How to attract international students when you are not a Top 100 University


In the world of higher education where rankings and tradition reign supreme, being a young university can be challenging. While you may be doing well recruiting students from your local area, attracting international students can seem daunting. Because, why would anyone want to go to a slightly unknown university without a strong track-record for excellence when they could choose Oxford, Cambridge or St Andrews?

It sounds like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. You need to know the answer.

A lot of significance is placed on rankings and it can be a difficult game to win if you are in your first few decades of degree-granting powers. But, there are strategies you can employ both within and beyond the realms of the game.

Six strategies to win the play for international students

  1. Focus on what you do best. Ask yourself what that is? Or what can we become best at? Then focus on improving your rankings in that specific area. Don’t try to be known for everything you do right away. Use your premier course to leverage overall ranking. Like University of Southampton is #9 for Nursing and University of Exeter is #11 for Geography.
  2. Improve your UK ranking if the Top 100 internationally seems far of. If a student is looking for a university in the UK and you are in the Top 20, chances are they will have a closer look. And when you improve your UK ranking, odds are your international ranking will improve as well.
  3. Look at excelling in one or two of the smaller niche categories. With just 25 years’ experience, the University of Portsmouth found a great leverage when they made it into the Top 50 under 50. So what categories can you leverage?
  4. Look beyond just academic merits. What else do you offer? University of Surrey runs an extremely successful Professional Training programme which helped them win University of the Year 2016 and University of the Year for Student Experience 2016 in The Times and Sunday Times. Any accolades like that will give you both press coverage as well as another selling point.
  5. Use the TEF rankings to show how your university might be a better choice than one of the universities with a much longer history. London School of Economics and University of Liverpool have good reputations and long histories but only received a Bronze rating in the first TEF. Can you beat them on quality of teaching or face-to-face time with professors? Some students value that highly.
  6. Use the fact that you are a young university to your advantage. Are there things you do differently because you are not bogged down by tradition? Are you more innovative, more agile, more willing to experiment when it comes to teaching and course development? Or perhaps in any other ways?

And don’t miss out on these valuable market insights you can use to tailor your recruitment campaigns to specific markets.

Pernille Norregaard is a communications and marketing expert with over 15 years’ experience. She specialises in communications management in purpose-driven organisations and Higher Education. Read more here.