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International study destinations: where in the world has the strongest brand?

International study destinations: where in the world has the strongest brand?

The US Supreme Court has upheld the Trump Administration’s travel ban restricting entry to the US for citizens of seven countries. A controversial outcome, to put it mildly. And one which raises questions (amongst many, many others) about the attractiveness of the US as a study destination.

And brand reputation is going to be impacted far beyond the specific countries included in the ban. According to data from Project Atlas, the USA has over a million international students studying in the country. That’s a whole lot of students contributing to the US economy (fees, living costs, family visiting). Not to mention a whole lot of cultural contributions to the US higher education sector and society more broadly, and a whole lot of global knowledge exchange and goodwill, to lose.

Obviously the situation is not as simple as that – one President’s immigration laws are unlikely to completely erode the effects of a globally prestigious and well-established higher education system. But it does raise questions: how does the US now fare as an international study destination? And what other countries are ready and waiting to provide international students with an inspiring, challenging and life-changing study experience?

For your viewing pleasure, the team at Natives Global Consulting have crunched some figures to find out. So, where in the world has the strongest country brand?

The data

We looked at a range of data points for some of the world’s most popular English-speaking student destinations – USA, UK, Australia, and Canada – and analysed the data using our proprietary data-crunching methodology to figure out their relative brand strengths.

Looking at awareness, desire, engagement, purchase (or, as we like to call it in HE, enrolment), sentiment, quality and performance over time, we selected quantitative data points as heuristics for each brand ‘pillar’. We then assigned a weight to each pillar and to each point and normalised the data by assigning a score from 0 to 4 for each metric, based on relative performance. The data points used are detailed at the bottom of this post.

The findings

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So who has the best brand?

Perhaps challenging expectations, Australia has the highest awareness. Although, we measured awareness using only one metric – social listening – and we all know that this would be better measured using a wider range of data points (perhaps some surveys, for example).

However, the USA’s poor performance in this arena is of note, prompting the question, why were people not discussing the USA as a study destination during 2017? Does this relate to the desirability of the USA as a place to study?

Other data would seem to suggest so. Searches for the same terms around studying in the USA declined by over 6% from the period June 2016-May 2017 and June 2017-May 2018. And sentiment of online conversations about studying in the USA decreased from an already low 0.5% to 0%. But yet, the USA still saw an increase in international students enrolling of over 3% between 2016 and 2017. And the USA fully trumps (pardon the pun) the other three countries for overall international student numbers, boasting well over a million. It also outperforms its nearest rival, the UK, in the quality stakes, boasting between two to five times more institutions in global rankings. Of course, this may, at least in part, be down to the sheer size of the higher education sector in the USA. Although size isn’t everything: funding undoubtedly also plays a part, as does the desire developed through ongoing strong rankings and reputation. Money attracts money, just as good academic research attracts good academic researchers, and so the appeal and rankings of good quality institutions continue to rise.

But, when it comes to engagement and sentiment, the UK is leading the pack. This is partly down to the British Council, a global brand flying the flag well for the UK across social media. Aside from Australia on Twitter and Facebook, there was a decided lack of social engagement opportunities outside of the UK’s offering.

And when it comes to year on year performance, Canada seems to be taking the greatest strides. True, it is coming from, overall, the lowest base, with the smallest student numbers of the four nations. But it’s seen the largest percentage increase in international student numbers and is the only country to have seen an increase in sentiment of online conversations: perhaps another outcome of the change in attitudes towards the USA?

Commenting on the results, Kas Nicholls, Head of Natives Global Consulting, said:

“While these results are a very quick measure of the desirability of the four countries, they raise some interesting questions for those charged with marketing study destinations: while the USA remains the largest market for international students, their lack of social media presence is a weakness. Putting out strong messages about the USA as an amazing study and life experience could help overcome negative messages elsewhere in the media. And for Canada, which was perhaps previously overpowered by its neighbour, there seem to be opportunities to be exploited here.”

The takeaway

Marketing a country as a study destination is a challenge with questions of control and influence springing to mind: how to position yourself against a backdrop of controversy at a political level? And how to work with, and not against, the universities themselves – especially in a varied sector of different kinds of institutions with different needs?

Measuring brand using a series of quantitative metrics also has its challenges. But can provide some interesting food for thought.

If you want to know more about being an effective brand, come along to ASDIE, 19 July in London. And if you’d like to discuss any of the above, or you’d like to know how Net Natives can help you reach your student recruitment goals, speak to one of our experts here

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Data points used for analysis:
  • Awareness:
    • # social mentions for terms related to ‘study in X’ Jun17-May18, as counted by social listening software
  • Desire:
  • Engagement:
  • Purchase (enrolment):
  • Sentiment:
    • Sentiment of social mentions, as judged by the social listening software, Jun17-May18
  • Quality:
    • Number of institutions in top 100 of THE World University ranking
    • Number of institutions in top 100 of QS World University ranking
    • Number of institutions in top 100 of World Top 500 Universities ranking
  • Performance over time:
    • Search % change from Jun16-May17 to Jun17-May18
    • Sentiment % change Jun16-May17 to Jun17-May18
    • Enrolments of international students % change from 2016 to 2017, using Project Atlas data