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What the John Lewis Christmas advert has to teach professionals in international education

Every year the John Lewis Christmas advertisement creates headlines. Love it or loathe it, a festive and often nostalgic advertisement for its department stores operating throughout the UK has become part of a sometimes schmaltzy run up to the festive season.

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"A bad narrative can’t be answered by facts alone, it needs us to tell a better story"

This year though, something else happened. With inflation biting as the cost of living hits families, the company decided to do something different.

The result was an advertisement based on a story. A man is shown struggling to learn how to use a skateboard. Late at night and in every spare moment he’s seen falling and picking himself up with a determination which tells us this is important. And then we see why.

A doorbell rings and waiting is a nervous young girl, Ellie and her accompanying social worker. Skateboard in hand, she is welcomed by people who are reaching out to her, trying to understand her interests so she can feel at home.

In the UK, there are over 108,000 children in the care system, and many more who know what Ellie feels like. And their immediate reaction spoke volumes about the power of telling an important story well. It was as though the floodgates had opened and a group, too often ignored, felt seen.

One friend who knows personally what this all means said she’d watched the advert five times, tears falling. Another who has personal experience of the care system and now works in higher education widening participation said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so loved by the care experienced community”.

So why is this important for international education, and especially those of us who try to tell the stories of students who travel half way across the world to pursue their dreams, to say why it matters and how these brave young people should be welcomed and supported?

For me there were three big lessons from an advert that got the whole country talking:

1. The ad rang true to people with real experience. It was credible in its emotional tone and detail.
2. It was developed in partnership with people who really understand, with action underpinning its immediate impact. The ad was put together over months with specialist advice from Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland, including those who had personally lived its story. The company is also supporting care experienced young people with training and employment, and wants to be the “employer of choice” for those leaving care.
3. And finally, although stats matter, the ad reminds us with a punch that it is not data but the human stories we remember. There is nothing unprofessional about speaking with heart if you mean it.

“While those of us who work in international education already know and care about international students… there are counter narratives at play”

All of this is timely. While those of us who work in international education already know and care about international students and can recite the important data about what their fees mean to research, high-cost teaching and the economy, there are counter narratives at play.

As the cost of living hits home, negative political rhetoric about immigration has risen in some quarters, and students can be caught up in the noise. Unchecked this can catch in the public mind and lead to harmful policy with real life impacts. We don’t want to go there again.

As old friend and CEO of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern has rightly said, we need to get on the front foot in making the positive case for international education once more. But a bad narrative can’t be answered by facts alone, it needs us to tell a better story.

Some of those stories will be told by students themselves, and they must ring (and be) true. And we also need to be ready to speak. But even though I may be armed with the landmark HEPI UUKi report into the economic impact of students, I will not limit my advocacy to that.

I will speak from the heart. I will remember that my sons were born in a district hospital staffed by international medical students on placement at my local university. And that when one of my precious babies, now age 17, will next week have treatment for chronic migraine at Great Ormond Street Hospital, he will be treated by a leading neurologist who came to this country from India as an international postgraduate student. Our narrative can be personal. It can tell the truth with impact. I will tell a story of what matters and why, and I will counter hostility with thanks.

About the author: Ruth Arnold is a consultant in international education, a senior advisor to Study Group and cofounder of the #WeAreInternational campaign.

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