Optimising international student employability to increase competitive edge.

We hear from Dean of International Strategy, Partnerships and Market Development at Fanshawe College, Wendy Curtis, as she explains how benchmarking the student experience is helping to improve not just the student experience, but also to inform employability initiatives and help the college build a competitive advantage on the global stage. 

Fanshawe College, in London Canada, runs over 220 different programmes across one- and two-year post grads, diplomas, advanced diplomas and degrees, for about 20,000 full time students and a much larger number of part time students. Of those 20,000 full time students, about 50% are international, with half of those coming from India; other key markets include Nepal, Philippines, Nigeria and South Korea. The college is very focused on employability. 
Optimising the student experience for employability 
Capturing the student voice is important to Wendy on multiple fronts – “It brings a transparency to what is a very fluid audience. When you think about what's important to students, ultimately, for us, students are looking for employment. It's a huge priority for them.”

As a community college, Fanshawe’s faculty are hired based on their industry experience, so their ability to bring the industry into the classroom is of great importance. For Wendy, the college’s participation in the International Student Barometer (ISB) is paramount to getting this aspect of their delivery performing at a high level.  

“Each of our 220 programs has five courses per semester, and that can sometimes be overwhelming for some students. They may not see value in a particular course in a particular program, but it’s the whole bundle that drives their employability in the labour market. Communicating this to applicants and students, and also making sure faculty reinforces the message that the classroom is their workplace, is vital. So, it's really important the ISB allows us to continually go back and tie that continuum together.” 

Unlike some alternative student surveys, the data and analysis in the ISB can be interrogated further to better understand the student experience, and to uncover the underlying reasons for variances against regional, national, and global benchmarks. In this way, Wendy is able to closely scrutinise the student experience being received across all aspect of their time at the college, including those factors impacting employability.  

“First of all, we can look at the different demographics - I can pull students from, for example, Southern or Northern India, or China. How is the employability message being received by these populations? Does the experience differ by age group? How are the various faculties performing in this area? And then we can talk to the lecturers about any negative variances to see how we can fill any voids.” 

This cycle of continuous improvement is further supported by the college’s close monitoring of labour market needs, so their course offerings can be developed in the most appropriate ways to match market needs. 

Fanshawe Community College’s laser focus on employability certainly looks to be paying dividends – their employability rate within six months of graduation currently sits at 84.5% and continues to climb. And this also translates to students’ overall satisfaction with learning at the college which compares favourably with the Canada colleges benchmark – 92% vs 90%. New call-to-action
Competing globally for the right students, with the right messages 
Increasingly, with geopolitical challenges and the competitive nature of Higher Education, Fanshawe College needs to be prepared both for the international body and their domestic audience. Similarly, to many other institutions, Fanshawe College has seen a dramatic demographic swing in the last 10 years, with fewer students arriving from China, and more students from India choosing to study at the college. And to compete on that world stage effectively, Wendy and the leadership team need to be able to look beyond national boundaries and comparisons and understand how they are performing against their international counterparts in terms of reputation, student experience, and the propensity for their students to recommend Fanshawe to other prospective students. Their participation in the ISB enables them to do just this, providing meaningful comparison across the whole student experience, for all student populations, at national and international level, to inform marketing and recruitment strategies.  

“I would encourage institutions to look at the ISB as the global benchmark that it is. I think that's what makes it incredibly unique. I'm not particularly concerned about the college down the road, but I am concerned about what's happening in terms of the competition - in the UK, in Australia, the US or wherever else it might be. The ISB is our quality assurance measure, and that's what matters in the world that I'm in - it matters what our reputation is internationally.”

There is another crucial benefit, however, to building up this granular understanding of their student populations though. And that is the authenticity of their messaging across their recruitment channels.  
The college has 19 representatives all over the world that work solely for them, and they are made explicitly aware of the ISB results so they can reinforce the college’s messaging that is based on the benchmarked evidence from the survey. Those representatives also visit the college twice a year to meet the students that they recruited, and they build strong relationships with faculty too. So, they are very informed about what it is Fanshawe College represents, but are also able to convey the message consistently, authentically, and with confidence, because everyone is bought-in to the results surfaced by the ISB, and ultimately those messages are founded on the analysis of student feedback. 

“We are absolutely able to talk with a level of authenticity to students and we can manage expectations. We want to have the right student, in the right programme, at the right time. So, we use the data to inform our communications with students, and to better understand why they come to us. So, it's really very helpful in that regard.”  

Differentiating the offer process to build competitor advantage 
Another area that is helping the college to build a competitive advantage is that of their offer process.  Wendy has turned this process to be a college advantage. Using the ‘derived importance’ analysis within ISB that evaluates the correlation between each aspect of the college’s student experience and students’ propensity to recommend, Wendy is able to quantify the impact the offer process has on a prospective student’s decision-making process. As such, she has presented an evidence-base to support the college’s decision to differentiate their own process.

 “What we know, from our ISB feedback and analysis, is that it sets the stage for the entire experience. And based on the ISB almost singularly, we are able to continually reinforce to internal stakeholders the importance of being incredibly proactive around the offer process, and then resourcing effectively to ensure our offers are out within 48 hours. This is absolutely one of our most competitive pieces; it sounds simple, but it just sets the stage for so much.”

 In this way, Fanshawe College’s applicants feel they are being taken seriously, receiving their offers in a timely and accurate manner, and expectation levels are already being set for their time at the college. 

Enhancing orientation to reinforce employability 
Because employability is such a priority for their students, the college builds in supports right from the orientation process, introducing them to resume workshops, providing advice from alumni, and detailing the college’s links with the largest employers in the region. And it’s very much more than a box-ticking exercise – it’s a one-and-a-half day program that is reinforced two months later with a bootcamp. 

 “With the ISB, we're really evaluating how transparent we have made all that information, how well we’ve managed student expectations, and how effective our interventions have been along the way to reinforce all those key messages around employability. It’s hugely helpful to us in that respect.”  

This approach to orientation is yielding some impressive results – Fanshawe College students fell more academically prepared than their other Canada colleges counterparts (86% feel prepared/very prepared, compared with the Canada colleges benchmark of 81%). Satisfaction with their face-to-face orientation program also exceeds the benchmark, as does 18 out of the 23 aspects evaluated as part of the ‘arrival’ experience. 

With employability being such a high priority for students, it’s understandable Wendy and team are so committed to the cause, but by backing up their strategies around employability with benchmarked data, they are translating that commitment into measurable initiatives that impact their students. In doing so, Fanshawe College is in a better place to continuously adapt to the evolving higher education landscape. As Wendy puts it,  

“The ISB allows us to have the impartial, evidence-based institutional conversations about what is it to be international; what is the value of this audience, and what is our own value to that audience? It enables us to mature in an informed way, and it allows us to adapt more quickly; and therefore be more relevant on the world stage. And I think that's really, really important. I simply don't know of another instrument that enables us to do this in the same way.” 

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

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