Are International Students More Students, or More International?


This year, over four and a half million international students are discovering new cultures and making new friends as we speak. They are all globetrotting for the perfect degree, dreaming for the dream job every day. In 2000, there were only two million brave hearts, meaning that by 2025, universities and colleges should expect that number to double up to seven or eight million international students worldwide (source: OECD). So, it’s time for international departments to draft out some pretty creative concepts never seen before to make their future guests feel at home as possible. An information booth and flyers to leaf through will no longer suffice. It is time for innovative and customised strategies.

But there’s something more important than those marketing plans.
Oh yes, there is.

Before going head first and reaching for the pen to scribble down strategies for attracting students from abroad, please take a moment and define ‘international students.’ Describe who they are, what they mean to you, and what they represent as a group. Be careful, because that definition will carve everything you do for and with them. It feels so obvious, doesn’t it? International students. How come one should describe them when nothing can be more self-explanatory than this? Google, as a matter of fact, will offer you about 88,400,000 results on what international students are, and all this in less than 52 seconds. You need more than a minute to decide upon something so valuable like your target audience.

UNESCO defines international students as ‘students who have crossed a national or territorial border for the purpose of education and are now enrolled outside their country of origin.’ You are considered to be an international student at the University of Arizona, USA, if ‘a) you are not a citizen of the United States of America, and 2) you are not a permanent resident of the United States of America at the time you apply for admission. This includes those who have submitted residency application documents to the USCIS but have not received formal approval verifying that you have become a permanent resident of the United States of America.’ The University of Western Australia says that “you are an international student if you are: a) a temporary resident (visa status) of Australia, b) a permanent resident (visa status) of New Zealand, or c) a resident or citizen of any other country.’ Sure, that’s clear enough. But it doesn’t give you any insights on how to start communicating with these people. What you add to this definition will influence your entire plan for approaching internationals. What’s the first thing to say?

As soon as you place your audience into a fixed category, it’s nearly impossible to withdraw all the preconceptions that come attached to the group’s characteristics and features. In no time, those attributes become a given, and all your brand initiatives will adhere to them automatically. So, before packing your bags for the next recruitment trip overseas and way before the open day, put this question on repeat: are international students such a different target from domestic students?

While it would be wildly inaccurate to pretend there aren’t any differences between international and domestic students, separating these two can make for a massive gap in the way you approach them right from the beginning. When you pass through the international term, you’re left with a crowd that can easily feel singled out. A dedicated offering and services shaped on one very specific characteristic such as visa status and residency paperwork may suggest limits and unwritten restrictions for international students, making them think they are indeed of a different breed.

Therefore, the only rule you should follow when starting a conversation and engaging with international students is that their integration within your university’s lifestyle must feel like a natural process. An institution’s international-specific services (pre-arrival support, welcome pack, accommodation assistance, scholarship funds, etc.) should work as an add-on to their general student offerings. If you insist on these as the ace up your sleeve, you risk sending the wrong message to international students.

Universities and colleges from across the world need to be prepared to shape and adjust their services according to students coming from abroad, while maintaining a good balance between helping internationals adapt and having them integrated as quickly as possible. No matter whether you have one international student joining your institution for a three-month study abroad exchange programme or you greet over 10,000 internationals a year, the approach must be the same. They shouldn’t feel like outsiders, or worse, intruders. They already have enough on their plate by leaving their home country, family, and friends.

When in doubt, book a flight to Australia and see what their international uni centres are doing. Education is their second-biggest export industry, reaching AUS $28.6 billion in 2016–2017.

So, homework for today: define international students.

James Blay