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How do you measure success in international education?

Bigger, better data means that institutions can have a much greater understanding about conversion of enquiries and post-graduation outcomes, for example. But how do those in the sector choose to measure efficacy and success when delivering an international education experience? Beckie Smith finds out.

In discussions about what constitutes success in international education, one common thread is particularly prominent. Described variously as “a well-rounded experience”, “broadening horizons” and “an opportunity to grow”, it is now widely acknowledged that international education is a multifaceted experience whose success hinges not only on academic achievement but on a student’s personal development and enjoyment of the experience.

Illustration: Ida H. D. Thomas.

"When a student feels a connection to or ownership of an institution, that is always an indication that the institution is doing something right"

This discussion is founded in a consensus that these different facets are interdependent, and that ensuring that students experience life outside the classroom is both a worthy goal in itself and one that can boost student retention and benefit learning.

It is now widely acknowledged that international education is a multifaceted experience whose success hinges not only on academic achievement but on a student’s personal development

This is perhaps most apparent among language students, for whom opportunities to practise their skills in the ‘real world’ are vital.

Carol Cregg, Director of Studies at Dublin’s SEDA English Language College, explains that the college’s social programme provides invaluable opportunities for students with differing levels of English to interact.

“If an elementary student has a friend in the intermediate class, this can be hugely motivating for them,” she says. “Generally, whatever we can do to show students that learning a language isn’t about filling in the gaps in a coursebook, it’s about communicating with interesting people in a new way.”

As Kelly Franklin, Director of UNC Charlotte’s English Language Training Institute, notes, it is students who consider their sole purpose of studying abroad to be just that – studying – who are most likely to struggle.

“It seems these are the students who have the most difficulty when they face any challenge, be it a difficult class or a broken fixture in their apartment, simply because they haven’t developed any network of support or empathy,” he remarks.

The importance of building relationships and participation in a student community can therefore hardly be overstated.

“Language isn’t about filling in the gaps in a coursebook, it’s about communicating with interesting people in a new way”

However, such abstract concepts are difficult to quantify. Jennifer Falzerano, Director of International Programmes at Lane Community College in Oregon, describes one of the college’s key aims to provide students with “another lens from which to view the world and see those who are different from them with curiosity and joy rather than fear”, but concedes that “there isn’t a concrete numeric measurement for this”.

Instead, like many institutions, Lane looks to more easily quantifiable indicators such as enrolment in extracurricular clubs, students opting to live in shared housing and engagement via social media to determine whether students are engaging with the college community.

Lane Community College aims to provide students with “another lens from which to view the world"

Lane Community College aims to give students “another lens from which to view the world”


Similarly, at IE University in Spain, “one clearly sees the impact of having a highly diverse and international student body” through participation in competitions, internships and exchanges as well as the formation of on-campus international clubs, according to its General Director for International Relations, Maria Eugenia Marin.

Surveys are another popular method for assessing these subjective facets of a student’s experience, particularly in shorter programmes where longer-term metrics such as retention rates or alumni employment are unavailable.

“I’ve always done exit surveys and/or interviews with my students,” says Mary Lou Hamish, Director of Studies at Halifax ESL School. “I measure our performance more by what students don’t say. If they had a good experience, they’ll tell you.”

These surveys can be used to determine a broad spectrum of factors, from students’ feelings about using language skills “in the real world”, as at IH Budapest, or their confidence about employability, as at Chichester College in the UK, whose exit and entry surveys revealed that last year 92% of students felt their employability had improved during the course.

“I measure our performance more by what students don’t say. If they had a good experience, they’ll tell you”

Higher education presents unique challenges due to the duration and enrolment size of degree programmes. However, these also present more opportunities to collect comparable data.

Two of the most obvious indicators of success in higher education are grades and graduate employment rates. As Lakshmi Iyer, Director and Head of Education at market entry consulting firm Sannam S4 points out, “Someone’s decision to undertake studying abroad is often driven by the idea that it will help them stand apart in the local market and also help them achieve a better standing in their chosen profession”.

Many institutions therefore focus on how well they can prepare students for the world of work.

At IE University, students can participate in entrepreneurial and management projects, as well as summer volunteering projects in developing countries such as Ethiopia or Ghana, which boosts employability while fostering “a greater awareness of the global reality that surrounds them”, Marin says.

However, student retention is arguably one of the most effective metrics for measuring success in international higher education, given its duration and the principle that the more effectively students’ needs and expectations are being met, the more likely they are to stay on a degree course.

This was thrown into sharp relief for the University of West Florida when its international student retention rate dropped from 95% to just 83% in the three years leading up to 2011-12.

Photo: CLLC

Many institutions see participation in extracurricular activities as a mark of success. Photo: CLLC


“Many students felt isolated due to the location of our campus and lack of transportation to other areas of the city. It seemed that most students were transferring to larger metropolitan areas,” explains Rachel Errington at the university’s Office of Diversity and International Education and Programmes.

Retention rates began to recover the following year after a raft of student support measures was implemented, including a subsidised taxi service and peer mentoring programme.

The mentor programme was particularly successful, with 100% of participants saying they would recommend it to other students.

Other universities have reported similar success with mentoring initiatives, with 85% of participants at the University of California Berkeley indicating that a peer mentor programme allowed them to participate more actively in campus life.

Some have even incorporated integration initiatives into their academic programmes. At Pennsylvania College of Technology, international students can earn course credits through mentoring newer students after a year of study, and Berkeley offers a credit bearing class, The International Student Experience, Pathways to Academic and Personal Success, to help students adapt to a university environment.

“We have reached agreements with universities to help us maintain contact with our students throughout their journey”

Where universities emphasise graduate employment rates, the corresponding metric among pathway HE providers is the proportion of students that progress to higher education, which Victoria Crane, Director of Student Learning for Kaplan International Pathways, calls their “raison d’être”.

However, many institutions now look beyond this to see how their alumni are faring later in their academic careers.

Like Kaplan, Northern Consortium UK is in “constant contact” with its partner universities, according to Business Development Manager Georgina Jones.

It found that of the students who enrolled in NCUK universities after completing a foundation year in 2010, 77% graduated with a 2:2, 2:1 or First Class degree, and programmes use direct feedback from faculties to “enhance students’ learning experience” both in the pathway year and in university.

Jones described keeping in touch with alumni to this end as a “key strategic goal” of the consortium, but one that comes with challenges.

Photo: Chichester College

Photo: Chichester College


“Our students regard themselves as alumni of the university they graduate from; whereas we would like them to see themselves as alumni of both NCUK and the university,” she says. “In the last couple of years we have reached agreements with universities to help us maintain this contact with our students throughout their journey, and we hope to develop this further in the future.”

Many institutions view students staying in touch after graduating as a mark of success. As Shanin Dougherty, International Programs Specialist at Pennsylvania College of Technology, says: “when a student feels a connection to or ownership of an institution, that is always an indication that the institution is doing something right.”

However, few educators are confident that they effectively capitalising on the opportunity to engage with alumni.

“Incomplete, insufficient, old and/or the lack of international alumni databases are their most challenging obstacles.”

“Today, international alumni relations remains under-resourced, fragmented within different departments, a last minute necessity, or only a virtual reality via social media networks,” relates international alumni relations specialist Gretchen Dobson. “Incomplete, insufficient, old and/or the lack of international alumni databases are their most challenging obstacles.”

Social media channels are a popular way to retain contact, but a lack of a formal infrastructure to track alumni engagement can hamper institutions’ ability to track other metrics, such as graduate employment statistics.

Related to alumni engagement, returning students and word-of-mouth referrals are often considered one of the most reliable indicators of student satisfaction.

“Sometimes new students come straight to my office to introduce themselves as the brother or cousin or friend of an alumnus,” Carol Cregg of SEDA College remarks. “For me, that’s one of our best indicators of success.”

At CLLC, an English language school with branches across Eastern Canada, referrals from former students have consistently been in the top three recruitment methods, its Executive Marketing and Sales Director, Stefan Ferron, reveals.

“It shows us that students who do attend CLLC walk away happy enough to to tell their friends,” he says. “It’s a very organic method of growth and it comes from simply treating the students right.”

This is an abbreviated version of a feature that originally appeared in Issue 5 ofThe PIE Review. To read the full article and more from the magazine click here.

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