International students like to be where someone knows their name

Family ties are a big influence on which location people choose for study. Julie Hare reports

October 18, 2012

Family connections are emerging as among the most potent factors influencing international students’ choice of destination, research has found.

According to Rob Lawrence, the principal of Prospect Research and Marketing - an Australian market research firm with expertise in the education sector - nearly one in five international students in Australia had a sibling who was studying in or had studied in the country.

Of those who had a sibling in the country, 77 per cent were studying in the same city, with 38 per cent attending the same institution. Furthermore, one in four had a close family member living in the student’s destination city.

“We need to start realising we are not serving just individuals but entire families,” Mr Lawrence told the Australian International Education Conference in Melbourne this month. “(Universities) have got to put strategies in place that recognise and engage with families.”

Mr Lawrence’s survey of 2,160 international students, conducted in September, showed that nearly half of PhD students come with a partner or a partner and family, and that city had overtaken nation as the overriding reason for their choice of destination.

Beyond family influence, nearly 40 per cent of the students had visited Australia before coming to study. Although most had come for a holiday and to see family and friends, one in 10 had come on a study tour and more than 6 per cent to attend a graduation ceremony.

Mr Lawrence said that what surprised him was the level of “anonymous” on-the-ground research and information-gathering that prospective students were carrying out, catching most institutions unaware.

“During their last visit, 38 per cent visited the place where they are currently studying. A lot of them did it anonymously, being shown around by a friend or family member,” Mr Lawrence said.

“We have to assume that every day on campus there are five, maybe 20, people just having a look around. And they are not so much interested in the outside of buildings, but what goes on inside.”

While on average 40 per cent of international students had visited Australia before enrolling, Mr Lawrence said, the figures changed dramatically depending on source country: 82 per cent of Singaporean students, 56 per cent of Malaysians and 46 per cent of Indonesians had visited Australia at least once before.

Mr Lawrence also advised universities not to underestimate the impact of rankings, with 70 per cent of those students surveyed acknowledging that their decision was influenced by various league tables.

“But people are now realising that most rankings are about institutions, (whereas) teaching and learning is about the course. There had been a major shift in the past 12 to 15 months to (look at) discipline-based rankings,” he said.

Another factor that influenced choice of institution was the reputation of a university in a student’s home country, including comments and feedback in social media. Courses taught partly by industry practitioners and recommendations from close acquaintances were also important.

Mr Lawrence said permanent residency was starting to drift down the list of reasons why people wanted to study in Australia, but quality of education, lifestyle and employment prospects still rated highly.

This article first appeared in The Australian.

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