International Education – Experience of Students and Stakeholders

International Education: Experience of Students and Stakeholders – Quality, Marketing and Customer Journey.

Summary of minor research dissertation for Master of Education (Education & Training) awarded in 2002 by Victoria University, Melbourne, related to international education according to former international students and stakeholders leading to a cyclical quality and marketing paradigm.

What is the experience of international students and stakeholders?

International Student Experience (Image copyright Pexels)

Proportionally less funding due to ageing permanent populations and workforces competing for state resources compelled universities and education institutions to attract full fee paying international students to both make up budget short falls, support tax base and subsidise domestic students; temporary immigration to balance government budgets.

Australia has been very successful in attracting students from the Asian region, especially India and China, with commensurate calls for more diversity e.g. students from Europe and Africa.  While quality and marketing are strongly related, research into these factors can assist in more systematic and informed marketing, especially through qualitative insights as opposed to interpretation of solely quantitative data.

Existing research is generally restricted to state sponsored surveys of general student population and institutional level students, already on campus.  Good research should use qualitative techniques e.g. grounded theory, to allow issues or concerns of students and stakeholders emerge without prescribing factors restricting and limiting insight.

Qualitative research methods can achieve validity, simplicity or utility and reliability of factors to be evaluated in international education at the institutional, faculty of course level as part of quality and marketing system.  According to an international education researcher:

“‘If they don’t like our courses, they wouldn’t come would they? I haven’t heard anyone complaining, have you?’

Attitudes such as these, though seldom voiced loudly or publicly, may be covertly present in many higher education institutions. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that all too many institutions see overseas students solely or mainly in financial terms they are also an important educational resource, bringing fresh perspectives to our culture and are by no means simply a lucrative nuisance to be tolerated”

Already we are observing how globalisation exemplified by increasing mobility for travel, study, work and life leads to more competition or choices for international students.  Accordingly, institutions whether international and/or domestic, need to satisfy stakeholders through feedback, comparison and improving performance or quality; not waiting for state sponsored surveys.

To achieve consistent quality of value creation and delivery to the customer, sustained research and feedback from intermediate and final customers is required.  Without ongoing internal and systematic market, social and education research there is a danger of institutions, especially large, losing touch with students and stakeholders therefore not delivering a quality service; thus compromising their survival.

For related articles see Andrew Smith’s profile on Academia.

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International Education Marketing – Conventional versus Digital

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Traditional International Education Marketing

 

There have been criticisms for some decades regarding the effectiveness of universities’ and related education institutions’ international marketing and their ability to identity what the market needs and communicating effectively (Nicholls et al., 1995).

 

Anecdotal complaints from within larger institutions, whether faculty or administration, is that even with high enrolment numbers, there is little understanding of ‘how’ students came to be enrolled, let alone those prospective students who did not, with indirect or invalid KPIs (key performance indicators).

 

This is compounded further in large entities by organisational structures on large campuses, leading to potentially sub-optimal co-ordination between international marketing, admissions, web marketing team, suppliers or agents and students; resulting in silos impacting analysis of communication and information sharing.

International Students - Digital Marketing

International Education Digital Marketing

(Image copyright Pexels)

Conventional Marketing or Sales?

 

Marketing strategy emerging in the 1980s relied upon travel to physical recruitment events, distribution of brochures or ‘marketing materials’ by hand, appointment of agents; mostly short-term sales and ROI model or basic ‘4Ps’.

 

This latter financial and physical ROI method of evaluation e.g. numbers of brochures distributed, and students recruited, may not be highlighting the important factors or process leading to enrolments, or missing many factors altogether e.g. WOM (word of mouth)?

 

The assumed positive outcomes from such strategies may be correlated with other factors such as ongoing WOM with peers, suitable course availability or online visibility.  Previous research had already highlighted critical factors of significance including need for innovation, quality staff and image, service culture, good use of information technology (IT), healthy financials, technical excellence and broad range of courses (Mazzarol, 1998). There is focus upon internal human and technical resource factors required as inputs for good marketing and communication, but not behaviour of those seeking relevant information.

 

Meanwhile, over ten years ago formal research recognised and confirmed in decision making of a student sample, it’s course first, over reputation and destination, along with creating awareness through search engine optimised (SEO) visible websites to be found directly and easily (Gomes & Murphy, 2003).

 

This latter study is one of the few formal research articles related to international student purchasing behaviour available in the public domain, yet emphasising the importance of SEO and digital over ten years ago.  However, Australia’s pre-eminent and university owned student marketing and recruitment vehicle IDP, like most and according to formal job description, does not view analysis of enrolled students or other prospective students as important or essential (IDP, 2016)?

 

There has been little if any related or formal research on how students find information except some industry groups, mostly in Europe about ‘how’ prospective students behave and interact.

 

For more articles or blogs on education, training, marketing and society, click through to Academia profile of Andrew J. Smith.

International Student Consumer or Decision Making Behaviour Cycle

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International Education: Student Consumer and Decision-Making Behaviour: Brief Literature Review

 

This study draws upon international education industry research and reporting; with relevant theories in marketing research literature to inform consumer and decision-making behaviour, leading to effective marketing and communications strategy and systems.  The main themes include systems, consumer behaviour, market research, purchase process including a focus on information seeking behaviour, traditional (international education) marketing, WOM, culture, relationship marketing, digital or Web 2.0 impact and human resource requirements for business and organisations.

 

Research Proposition

 

How do students’ information seeking behaviour relate to marketing and communications strategy in international education?

What is Consumer and Decision-Making Behaviour?

 

Observation and analysis of changing consumer behaviour still views influencers or peers via WOM as important, but the information seeking behaviour and access to information has changed further with digital technology; international education and other sectors are no different.

From the literature, consumer behaviour observes or delineates various stakeholders inside and outside an organisation on a pathway to achieving their needs and wants, whether it is the purchase or use of a product or service.  Further, one needs to understand the influencers that may include personal, social and cultural through research and evaluation and possibly technology, especially digital along this process (Kotler & Keller, 2012).

Consumer and marketing behaviour or customer attitudes about marketing are important, and need to be accessed through client or customer feedback, and analysed (Maria Josephine et al., 2008).  This is also follows the logic of any system whether computer, business process or learning and development; best practice and common sense requires user, customer and stakeholder testing and feedback.  Any business or organisation can learn about their unique customers or target market and marketing through systematic feedback then develop strategy as part of a dynamic cycle, contingent upon digital and human resources.

In many sectors, including international education, the digital environment or technology has changed interactions, communication and WOM in the discovery or research phase before final decision making.  Although WOM is pervasive, little is understood about personal communication processes and information seeking, although imperative for digital communication and marketing for purchase decision making (Goldenberg et al., 2001). Decision making behaviour can be represented by a simplified five-stage model of phases or dimensions above including: problem recognition or identify need, information search or discovery process, evaluation of alternatives or weighing up, purchase decision and action, start again (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1

Five Stage Purchase Decision Behaviour Model or Process (simplified)

  • Recognition of Need
  • Information Search
  • Evaluation of Alternatives
  • Purchase Decision
  • Post Purchase Behaviour

(Kotler & Keller, 2012).

 

Information sources during the ‘Information Search’ phase can include personal, commercial, public and experiential, with personal being the most effective and trusted source of information. Further, between evaluation and decision stages of a consumer or buyer, is the forming of intention to buy which is influenced by attitudes of others e.g. WOM and unplanned circumstances (Kotler & Keller, 2012).

One study found the order of importance of the most significant factors in discovery or search phase included: friends’ recommendations, reputation of institution and quality (Ahmad et al., 2016).  Confirmed further i.e. studies of decision choice are needed, international education services are dynamic, student behaviour is not fixed, and the state should promote destinations (Vuori, 2015).

There are relationships between the five stages presented above, especially evaluation and purchase decision. However, all are contingent upon relevant information and searching for information, how is ‘Information Search’ manifested?

Previous research in an international education context had developed a dynamic representation of the international student cycle, independent of business literature, which resonates well with Kotler & Keller’s (2012) ‘Purchase Decision Behaviour Model or Process’, confirming ‘Information Gathering’ as a significant dimension.

 

Figure 2

International Student Enrolment Cycle

  • Information Gathering
  • Facilitation, Education & Non-Education Factors
  • Utilisation
  • Information Gathering & Informing Peers (start again).

(Smith, 2001)

 

The information gathering phase or dimension was represented by the following factors: information service or provision, information access, counselling, awareness, promotion and feedback; with WOM and emergent web based technologies cited as becoming significant (Ibid.).

Understanding the process phases or dimensions in more detail, especially ‘information seeking’ now impacted or dependent upon digital technology, can both highlight the phase for analysis and inform optimal marketing and communications strategies.  Accordingly, industry has conducted much similar research adding to the same process, but not scholarly, reflecting the rapid change in communications and digital technology in the ‘consumer decision journey’ (Court et al., 2009).

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Digital Marketing Customer Journey in International Education

How do international students’ information seeking behaviour relate to marketing and communications strategy in international education?

Abstract of dissertation submitted for the MBA programme

The Business School, University of Roehampton, U.K.

Using the inductive approach of qualitative research to explore and highlight key factors in student information seeking for purchase or future study decision-making, then to inform marketing communications strategy and related practice, in international education and business.

(Image copyright Pexels)

The inductive approach or mixed research methods were used, both quantitative and qualitative, to explore international education marketing according to stakeholders, management and students; a process of triangulation.

The research uses a streamlined version of grounded research methods to elicit key factors from international education sector stakeholders, based upon a purchase decision-making continuum or cycle.  Following was development of a data collection instrument to quantify the factors highlighted according to dimensions or phases of education purchase objectives, information seeking, analysis and post purchase review.

The sample, although not statistically significant, was a culturally diverse cohort of online MBA students, able to offer insight into their attitudes, allowing triangulation with research and industry based literature, and key marketing stakeholder feedback.

A marketing and communications construct was developed, reflecting the process of purchase decision-making through phases with focus upon information seeking, word of mouth (WOM), new digital behaviours and how to approach in the workplace or industry.

A dynamic and ongoing strategy and system review is required according to how customers or students seek information.  This is through ongoing investigation or consulting process that mirrors similar cyclical processes including review or testing of marketing message and communication targeting.

The process developed can be applied to marketing and communications strategy or system development, with broader application to investigation and review in the workplace.  This allows empowerment and motivation of personnel, customers and stakeholders, through their input to ground the same strategies, systems or processes, for validity and reliability, increasing value.