The unsung benefits of attracting international students to your destination

Are you currently working to attract international students to your destination? If the answer is no, then the chances are that you’re missing a trick. International students stay longer and spend more than the average tourist, contribute enormously to your talent pipeline, and can increase your soft power as well.

While universities such as Oxford or Harvard may have the brand strength to appeal to a wide-range of prospective students, many higher education institutions lack the reputational foothold to compete internationally. Despite all of this, international student attraction doesn’t fall into the remit of a DMO or EDO very often – even though they already have the tools to promote the place’s strengths and quality of life factors to the fullest.

We reached out to three destinations who have been incorporating their study proposition into their broader place brand strategy to understand how they have leveraged their international student attraction to deliver back on their city’s values.

What are the advantages to developing your place as a study destination?

We mentioned three key benefits to attracting international students as part of your place brand; economic spend; diverse talent; and furthering your soft power.

Firstly, international students can be a key contributor for your economy. According to Sydney’s Community Recovery Plan, for every $1 lost in international student tuition fees, $1.15  is lost in the broader economy due to the loss of spending by those same international students. Similarly, data from the University of Buenos Aires’s latest report  on the economic impact of international students shows that the 92,000 international students in 2019 contributed 0.68% of the city’s GDP.

However, international students can also give a great deal back to their communities. “Whilst tourism produces great economic benefits, by the very fact that it is short-term, it is not as impactful when it comes to mutual learning and contributions to the city's culture and diversity,” mused David Riordan, Director of City Operations at the City of Sydney. Across the world, Francisco Resnicoff, the Undersecretary for International and Institutional Relations for Buenos Aires City Government, shared a similar sentiment, stating that “international students help contribute to the diversity, talent, and creativity from which the city draws its identity.”

Furthermore, there are knock-on benefits for your investors and businesses. “Our goal is to help students find an internship, part-time or full-time job during their studies as a way to enhance their student experience,” explained Mathieu Lefort, Director of International Students (I choose Montréal) for Montréal International, as he outlined how a series of recruitment activities simultaneously increases their attractiveness as a study destination and creates a pipeline of engaged, diverse talent for businesses in Greater Montréal.

And finally, then there’s the soft power angle. If you want to be known for being welcoming, educated, and culturally diverse, then developing your international study brand could be an excellent place to start. Plus, a significant percentage of higher education students will end up in senior decision-making roles. “International students can be great ambassadors for our cities and our educational institutions. There’s no better champion than someone who has spent time studying in our city, fully integrating and soaking up the vibrant culture that Buenos Aires has to offer,” shared Francisco.

The challenges facing study destinations

It’s been a difficult year – though it says a lot of our progress that we’re halfway through an article before COVID gets a mention. However, while interest from international students remains high, COVID-19 restrictions will be undoubtedly be impacting students’ decisions.

Simon  Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect, shared that their latest survey shows that “countries that have communicated strongly that international students are welcome, such as the UK, have seen a rise in attractiveness compared to countries with stricter border controls, such as Australia.”

Policy decision such as closed borders or a difficult visa process are possibly hurdles that can’t be avoided, but that just leaves it up to your own approach to go the extra mile, particularly if your international students are starting the school year from their home country. While most – if not all – educational establishments have been able to pivot to online tuition, Francisco outlined how Buenos Aires has been working with their partner universities to continue their programme of events virtually to keep the students engaged with the city more broadly. In Montreal, Mathieu explained how the Study Connect platform on the I choose Montréal website is matching students from around the world to educational institutions based on their study projects. And David shared how Sydney’s have been protecting their international students in Sydney by providing housing support, food hampers, and face masks. “For those stranded overseas,” he added, “our providers and agents have maintained good relationships with them as the Federal Government looks for ways to bring them back.”

Of course, there’s also the eternal challenge of differentiating your messaging. While much of this is rooted in your place identity and the quality of life and experiences that you can offer, honest communication – backed up with clear actions – on how you’re able to support the welfare of your students in the event of disaster is likely of much higher interest than ever before.

Top tips on how to begin building a study brand for your destination

“Given that a 40% drop in international mobility is foreseen in the new normal, it is imperative that local governments and universities work together to make sure their cities can keep attracting students,” shared Francisco. Given that, we asked each of our place experts what their one suggestion would be for any place looking to promote themselves as a study destination:

Focus on the student experience:

“Take a holistic approach and focus on the student experience – workplace learning, quality of education, cultural diversity, COVID safety – and work with education agents.” David Riordan, Sydney, suggested.

Leverage data to inform your decision-making:

“Collecting statistics on student demographics, interests, length of stay and courses chosen will help you understand and prioritise which types of academic programmes to promote. It will also help universities and academic institutions understand how they can diversify their academic offering to better attract international students – such as providing courses in different languages,” explained Francisco Resnicoff, Buenos Aires.

Collaborate with your broader ecosystem:

 “Develop strong local and international relationships to better promote your study destination. Students are looking for more than a study experience – they want the whole package. Building strong ties with employers, cultural organisations, and other local institutions is essential to delivering this,” finished Mathieu Lefort, Montreal.

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.