With Leicester City’s unexpected Premier League title, many started speculating about what economic benefits it would bring. Among the organisations hoping to bask in the reflected glory are the city’s higher education institutes – the University of Leicester and De Montfort University.
While some benefit may come on the domestic front, the main gain will come from abroad. In recent years, many higher education institutes in the UK have been putting a lot of focus on attracting overseas students as a valuable source of revenue.
The UK university sector is respected for its quality around the world but it is very crowded with many higher education providers competing for the same audience. Over the past few years we have worked with several UK universities so they can better understand how to attract students and we found that, although each institution is unique, there are several common truths.
Appealing to prospective students overseas is different to approaching them in this country. In the UK most people are likely to know a little about the institutions they are applying to, even if it’s simply that they know someone who went there or they have heard good things about it elsewhere.
However, around the world people’s knowledge of specific UK universities is more sketchy. Of course, they are likely to know places such as Oxford and Cambridge and may have a passing idea of others, but what they know is often quite low-level and pretty basic.
While this is a drawback in the short term, with a properly planned out strategy in the long term this lack of knowledge can work in an institution’s favour as it is a blank canvas and so can project itself however it likes. It can be an opportunity to impress potential foreign applicants.
Linked to this is that anything a university can do to stand out from the crowd can make a real difference when getting noticed in overseas markets. Places like Manchester already have cache in that many people know something about the city already – not least its football teams.
Others may even know some of Manchester University’s academics, with Professor Brian Cox’s appearances on television programmes around the world have helped raise the institution’s profile.
Not every university will have these benefits so they will need to think of other ways to set themselves apart. Research we have done in overseas markets involved testing various messages to see what about the institution in question can cut through and make an impact. For example, it may be the message that "this university has several Nobel Prize Winners" or statistics like "x% of graduates from this university get jobs within six months of leaving" that strike a chord with potential applicants and their influencers such as parents and teachers
Other places choose different approaches, changing the way they describe themselves to get to the front of the queue. The University of Kent makes the most of its proximity to the continent with tagline "the UK’s European University."
Nottingham has made a couple of subtle changes to how it positions itself in order to get noticed abroad. Its logo now includes the locations of its international offices so it now reads “United Kingdom, China, Malaysia”. Furthermore, when you Google it the results state it is a "world top 1% university."
Often, institutions use London as a big pull factor to overseas students and their families. This is not surprising given the fame of the city and the fact that if parents and siblings want to visit from overseas then it is likely they will want to go there. It is because of this that one of the most frequently tested messages in target markets is how far the university is from the city. For those based in the capital, most prominently feature the word "London" for the same reason.
Another way that universities can stand out to overseas students is to promote any association with, or proximity to, recognised and admired brands. The Premier League is one of the biggest British brands around the world and Leicester’s triumph gives the city’s higher education institutions a unique opportunity to attract students from around the world. For example, up until this year the University of Leicester had two major feathers in its cap: the invention of DNA fingerprinting and the discovery of Richard III. The Premier League victory adds a third thing to this list and the top line of the university’s website declares it is "a winning city at the heart of the UK."
De Montfort has been even more savvy. During Leicester’s title run-in, the world’s media descended on the city, including one Japanese film crew that was camped out there for weeks as the title edged closer. Many buildings around the city were decorated with messages of support. One of these was at De Montfort, featuring Japan and Leicester striker Shinji Okazaki, who was taught English at the university.
Don’t be surprised to see a spike in the university’s applications from Japan in the next few years as a result.
Image from PA