Informing resourcing decisions with the ISB at Nova Scotia Community College

Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) is a provincial Community College offering applied learning diplomas and certificates. Nova Scotia itself is highly internationalised, and over the past 10 years NSCC has steadily built on its strong domestic numbers to now welcome about 12% international students. Over that period, the college has used the International Student Barometer (ISB) to evaluate and benchmark its student experience. 

We hear from International Director, Katie Orr, as she explains the college’s use of the ISB to inform resourcing decisions to optimise the international student experience. We discuss employability, authenticity of marketing and recruitment campaigns, and focusing on inclusion. 

For Katie, capturing the student voice is an important part of the work being done at NSCC:

“It’s essential - in my work I have to build a case for investments so understanding student needs in an evidenced way, using data, is crucial to make those important decisions.” 

NSCC has 13 different campuses, and naturally there are differing experiences and opinions regarding how to continually develop the college. That challenge to make sure the college is listening to students and coming up with creative ways to provide and evolve those services and supports across all locations is an important piece of what Katie looks for from the college’s ISB participation and results. 

“The ISB is really helpful for understanding what's happening at any given time, and over time – where things are improving, and things we need to pay attention to, so that we know where to focus our investments.” 

By way of example, when NSCC first started running the ISB a decade ago, the results gave a very clear indication that students needed a lot of language support. Off the back of the ISB evidence, the business case was developed to create a writing centre. Over time, the college has been able to develop this further, bringing in additional supports for students, and, using the feedback and evidence-base from the ISB, has been able to help the leadership team understand the rationale for investment and validate the deployment and investment of resources. 

Putting student feedback into context 

A common reason for institutions like NSCC turning to the ISB to inform strategy is its point of differentiation from other sector or in-house surveys - namely its benchmarking and deep-dive analysis capabilities. In addition to providing evaluations of student satisfaction and decision-making factors, it also benchmarks those quantitative scores against regional, national and global benchmarks, providing meaningful comparative analysis. It also presents derived importance analysis so the institution can understand what matters most to its students, and what factors impact student recommendation. 

“Our institution has been so impressed by the quality of the ISB data and the fact that it's benchmarked, which gives the results that all-important context, something not necessarily available from other surveys of this kind. This, and the ability to slice and dice the data to interrogate it across many different contexts, is why myself and the senior leadership at the college choose to focus our time and resources on the ISB survey over the alternatives out there.” 

Student expectation management 

Of course, not all factors associated with the student experience are completely within the institution’s control, housing being a prime example. NSCC itself has recently built more student dormitories at different campuses, with several more under construction. However, even though the remedy to the topic that so many institutions are grappling with right now is no quick fix, Katie is able to use the ISB results to inform decisions and impact the student experience. Evaluating the pre-arrival experience of students has given NSCC an understanding of students’ satisfaction levels, and, just as importantly, their expectations when it comes to housing. Katie and the team have subsequently enhanced pre-arrival communications to make sure students understand the reality of housing availability and costs, and also have a housing plan before they arrive. 

Impacting student response rates 

Their commitment to the survey is certainly borne out in their ISB response rate - NSCC has one of the highest student response rates of all ISB participating institutions – at 66% it significantly exceeds Canadian and global benchmarks. One of the reasons behind this, Katie believes, is their International Student Ambassador Program. International Students volunteer and get training to be one of the ambassadors who help create a welcoming environment on campus for their fellow international students, but also help come up with creative ways to encourage students to participate in the survey. Ambassadors are also included in the ISB feedback sessions so they can see the impact their work is having on the student experience. 

Employability front and center 

The number one goal of NSCC is to ensure that students have the skills, expertise, and the preparation to enter the labour market, which is tight in Canada, despite there being a national skills shortage. Nova Scotia is a relatively small province, and arguably not as internationalised as big city areas like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver - international students still have challenges landing jobs in their chosen profession, so helping and mentoring them to successfully enter the labour market is particularly key for the college. 

Across the college, around 99% of students have some kind of work-integrated learning component embedded into their courses to maximise work experience opportunities, but the college does so much more to increase the employability of their students, as indicated by their ISB results: 

  • Careers advice from faculty has the 4th highest satisfaction rate in the world  
  • Student satisfaction with employability factors overall is 6th globally 
  • 92.5% of final year students feels prepared for their career goals (compared with 88% in the Canada colleges benchmark) 

Katie is keen to celebrate these successes with faculty and to continue encouraging the good practices and initiatives that bring about such scores. The ISB data has also indicated that there are some service supports that maybe students are not quite aware of until towards the end of their time at NSCC. Such areas for improvement are raised in the ISB feedback sessions led by NSCC’s ISB consultant, Nannette Ripmeester, and including senior leaders from across the college, so they can hear the message and start the evidence-based discussion around what can be done to address any negative variances. 

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The value of an authentic voice in marketing and recruitment strategies 

Because the dataset affords institutions such insight into the decision-making factors and influences for students, it represents huge potential for their marketing and recruitment strategies. This potential climbs further when institutions interrogate the data further – understanding what drives choice of destination for students from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Vietnam and Philippines, for example, can be used to tailor messages to those target markets, and that messaging also reinforced by education agents. 

Katie acknowledges that NSCC can probably exploit that analysis more to impact the effectiveness of recruitment efforts, but one picture the data is certainly showing them is that the college is delivering on its promises. 

“The students who are coming to us understand the type of institution that we are, and the type of education that they're going to access when they come here. So, I think that's pretty important to keep in mind as we evolve our recruitment and marketing.” 

Such authenticity can be very powerful – alumni and current students are the second and third highest influencers (behind the website) for NSCC’s students when it comes to choice of destination – the college is creating those ambassadors and leveraging word-of-mouth to good effect, with both those categories exceeding Canadian colleges benchmarks. This is further evidenced by NSCC’s Net Promoter Score of 30, compared to 26 for the Canadian colleges benchmark, and 11 in the global benchmark.  

Understanding student inclusion and wellbeing  

The survey also provides NSCC with views and experiences around engagement, inclusion, wellbeing, happiness, stress and mental health support. Here, NSCC does well in several categories: NSCC students are less likely to be concerned about completing their studies than counterparts in other Canadian colleges or universities; they are less stressed – 24% report ever feeling particularly stressed or anxious, compared with the Canadian benchmark of 32%; and they feel more comfortable asking for mental health support from the college. For Katie, however, one area lags behind those success stories. 

“The student inclusion question is a really important piece for us to pay attention to. While our students are thriving in lots of ways, the ISB evidence suggests there's much more that we can do as a college, and also as a province, to foster inclusion amongst our international students, as well as other students who maybe don't feel as included as others. We understand the challenges that they're facing and working really hard on that inclusion piece.” 

Driving the quality of Canadian education  

NSCC is showing how a commitment to capturing the student voice is impacting their strategies and enabling the college to continuously improve the student experience across operations. During a period of growth for Canada’s international student numbers, particularly for colleges, there have been some questions about the quality of education and questions about the numbers of students. This moving conversation is likely to be top of mind for many colleges, but for Katie, she is confident NSCC is doing right by its students, and by the wider education sector.  

“I think we have a role to play in the education sector to really do our best to promote quality - a tool like the ISB can be very useful to demonstrate our commitment to the experience of students, and improving and enhancing that to ensure we're meeting their objectives. So, I can't think of a better way to do it. The ISB continues to be very helpful for us, and I'm sure it could be helpful for others as well.” 


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

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