for the 2020 ISB. She is also keenly anticipating the results of the latest survey, given the impact of the global pandemic on the university’s operations. Like most institutions globally, so many aspects of the student experience at Coventry have been subject to enforced change - the arrival experience, the learning experience (particularly the move to online delivery platforms), and even their application experience will be different this year. “It will be very interesting,” comments Emma. “There should be some real learnings in there. We’ll be looking at the global picture and European picture to see how we compare against the benchmarks in the ISB.” In this respect, the ISB really comes into its own, not just providing raw satisfaction scores across universities’ operations, but also benchmarking them globally, and also against specific sub-groups, in Coventry University’s case, this being modern universities specifically.

For Emma, there is also real value to be had from the inclusion of relevant, circumstantial questions in the survey. Recently these have focused on the effects of Brexit, but now the emphasis is of course Covid-19 – how it effects the student experience and how those students perceive the institution’s response to the pandemic. The questions themselves have been developed from the Covid-19 Response Barometer i-graduate ran between April and July 2020 as a free of charge exercise for the HE sector globally.

Evaluating unique aspects of university provision
It has also proven useful to compare results internally across their different campuses and delivery models. “If there are significant differences between, for example, our London campus and Coventry campus, then we can undertake a piece of work to understand those variances and then work with stakeholders to address any issues and share good practice.”

Coventry University further tailored their ISB by incorporating questions focusing on their Centre for Global Engagement, which provides international enhancement opportunities (which is one of the major attractions of Coventry for overseas and home students) through fostering overseas student mobility, and by running a series of international leadership and language programmes. They wanted to evaluate the impact these two rather unique elements of the university’s offering were having on their students’ experience and employability, and assess whether or not the university’s communications in these areas were effective. Emma sees this particular analysis as delivering unquestionable value, and considering the results, it’s easy to see why – 65% of students surveyed cited the Global Leaders Programme as being very important in their decision to study at the university; and 77% cited Global Study Placements/Internships as very important.

Understanding the position against competitor institutions
Last year the university wanted to understand more about their direct competitors and so requested the additional question, “Where else did you seriously consider?” as part of the choice of destination theme in the survey. The results validated what they already suspected in terms of those institutions in relative close proximity and the post-‘92 universities, but it also raised interesting comparisons with Russell Group institutions and some other more surprising institutions that are subsequently on the university’s radar.

Driving positive change and impacting internationalisation
The ongoing dialogue between Coventry University and their students, domestic or international, is undoubtedly important to informing decisions that positively impact the continued success of their internationalisation strategy, and Emma only sees this continuing.

“Within the International Office, ISB is one of the major large-scale surveys we run, it's very much a focus when it comes to research and is embedded in our annual planning”.

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

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