Location, location, location – how British universities are selling the UK

UK immigration
"If the UK is to remain competitive on the global stage, any new system will need to open up more immigration routes for international graduates," says immigration solicitor, Anne Morris. Source: Shutterstock

It’s widely accepted that many international students choose to study overseas in pursuit of educational excellence; “high quality teaching”, a “good reputation” and a “well ranked university” are among the most important reasons for choosing a country of study, according to the International Student Survey 2018.

Though UK universities might feel secure in the knowledge that once again, the UK has topped the poll for best country for education, seven out of 10 of the world’s best universities  are located in the US and the four most popular study destinations for international students include the US, Canada and Australia before the UK. As British universities are realising that they must concentrate their efforts on recruiting international students to maintain their income stream, the question of how to market the UK and its educational offerings become increasingly important.

Excellent teaching and reputation aside, many students choose to study overseas because of the opportunities gleaned from this sort of international environment – travel, diversity, the chance to try new things and experience a new culture. But alongside the sense of adventure there are concerns.

High on the list of the international student worries is cost of living, safety and being made to feel welcome in a new country; the desire to fit in is important. Lucky then, that research shows UK universities are keen to showcase a country that will feel comfortably familiar, and yet can also generate the sense of adventure one would hope to experience when moving to a new environment. And this combination of familiarity mixed with the excitement of new discovery is achieved in a very simple way: through descriptive language outlining the facilities the location can offer.

Providing a list of facilities – theatre, galleries, cinema, restaurants – is pretty dull. However, once this becomes “a thriving arts scene brimming with theatre and galleries” and “a host of lively restaurants offering a wide range of cuisines”, it starts to sound more exciting. Most of the amenities are likely to be available in the student’s home environment so they will seem usual and familiar; this leads to a sense of belonging and fitting in, which we know to be important for international students.

Yet, the use of descriptive language combined with a list of facilities transforms these seemingly standard services into an impressive array of exciting new possibilities just waiting to be tried out. We’ve got an “amazing selection of independent shops and a really buzzing retail environment” or “the theatre has hosted some fantastic plays recently – there’s always something exciting happening”. The language used is deliberate – it aims to stimulate the reader and encourage a positive emotional connection. And a positive emotional reaction is more likely to lead to students choosing one institution over another.

Describing a diverse list of activities also has secondary benefits. Universities must appeal to a wide audience who don’t necessarily have the same likes and dislikes or want the same thing. A catalogue of facilities not only enables the university to reassure and excite students, it also means they can appeal to a wide audience with varied tastes and experiences. Within that extensive list of amenities, there’s bound to be something that appeals to every potential applicant.

There are around 130 universities spread across the length and breadth of the UK. They cover distinct landscapes, cities and towns with ancient and individual histories, unique architecture and diverse populations. All this variety might suggest it would be difficult for UK universities to present one clear view of the country as a location, but this is not the case.

Compared to the other top destinations for international students – the US, Canada and Australia – the UK is geographically compact, making it fairly easy to travel from one city to another. Nowhere is far from the drama of the coast or the tranquillity of the countryside; nowhere is far from the thrill of history or the buzz of bright lights. And this makes it easy for universities to show that as a location, the UK is genuinely able to offer reassurance and excitement for all.

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