Attracting International Students is Only Half the Story

This is a shortened and simplified version of an article by Alejandro Ortiz - WES Research & Advisory Services, Rahul Choudaha - WES Research & Advisory Services. If you are interested, we recommend that you read the complete detailed and fully referenced article Attracting and Retaining International Students in Canada.

Canadians are living longer and having fewer children. With a fertility rate below the replacement rate of 2.1., Canada’s social welfare system will be challenged and Canada will have a hard time maintaining its economic growth. Canada’s economy needs new talent with advanced education to drive future growth. Employment and Social Development Canada predicts that two-thirds of job openings in over the next six years will require post-secondary education.

The Government of Canada encourages skilled migration through the recruitment of international students. They aim to double the number of international students (with a target of 450,000) within a decade by strengthening Canada’s education brand as a leading destination for study and world-class research. But federal initiatives alone are not enough; colleges and universities need to join this effort and contribute to the retention of international students as future skilled migrants.

In a survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) almost half (46%) of international students surveyed plan to acquire permanent residency and to work indefinitely in Canada, while 25 percent plan to work in Canada for a period of up to three years and then return home. Given that the actual number of transitioning international students is much lower, the Canadian government has made a concerted effort to ease the transition to permanent residency, particularly through the recently established Canadian Experience Class Program (CEC).

Over the past ten years, just over 5 per cent of international students in Canada directly transitioned to permanent residency status. These days, 40 per cent of the total temporary foreign workers convert to permanent resident status by first changing their status to temporary foreign workers through the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) Program, thus becoming permanent residents under the various immigration streams including the Canadian Experience Class, Provincial Nominee Programs and Federal Skilled Worker Program.

Canada’s recently announced international education strategy aims “to ‘brand’ Canada to maximum effect” and strengthen the value proposition of studying in Canada for international students. Student retention depends not just on promising positive experiences but delivering them. To do that, our higher education institutions need to assess and adapt their programs and services to enhance the experience of international students and make longer-term employment options more viable.

The difficulties and costs that students face in order to acquire a student visa to study abroad may elevate their expectations in terms of the returns on their investment. A mismatch in expectations and experiences can lead to dissatisfaction and poor retention, which in turn may lead to financial and reputational losses for higher education institutions. To improve retention, universities need to bridge this “expectation-reality” gap.

The first step for higher education institutions in working to improve retention is recognizing that “not all international students are the same.” Differences in academic preparedness and financial resources, for example, can translate into differences in the expectations.

With a deeper understanding of how students diverge in profile and behavior, institutions can apply an understanding of the diversity in expectations and experiences to the design and development of programs and services, resource allocation, and their retention challenges.

Unrealistic expectations frequently stem from insufficient or inaccurate information about county and/or institution. Therefore higher education institutions improve the communication and relationship by orienting international students on the ways in which their studies abroad may differ from their previous educational experiences in areas such as classroom culture, collaborative work, and expectations and criteria for success.

World Education Service (WES) has developed a framework of international student segmentation, based on a survey of nearly 3,000 U.S.-bound international students. Their research identifies four different types of students—Explorers, Strivers, Strugglers and Highfliers–based on academic preparedness and financial resources. It highlights the differences in international student profiles and their corresponding needs.

Explorers (those students with high financial resources, and low academic preparedness) are less likely to attend English language training programs as compared to Strivers (those with low financial resources, and high academic preparedness). Likewise, Explorers tend to rate location as one of their top-three areas as compared to Strivers. The segmentation framework enables a greater understanding of international students different needs and expectations, leading to the need to differentiate recruitment- and retention–related practices.

Australia’s Griffith University has developed a student-centered strategy for retention with objectives related to improving student experiences and enhancing compatibility between expectations and experience. They use a data-driven approach, with systems in place to monitor and evaluate international students’ experiences.

A project at the University of Reading in the UK, has developed a holistic model of student support comprised of two key elements: the one stop shop for student services and the university-wide system of personal tutoring. Findings support “monitoring progress, communicating expectations, effectively managing relationships bolstered by robust personal tutorial systems and a transparent network of support services will ensure student success.”

In the U.S., the NAFSA: Association of International Educators, commissioned research with WES to identify factors that inhibit and contribute to international undergraduate student retention and to offer recommendations of good practices. The research report is being released at the NAFSA annual conference in this month (May, 2014).

In Canada, the existing framework of policies aimed at easing permanent residency is a step in the right direction, but sustainable growth is dependent on delivering the promise of positive student experiences. Policymakers and higher education institutions need to create pathways to facilitate the positive transition of international students into Canada.

Attracting international students is only half the story – the other half is retaining them through positive experiences. This will require a deeper understanding of international students so that institutions can provide proactive support, promote engagement and invest in creating positive experiences. One of the strategic priorities for higher education institutions, therefore, should be to understand diverse international student segments, measure their expectations and experiences, and invest in high quality services.

Read the original article at Attracting and Retaining International Students in Canada.