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Data key to make international student services better, more efficient

Data and evidence-based strategies can improve the often under-resourced field of international student services for both students and institutions’ budgets.

International student servicesBarbara Kappler, assistant dean and director of students & scholar services at the University of Minnesota, told delegates evidence based strategies can improve efficiency and services for students. Photo: The PIE News

"There's not going to be one perfect instrument to collect data"

This was the message at a recent event held by international student services and advocacy organisations ISANA International Education Association in Australia and its sister organisation, ISANA New Zealand.

The associations have called upon institutions and education bodies to take an evidence-driven approach to develop strategies and inform student services spending. “There’s much more focus on evidence based practice now because we need to know what works,” ISANA New Zealand president Lesley McDonald said.

Pointing to the work being done both in New Zealand and Australia at national levels towards strategies and roadmaps for the further development of international education, she said making the student voice heard is particularly important.

“If New Zealand is going to be doing an international student wellbeing strategy, we need to know what works and what we can leave to one side”

“If New Zealand is going to be doing an international student wellbeing strategy, we need to know what underpins that and what works and what we can leave to one side.”

On an institutional level, she said better understanding of needs gaps through data collection would mean more cost effective strategies for students.

“Resources are limited now, there’s less money to put into support, so it’s so important that we know what does work with students,” she said.

Offering insight from the US, Barbara Kappler, assistant dean and director of students scholar services at the University of Minnesota, agreed with McDonald’s comments, saying evidence based practice would help reduce spending wastage.

“You just put energy where it doesn’t need to be put, and then you don’t have the resources where they’re needed. It’s really easy to underestimate just what is the students’ sense of what the [institution’s] priorities are,” she told The PIE News.<

International student panel at ISANA International Education Association

A panel of international students from around New Zealand closed the event with new perspectives on data collection methods. Photo: The PIE News

“With the international student experience, it’s often the case we make assumptions or we use our own stories or anecdotal evidence to guide us,” she said, adding, “the data may or may not really match up with [those assumptions].”

Meanwhile, Sherrie Lee, a PhD student from Waikato University, speaking on a student panel, argued that data collection on student feedback doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Some students can be reserved or shy and prefer to keep to themselves. When you do want to probe and say “well, why don’t you say something so we can try to change it?” they can be quite reluctant because they don’t know who they are speaking to or where the information will go,” she said.

“It’s often the case we make assumptions or we use our own stories or anecdotal evidence to guide us”

She told The PIE News that while some students are open to engaging with institutions about their concerns, their feedback was not necessarily indicative of wider concerns among the student population, suggesting a “silent majority” exists that traditional data collection measures fail to access.

“There’s not going to be one perfect instrument to collect data. I think surveys, focus groups and small qualitative studies are useful, but I think it’s probably good to take all these studies and research and see them holistically and see where they’re pointing to, identify any gaps and try to research those gaps,” she advised.

Other members of the panel, which closed the conference, expressed disappointment when action had not been taken after providing their institution with feedback on how to improve services

“I understand there are restrictions,” Dion Lee, Council of International Student Australia postgraduate officer, told the audience. “Maybe you need to communicate those better.”

The 27th ISANA Conference was held at the Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand. And was attended by over 200 delegates from New Zealand and Australia.

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