What Do European Students Want?

6 min read

Joanna Hughes

Last month, our team attended the ICEF Berlin Workshop, where the wants and needs of international students were a major topic of discussion. International education professionals know that understanding students’ motivations is an essential part of higher education marketing and recruitment, and with European students comprising a large segment of the study abroad market, it begs the question: What are European students specifically looking for in their studies?

Language Studies Continue to Drive Interest

Data suggests that several factors drive international students when it comes to selecting where to study abroad. At the top of the list? Learning a language!

While interest in English-taught programming in the EU rose by 13 percent last year with forecasts saying it will continue to rise moving forward, it’s clear that international students continue to prioritize English -- whether or not studies in the UK continue to be an option. Even in Asia, English-taught programming, along with recruitment of English-speaking students, is growing.

But English is far from the only language taking students overseas for study. For European and non-European students alike looking to acquire German, Spanish and French proficiency, European universities remain the natural choice. At the same time, languages like Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and Russian are also growing in demand -- meaning destinations like Asia and the Middle East can expect to see ongoing interest from European students.

Partnerships like the one between Quebec and Belgium, meanwhile, point to a trend among European students to study in their native languages abroad. The framework facilitating this mobility is working: in 2018, 39 percent of the international students in Quebecois universities were from France. It follows that students from Spain and Portugal, for example, would also seek out study abroad programs in their native languages in South America and Brazil, too.

Prioritizing Program Features

Program features are also a draw for European students, favoring the opportunity to select from smaller classes, interdisciplinary curricula, and alternate teaching styles than the ones they’d find in their home countries.

The Netherlands has been growing in popularity with international students, in large part because of the unique offerings and opportunities found in Dutch universities. For example, one professor told The Irish Times, “Our interdisciplinary programme, focused on global challenges, is quite unique. We also have small class sizes, about 20 students per class, with plenty room for discussion. I think students are also drawn to the fact that they do not need to immediately choose what they want to study within our programme - they first have to take a year of compulsory courses before deciding on which of our six majors they will follow.”

Echoed a student of his own motivations for studying abroad, “My course is special in the Netherlands, so I had interviews and an application letter for my motivation to study.”

While this example relates to exchange within the EU, it carries over to European students studying outside of Europe, too. European students who head to other continents are looking for the same things, and highlighting those features that make your programs unique could help your school attract ambitious European students looking to get the most out of their time abroad.

Going Beyond the Semester Abroad

Rather than merely enrolling in schools outside of their countries of origin for a semester or two, they’re seeking out study opportunities that last for the duration of their degrees: Nearly 700,000 EU students fell into this category in 2017, according to EUObserver.

This is backed by a recent GoEurope survey indicating that while 40 percent of students say the optimal study abroad experience last between four and six months, nearly a quarter would prefer a program lasting a year or more.

This preference, too, can depend on a student’s country of origin. For example, according to an ICEF Monitor report on recruiting in Europe, “Hungarians often look to study and work abroad for a long period of time, if not for the rest of their lives. In contrast, German students prefer to study abroad for one academic term and experience the culture of a host country, before returning home.” If your program or school has a specific student demographic target, it would be wise to consider the international study proclivities of that target and adjust your marketing efforts accordingly.

Where Does Tuition Factor In?

No discussion of the study abroad market for Europeans is complete without mention of tuition.

Even though many European students are used to the idea of free college, data suggests that they’re willing to pay for a good education. In fact, more European students are opting to attend private colleges and universities. The flip side to this is that students are even more demanding when their own Euros are on the line.

While it must be noted that the number of British students studying abroad has declined in the past two years, at the same time, there has been an uptick in interest by EU students to study at British schools. Said one deputy pro-vice-chancellor of a 10 percent increase in applications from EU students last fall, “Paradoxically, Brexit has focused people’s attention on the strength of British universities.”

Giving Them What They Want

Knowing what international students are looking for is only one part of the puzzle. Also pivotal? Understanding how to attract them and keep them.

For starters, while we’ve already established that European students aren’t averse to paying for tuition, this doesn’t mean they don’t prefer to pay less -- particularly given the shock that may arise in the shift from free (or extremely inexpensive) tuition to higher costs found elsewhere. Therefore, guidance in the direction of scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities is important. Affordability can also be a selling point for countries like China, where the combination of lower costs and abundant scholarship opportunities is not only bringing more students in the door, but also enticing them to stay for the full duration of their degrees. Playing up this angle -- along with other value-added features -- can be a positive recruitment strategy for universities.

Value-Added Marketing and Accessibility

It must also be acknowledged that in many cases it’s not a matter of whether students can afford to study abroad, but why they should. This returns to the mandate to address their needs beyond financial feasibility. Universities can offer a compelling response by marketing what makes their countries unique. For example, US universities can highlight the experience of studying on an American college campus while immigration-friendly countries like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia may promote the preponderance of post-study work options.

In addition to incentivizing European students, recruiters can facilitate their decision-making by showcasing the ease of the process. Giving prospective students online access to everything they’ll need -- from visa requirements to housing information -- to make the transition can be a tipping point in the direction of one program or destination over another.

Speaking of online access, universities looking to capture the interest of European students should be wary of misconceptions about Europeans, language and communication. While Europe outpaces many of counterparts in terms of multilingualism, this doesn’t necessarily mean Europeans are comfortable navigating internet content in their second and third languages. In fact, according to the European Commission’s report, “User Language Preferences Online,” 90 percent of Europeans prefer internet content in their own native languages. The takeaway? Not marketing to European students in their native languages can be a major missed opportunity.

With these things in mind, there is one final thing to consider. Europe is not a single country and its students are not a heterogeneous mass. Marketing to them cannot – and should not be a one-size-fits-all endeavor. If your school or program wants to effectively target European students, consider your goals carefully, identify they type of student best suited to your programs, and find a marketing solution that lets you customize your approach.



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