International students need more support researching degree options

Nearly two in five people in the UK with a degree would choose a different one if they could decide again, according to a 2020 YouGov survey. Less than half (46 per cent) would stick with their original choice.

Meanwhile, in the US, a recent report from the Federal reserve highlights that “among adults who had completed at least some college (and were not currently enrolled), nearly half (48 per cent) who had studied the arts and humanities said they would now major in something else”. With 39 million people in US now having some college credits but no degree, this level of “buyer’s remorse” about the degree course selected is a significant issue.

To better ensure student satisfaction, widening the range of courses considered before selection would seem to be important for universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Part of the issue is likely to be a lack of knowledge among would-be students about the range of degrees on offer. Intuitively, this deficit is likely to be particularly acute for people from non-traditional backgrounds and from overseas, who may lack the family and peer support network available to other students. And that assumption is borne out by research carried out by the UKI Forum over the past 13 months with international students already studying at UK secondary schools. In the most recent survey, 56 per cent of respondents actively considering their higher education options said that they felt their current knowledge of the range of degree subjects available could be broader. The students also highlighted that they very much consider course and institution together (66 per cent of respondents): only 27 per cent consider course first and only 7 per cent consider institution first.

These findings highlight the need for universities to think about their marketing approach to both international and other students who may lack a broad awareness of the range of subjects offered at degree level in the UK. These students would welcome a less “institution-centric” approach to marketing, which promotes a broader understanding of the degrees on offer with a clearer understanding of where each degree can lead in career terms.

In response, the UKI Forum, which has eight university partners, has just issued a newsletter to all UK-based international students and school staff who have attended any of its events focused entirely on “lesser-known degrees and the careers they can lead to”. It has also produced videos from specific institutions highlighting lesser-known degrees and the career pathways they open up.

Individually, institutions are also recognising a need to better explain lesser-known subjects to prospective students. As part of its green agenda, for instance, the University of Exeter offers courses such as renewable energy engineering and sustainable energy futures, both potentially leading to lucrative, rewarding careers in sustainable energy. “At fairs and in-person events, we explain to the students that we do not print full prospectuses or ship materials to events anymore,” says Adriana Caton, Exeter’s international officer. “Our handout is a single sheet information pamphlet with QR codes. This naturally opens the conversation to students of all levels that we are a green university offering exciting degrees related to renewable energy.”

The University of Southampton, meanwhile, has run a series of webinars helping prospective students understand more about a wider variety of engineering degrees. “Southampton has 19 engineering research groups, centres and institutes, and we want to help students look beyond the more obvious engineering choices so they make exactly the right decision for them,” says Elodie Sprenger, country development manager. “For example, acoustical engineering can lead to fantastic careers in managing noise pollution and working with architects on building design.”

Smaller arts universities are perhaps at an advantage here, given the focused nature of the range of degrees they offer. As Jenny Oxley, head of internationalisation at Leeds Arts University says: “As a specialist arts university, we can explore not only degree options, but also the clear career paths of alumni post-graduation with prospective students.” For example, the institution is able to illustrate to prospective students that its BA in Comic and Concept Art can lead to “exciting opportunities in both the games and film industries”.

It will be interesting to see how universities further address this feedback at future recruitment events and in the marketing they provide to prospective students. Perhaps they should focus more on a course presentation approach, as opposed to an institutional “sell”.

Pat Moores is the founder of UK Education Guide.

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