Informing student recruitment strategies in a competitive landscape

Many international education stakeholders will of course be driven by an interest in the student experience – indeed this frames a significant element in how universities position student recruitment messaging. Una Watkins, in her role as Director of International Recruitment at University College Dublin, is primarily concerned with the recruitment of non-EU students and as such naturally shares that interest. In particular she sees the benefit in having a measure of that student experience relative to the likely sentiment those students will share with their peer groups.

Here, Una shares the role of the International Student Barometer in providing that quantified measure of student satisfaction and how the outputs and insights the Barometer offers are being used to optimise recruitment strategy at University College Dublin (UCD) whilst facing a raft of specific challenges.

Covid obviously remains a significant feature of the environment in which Una works – on the day of this particular interview Una’s colleagues in Beijing alerted her that a stay-at-home order had been communicated by local government officials. The university has done well to maintain numbers from China, it still remains a concern, as does access to and the rising cost of travel on the affordability of study outside of China. China represents one of three key driver markets for UCD, India and the US being the other two. Other challenges faced by the university include the changed circumstances in the US where the strengthening of the local labour market has influenced many students to delay graduate study whilst in markets like India, the improved graduate stay-back available following the UK’s International Education strategy has potential to affect student decision making.

Una also acknowledges how well a university performs from a rankings perspective will impact recruitment – with institution reputation, reach, and profile a huge influence.

These challenges and considerations are likely to be felt by other leading universities, and understanding the perceptions, motivations and behaviours of students has clearly grown in importance over the last two years – the landscape has changed, and Higher Education Institutions need to see how their relative position has also changed.

Since 2010/11 UCD has engaged with the International Student Barometer to assess and benchmark the experiences, satisfaction, perceptions and motivations of their international student population. This has been conducted both independently and as part of a cohort with the network in the Irish Universities Association (IUA), the latter enabling that set of universities to draw comparison both against global benchmarks and Irish benchmarks.

For UCD, a university operating in a relatively small country, the set of Irish universities they compete with is limited, so a view of global benchmarks for the student experience is a valuable set of data to help gauge their performance relative to that of comparable universities and destinations on the global scale, such as the Russell Group and Group of 8. These are the select institutes UCD wishes to maintain the strongest position against when it comes to student behaviour, experience and satisfaction.

UCD’s most recent results (responses collected 23rd September 2021 to 16th December 2021 as part of the Northern Hemisphere ISB wave) were insightful but also prompted significant reflection given jarring behaviour in a handful of instances. Whilst in general the university has been performing commensurate with their peer group universities – Overall satisfaction is 87% (Irish benchmark = 87%; global benchmark = 88%); the Net Promoter Score is 14 (Irish benchmark = 14; global benchmark = 15) - diving deeper into the results, there are sentiments expressed with respect to Cost of Living that do not parry with the university’s success around Value for Money where it exceeded the global benchmark of 75% by two percentage points. (Further investigation indicated a significant range of Value for Money scores across the different UCD colleges, giving the university food for thought.)

On the flip side, UCD performs distinctly well on the all-important arrivals process and the opportunity to make friends and connect with other students. The arrivals theme in particular points to the deployment of successful initiatives with all bar 6 of the 26 categories seeing notable improvement in student satisfaction year-on-year; a similar upwards trajectory can be seen with the university’s support, and learning satisfaction scores.


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Tribal i-graduate ISB Consultants present findings back to each participating university, giving a detailed breakdown of all areas of the survey results covering themes such as arrival, learning, support, wellbeing and living, as well as any optional sections focusing on areas such as application-to-offer response times, careers support, and perceptions of inclusivity. These feedback sessions can be invaluable to participating universities, and Una uses this feature to great benefit.

“Robin, our ISB Consultant, is brilliant; he’s a fantastic presenter – he makes sense of the data for all our internal audiences. He puts himself in front of a broad set of UCD stakeholders and has ways of interpreting data sets based on what has the most impact relative to different scales – finding different ways to explain the implications of the data for the different stakeholders. Because the data is very comprehensive, those objective insights from an outside party can be particularly advantageous, offering independent suggestions as to which areas may require additional focus.”

Results are also presented via live dashboards, enabling International Education professionals like Una to interrogate the data further, and filtering by level of course, college, country of origin, for example. Almost all universities, including UCD, share the results widely across the institute to inform discussion around the student experience. For Una, there is also value in sharing the interactive dashboards with those colleges that have the capacity to perform that additional interrogation. Additionally, Una interrogates the anonymised open comments provided by the survey, which are often a source of rich information and context, especially when investigating pain points raised by students, or indeed areas where students are inordinately pleased with their experience. For example, coming out of Covid times, Una gave additional consideration to students indicating potential issues around welfare, stress and anxiety. In this way, the particular schools or colleges can be informed of any trends and then ensure offers of additional support and services are more transparent and accessible to sets of students that might relate to such comments.

“The data is just too insightful to not use in this way when it is right in front of us.”

It is Una’s desire of course to see the university live up to the expectations of all students, but she is keenly aware of the premium paid by international students to study overseas, and the very competitive landscape within which University College Dublin operates. So, understanding the university’s position relative to competitor destinations and institutions is an incredibly important step in devising the right strategies for recruitment. Gaining detailed insight into their perceptions once they are enrolled is then key to delivering an optimised student experience.


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

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