More than half of the world’s population uses the internet and social media users have increased by 21 per cent since 2015, with 2.8 billion users reported globally in 2017.
Social media is not just changing the way we communicate – it’s changing the way we gather information, inform our decisions and understand the world. This year’s International Student Survey (ISS) from Hobsons found that social media is continuing to grow in importance among prospective international students. Our findings show that social media campaigns are shaping how these prospective students perceive the UK as a place to study.
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For young people in particular, social media is now the principle means of gathering information and communicating with peers. This year’s research found that 83 per cent of prospective students are using social channels to research universities, an increase of 19 per cent between 2016 and 2017. While preferences vary from country to country, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram dominate social media usage but a range of other platforms, such as LinkedIn and Pinterest, are also being used.
Some 82 per cent of international students use social media before an enquiry is made, underlining the importance of early engagement. There is also an increasing appetite for social messaging. Globally, 42 per cent of respondents said they would like to use WhatsApp to communicate with universities, while 35 per cent would like to use Facebook.
The growing importance of social media is also highlighted by the finding that there is a positive correlation between the popularity of a university’s social media channels and the number of international students they recruit. This correlation does not indicate causation, however the social media presence of universities seems to reflect their ability to welcome international students.
Social media campaigns can also shape how prospective international students perceive UK universities, telling them that the UK offers a superb education and that they are proud of the UK’s international university communities. Many universities – like those supporting the #WeAreInternational, created by the University of Sheffield – are committed to this welcoming message.
This year’s ISS found that 84 per cent of prospective international students say campaigns such as #WeAreInternational and #LondonIsOpen – the mayor of London’s campaign – positively influence their perception of the UK.
When choosing a destination, international students are highly motivated by how welcome they feel. Some 31 per cent of the respondents cited it as the most important consideration when choosing a university. With social media increasingly becoming the first point of contact between a prospective international student and a university; it is critical that institutions develop a welcoming culture across their social media channels.
Higher education plays an important role in the UK economy, society and in nurturing generations to come. University communities – both staff and students – must develop an agile response to the changing global dynamics that challenge this, from the UK’s referendum on the EU to the US election. Social media proves an influential way of doing this, providing a platform for prospective students to gather information about our universities, to inform their decisions about where to study and to understand how welcome they will be at UK universities.
Jeremy Cooper is the managing director EMEA at Hobsons.