It's raining students or maybe not?

08 September 2023

Andrew Crisp examines the role perceptions play in decision-making by international students.

Whenever I do a presentation on business school branding, I like to quote a pair of tweets (or should that be Xs now) from 2013.  An international student was debating where to study.  The opening tweet said “Cheapest AACSB biz school? In the UK ka? Torn between the UK and Aus.  Hate UK weather, like fees.  Hate Aus fees, like weather”.  A few moments later, a second tweet followed “Go University of Liverpool will be fun but location weather is like shit I hear. Even during summer.”

Having been in Liverpool this week, I can confirm that the tweet was wrong, spending a lovely warm evening dining outside at a restaurant called The Toxteth Riviera.  Yet perceptions are incredibly powerful, especially for international students who may never have visited a location, let alone the business school they are considering.

In our soon to be published annual report, ‘The Business of Branding’, 82% of the respondents said they would consider studying internationally in the future.  So, what perceptions do these respondents have and, perhaps more importantly, what do they want from a business school?

First, where do students want to study internationally?  The USA is the top choice followed by the UK, Canada and Australia, with Germany and France growing in popularity.  The results align with the most recent GMAC Prospective Students Survey, which found that ‘the United States and Western Europe currently sit atop international candidates’ lists of preferred study destinations.

Second, what perceptions do students have of international study destinations and how do these influence where they might study?  The USA is most likely to be perceived as having a good range of quality business schools and being attractive to international business schools.  However, the UK and Canada are both more likely than the USA to be considered welcoming to international students.

There are undoubtedly other factors beyond those directly related to study which have an influence.  The USA is most likely to be perceived as having a strong and dynamic economy, with the Chinese economy considered strong and dynamic by almost as many as have the same view of the British economy.  China is also considered the second cheapest place to study of the nine countries tested (only ahead of India), while the UK is the second most expensive (only behind the USA).  The USA and UK are perceived as most likely to offer opportunities to work after graduation.

It seems that potential return on investment is more important to prospective students than price on its own.  Offered 30 options and asked what is most important to them when considering where to study, the top choices are a business school is known for good career outcomes and strong connections with business and industry.

The power of corporate connections is clear in many of the new entrants to the business education marketplace.  Udemy, offers a programme called ‘An Entire MBA in 1 course’ which has been taken by more than 450,000 people.  While the price is attractive, a key component of the offer to prospective learners is that the course is used by a host of large corporates, including firms such as VW and Nasdaq, who are highlighted with their logos on the course page.

Of course, perceptions are important and can steer students in a certain direction, but evidence of outcomes, of career and corporate connections, can help a business school build an attractive reputation.

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