Shaping the international student experience against a backdrop of growing numbers

Capturing the student voice remains critical to the continuous development of the student experience at De Montfort University, not least as the international intake now exceeds that for domestic students. Here, International Planning Manager, Chris McCafferty, explains how multiple aspects of the student experience are shaped and impacted by the results of the university’s International Student Barometer (ISB). 

Getting the critical arrivals process right for International Students 

This year’s International Student Barometer (ISB) results have highlighted interesting details around De Montfort University’s International Students Welcome Week, as part of the arrivals aspect of the survey, shining a lens on perceptions of the event and reasons for non-attendance:  

“We've already addressed that in the sense that we're going to make it more accessible for the coming year simply by changing the date, something that was highlighted by students’ ISB feedback. So, we can address this with a certain amount of confidence by changing the date and improving the associated communications. The feedback we get from students that do attend is very positive indeed; we see that it helps international students meet people from their own country and from other countries.” 


Off the back of the 2021/22 ISB survey results and analysis, Chris has also led the university on a series of breakout sessions focusing on improvement areas and initiatives, including bringing in students to strengthen the depth of understanding of their perspectives. One such example is their International Week in November where sessions with the students drilled down into how the admissions process had been received. 

Improving pass rates from students from high-risk regions 
Looking at the satisfaction with learning and online learning aspects of the student experience at DMU, performance versus last year has been very strong, with the vast majority of aspects surveyed improving. Chris puts this down in part to ensuring that quality support is there for all learners, online or otherwise, and continuing regular informed dialogue with senior stakeholders across multiple functions within the university.  

One particular area contributing to those improved results however, is that of students arriving from regions with higher UKVI risk. The university’s policy had previously been to place a cap on those numbers in order to limit risk, but that has now been superseded by credibility interviews whereby those students will have a one-to-one interview to assess things like how good their conversational English is, and their intentions with regard to learning. One knock-on effect of this is how DMU’s agents work with them – they are more selective now with who they send to DMU, with some favourable knock-on effects, explains Chris: 

“This has impacted the course pass rates for India in particular, which have climbed from around 66% to over 80% in the space of a couple of years – we get better quality students coming through; it’s easier for them to study; non-continuation and non-completion rates have decreased as a result.” 


Understanding and leveraging the influencers of student choice 

The influence of agents on students’ decision-making process is significantly higher than the benchmark, so, understanding students’ interactions with the university’s partners is critical to the ongoing success of their marketing and recruitment efforts. Conversely, university rankings play a far less important role at DMU than in the rest of UK universities. Chris observes how this impacts their recruitment strategies,  

“We find now that we can go out to agents and really focus on the benefits of the university beyond any university rankings which sometimes don’t feel reflective of DMU’s fantastic facilities, great teachers and accommodation provision. Rightly or wrongly, things like staff-to-student ratios and employment after graduation figures where we’re a little behind benchmark, probably impact our rankings.” 


Preparing DMU students for their career goals 

Ranking data aside, the experience of international students at DMU paints a hugely positive picture when it comes to employability and career support - with all aspects of career support outstripping UK ISB benchmarks, putting DMU in the top quartile for this measure. Of particular note is the aspect of ‘being prepared for career goals’ where DMU scores 84% versus a UK benchmark of 78%. Putting this into further perspective, 5% of international students in the UK feel ‘very unprepared for their career goals – at DMU, not a single student felt unprepared. 

“Those top quartile results provide a real affirmation that we’re doing the right things by our students – it’s the main reason they are here – we’re preparing them for their future live, so that’s very satisfying to see us performing like that.” 


Developing strategies to address weak spots 

Of course, there are always areas highlighted by the survey that represent opportunities for improvement, The financial support given to international students is a relatively common area, and the ISB supports the institution’s understanding of the issue. Chris explains:  

“It’s an area that can naturally be unsettling for students if, for example, they have outstanding payments. Chasing-payment letters will only add to those feelings, when in fact what they really need is someone to speak with on a one-to-one basis to help work through any issues, support them obtaining part-time work through our Work-bank, or get them involved with the Student Advice Centres. We’ve acknowledged that simply signposting students and passing them on to other support functions isn’t effective enough, so we work with key stakeholders across the university to make sure the quality of support is right, and individual students’ issues are dealt with swiftly. And hopefully we’ll see the impact of these initiatives in the next ISB results when we analyse the different support functions.” 


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At DMU though, the ISB also helps justify decisions to give fresh focus to particular areas – the university holds itself to high account and is always looking to continuously improve. So, if the longitudinal data indicates a drop in performance, even if those areas are still performing comparatively well against benchmark, such as the orientation programme and some aspects around social activities, plans are already in place to up the scores.  

“We’ll scrutinise anything scoring below 85%.” 

Student mental health 

Given the widely reported mental health crisis in UK Higher Education, DMU’s results for student wellbeing aspects are highly encouraging to see. Students have fewer concerns compared with the UK benchmark (34% vs 38%) and feelings of stress are also notably lower, 63% of students reporting they never or only occasionally feel stressed, compared to the benchmark of 69%. 

In the three years Chris has been in-post, things have definitely changed in how the International Office operates, and so too has the culture and the thought processes around student satisfaction at the university as they put in place mechanisms to capture the student voice and evaluate the student experience.  

“Student satisfaction is an important KPI alongside all the other targets related to continuous improvement. Our mindset is we want to deeply understand our students rather than second guessing them.” 


Data helping support cultural change

The culture change is evident when disseminating the ISB results and encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing across the university. Chris spends a lot of time presenting the results and analysis to the various stakeholders to ensure widespread understanding of performance, data trends, strengths and weaknesses. He also facilitates how Deans of Faculty actively share good practices, especially when it comes to aspects of learning satisfaction. The ISB helps them identify high-performance in different faculties, so Deans can then establish what they are doing differently to achieve such results. It’s a similar picture with the Regional Managers – it’s about uncovering the practices that contribute to variances in the results - stakeholders across the university are all too keen to see the data and analysis in order to identify how they can continuously improve.  

“It would be very simple to assume we know our students, but the landscape evolves and so do our student populations- their priorities and motivations change, their tastes change, their behaviours change. It’s dangerous for universities to assume otherwise, which is why we keep asking questions, keep measuring, and keep responding to the insights.”  

ES 23 ISB DMU Findings - For Blog v.2


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De Montfort University is a PIEoneer Awards 2023 Finalist for the Employability international impact category - supporting student employability and entrepreneurship through international experiences. 

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

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