New adopters of Tribal i-graduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB), University College Birmingham (UCB), have achieved some exceptional results – not least top-performing institution for face-to-face orientation, with a score of 98% versus the UK benchmark of 95%. (They have also won multiple external student awards, including first place for International students in the Whatuni Student Choice Awards.) We spoke with Christopher Sharpe, Director of International and Partnerships at UCB, to find out just how impactful the last year of development has been and the ways in which the ISB is helping the institution garner such fantastic student feedback.
The influence and impact of the student voice
One of the key influencers in any institution’s involvement with the ISB is gaining insight into the student voice, both in terms of how they are performing as an institution, and how that performance compares against national/global benchmarks. Chris was keen to note how the student voice is influential in UCB’s decision-making and how open staff are to providing for students’ needs based on feedback obtained from the ISB and their open-door policy:
“It’s very important that students have a successful journey with us and that we can continue to support them wherever possible. The only way we can do that is by understanding what the challenges are that those students have and how they're feeling about UCB. Then we can use that information to inform strategy and inform activity that we're undertaking, including our open-door policy. All of our students can freely access the institution as and when they want to, and with a real diverse mix of students on campus now it’s absolutely critical that we support those students in their journey.”
The ISB affords Chris and the team a level of detail that is otherwise very challenging to come by, enabling them to identify areas of the institution that may require refreshed focus and improvement.
By listening to their student voice, supported via the ISB, UCB have shown prominent growth in their student satisfaction ratings, notably having more promoters (51% against the UK average of 39%) and overall learning scoring highly (95% against their bespoke benchmark 91%).
Using the ISB in a post-Brexit world
When asked why University College Birmingham first engaged with the ISB, it was clear that in the post-Brexit climate there was a significant challenge for a smaller institution to stand out in the international crowd. Chris and UCB had a familiar challenge of battling against changes to visa schemes and student loans for international students that resulted in international recruitment taking a significant hit.
In order to turn the downward trend around, Chris looked for a reliable source of information that could offer granular insight into international students’ needs, turning to Tribal i-graduate’s ISB to provide the depth of information they required:
“I needed to understand what our students feel, and I needed to get a sense of what their student journey is with us – while we understood it to a degree, we didn't really understand the impact our recruitment agents and partners were having. We didn't understand the student motivations because we'd never worked in global markets to the scale that we are working now. And for me, it was super important we got that right.”
UCB were significantly high performers in 2023 for student arrival, scoring 96% satisfaction against the UK benchmark of 91%. Data from the ISB assisted in showing what students were feeling about their experience, and Chris and the international team could action their plans around feedback acquired if and when necessary.
The ISB was of key importance in helping to answer questions that UCB had regarding how to continue attracting international students year-on-year. An example of this was the team’s focus on their students arriving from India, where they have used feedback to inform and improve their marketing and recruitment strategies:
“India is currently our largest market for activity and that was reflected in the volume of ISB responses we had. Since receiving the data we've broken it down a little bit, to understand what it looks like at a national level. We then asked ourselves: so, what's the impact in India? What did our students from India feel? We see that they said ‘XYZ’, so let's make sure that that gets reflected in our marketing activity. Let’s ensure our partner network takes stock of that and that we're marketing ourselves in the right way.”
Comparing data to improve results
The benefit of being part of the ISB is not only hearing about the experiences of an institution’s own students, but those of other groups of institutions. For University College Birmingham, a key area of importance in developing the right strategy for their own students was by analysing a bespoke pool of universities sharing similar traits.
“We're competing in the same pools as some other universities, and we're working more often than not with the same agents. We need to know what other institutions are doing and get a sense of how we are doing compared to them in order to develop our competitive edge. Having a bespoke benchmark group was probably the most important thing out of all of the competitor analysis.”
The ISB can provide an in-depth look at the performance of bespoke groups in order to better equip institutions with the right information and data needed to make a meaningful impact on the formation of new strategies. For UCB, this meant being able to take data from institutions of a similar size and scope – i.e. those that would be their more direct competitors – to create a more meaningful view of what is happening around them.
Creating positive results from improvements in career support services
Career support is of vital importance to any student, both international and domestic – impact on future career prospects is a defining factor in students choosing where they study. From UCB’s results, it is clear that their formula is working in meeting students’ demands in this area – with students’ feedback rating them higher than the benchmark in every single facet of careers support. Chris acknowledges the achievement of those involved in the development of the careers support offered at UCB that have helped to gain such positive recognition in the ISB:
“We've got a team here called ‘Hired’, and they support students with their placement opportunities as well as jobs and everything else that goes with it. I think the other big win for us is our work with the University of Warwick, one of the top ten universities in the UK and a world-renowned Russell Group university. Most of our students will come along, they'll be studying a very practical-based vocational programme but they'll get University of Warwick accreditation off the back of it. So, students gain good experience, they're getting a Warwick-validated course, and they're getting all the practical experience all in one go. It’s a big win for them because they've got work on their CV and they've got some really amazing practical experience at the same time.”
Students have rated UCB’s careers support an outstanding 96%, far outweighing the UK ISB score of 81%, and it’s clear to see that it is the institution’s commitment to improving the support with a dedicated team, collaboration with other institutions, and their own staff’s hard work that have allowed them to score so highly.
Gaining the most value from ISB data to impact better student experience
With positive results come new challenges, and for Chris and UCB that is most prominent in the challenge of bringing more students to the university and subsequently scaling the support necessary to continue to uphold their high standards. Positive feedback is an exceptional strength to take into marketing materials and to supply international recruitment agents with in order to help sway students, but growth brings its own challenges. As Chris notes:
“Next year it has to be about acknowledging we've done really well with a relatively small-scale number of students, because we can hand-hold every single one of them. But, how do we do that when we've got two-and-a-half-thousand international students in the mix? How can we continue to provide that level of support and how do we become scalable with our support mechanisms?”
The data from the ISB will provide that year-on-year insight into students’ changing habits and opinions as the university continues to adapt. UCB’s positive results may remain unchanged or they could be impacted by growth and strain on resource, which is something that in future surveys Chris and his team can identify to recognise exactly where they might need to refocus their attentions.
As of the 2023 ISB, UCB have been a very high performer with outstanding results, and acknowledging these positive responses from students provides Chris with the foundations needed for developing a future improvement plan:
“We've been really surprised by a lot of things but then we keep getting similar results across the board. We keep getting amazing results from our students and they keep telling us these amazing things – but of course we keep finding challenges with things ourselves, internally. We're just trying to work through these things as part of a continuous improvement plan and trying to embed student success and student outcomes into everything that we do. As we talk about scaling of operations, we need to make sure we take all our students with us, ensuring each student population is getting that consistent level of experience.”
Taking positives from ISB data is one thing – actioning areas that fall short of high expectations is another. For Chris, organising better accommodation for incoming students has been a significant area of interest, alongside keeping the university on-track to support their incoming student growth numbers. But it’s still important to not lose sight of what works and where investments can continue to yield improvements:
“It's about continuing to develop the service functions that we have got and ensuring that we're on top of technology as it comes along. It’s not necessarily always about shouting about the ROI that you get from whichever new initiatives you have, but certainly making sure that the ones that you're putting in place and investing in are giving you the results that you've anticipated.”
One final thought shared by Chris on the importance of the ISB and its role in the future of University College Birmingham:
“We need to listen to our international students, their voice, how they're feeling. The ISB will absolutely provide us with those KPIs that we want to incorporate into our strategy. Moving forwards, the ISB really underpins our student experience – it will help shape it – it will be a litmus test to get a sense of what students are feeling as they go along that journey with us. In five years’ time we will be a different institution altogether.”
For insight into the international student experience globally, including reports, expert articles, webinar recordings, and case studies in your region, visit the International Student Barometer pages:
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