Building Scotland’s reputation as a thriving international study destination

As the Scottish Government embarks on an ambitious new international education strategy, there’s a renewed focus on enhancing the country’s reputation as a thriving hub for global learning. 

The strategy aims to position Scotland as a world leader in international education, by forming connections and partnerships and attracting students, staff and researchers from across the globe and ‘creating the conditions for its universities and colleges to continue to flourish, increase international competitiveness and deliver higher education that underpins the country’s economic prosperity, cultural diversity and open and welcoming reputation.’ (Scottish Government

How does Scotland perform on the global higher education stage and how can the nation implement reputational strategies to aid their ambitious new goals?

Scotland’s position as an international study destination  

Of the 62,000 students interested in studying in the UK who were surveyed in the QS International Student Survey 2023, 12,200 are interested in studying in Scotland.

Scotland has more top universities per head of population than any other country in the world and is in the top quartile of OECD countries for higher education research and development (The National Strategy for Economic Transformation). Scotland’s universities welcome students from over 130 countries and attracted more Erasmus+ funding per capita than the rest of the UK (CDN International Ambitions Report).

With prestigious UK universities, culturally vibrant cities and pristine scenery, it’s easy to see how the country can compete with its peers – both the UK and emerging destination markets more globally.

11 Scottish universities feature in the QS World University Rankings 2024 – including The University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and the University of St Andrews in the top 100. Six of the featured institutions have improved their position in this year’s rankings compared to 2023, and the same number received an increase in clicks to their website from Google in the last six months (Google Search Console). 

In the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023, Scottish institutions hold places in the top 100 across every area, with two Scottish universities in the top 10 in the UK for arts and humanities, education and training, and life sciences and medicine.  

As Scotland begins to implement its new international education strategy, it will be interesting to see how these numbers shift. So how can Scottish universities aid the ambitious new goals by elevating their reputational impact? 

1. Leveraging insights

In a 2022 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) on Employer Views on Skills Policy in Scotland, it was revealed that 33% of employers feel that people recruited to their first job from university or another higher education institution were fairly or very poorly prepared for the workplace, regardless of age.  

Technical skills were listed as the highest missing skill in recruitment, followed by customer relation skills, problem-solving skills, teamworking and organisation.  

The QS Global Employer Survey 2023 revealed that the largest skills gaps for employers are project management, data analysis, resilience and flexibility, and problem-solving. When considering the growth of AI and technology, employers are looking for graduates who possess problem-solving, analytical skills and creativity (QS Gen AI Employer Pulse Survey 2023).   

Scotland’s economy has grown in recent years despite ongoing domestic and international challenges, but skills gaps tend to be more prevalent in Scotland than the rest of the UK. There is an opportunity for universities to delve further into the rich data and insights of employers, academics and students to tailor their offering and refine their recruitment strategies and amplify their appeal on the global stage. 

When assessing teaching quality, 63% of prospective students interested in studying in Scotland say that the most important factor is a high graduate employment rate (QS International Student Survey 2023). The ability to crossmatch the motivations of prospective students with the demands of the local economy creates another opportunity to deliver education that delivers strong graduate outcomes and impactful contributions to Scotland. 

2. Enhancing communication 

Strong communication will be a cornerstone in fortifying Scotland’s reputation as a vibrant hub for global learning. Strengthening brand storytelling allows universities to craft a narrative that resonates deeply with the wider world – with vivid messaging around academic excellence, cultural richness and unparalleled experiences awaiting them in Scotland.  

Between 2021/22 and 2022/23 admissions cycles, international enrolments in Scotland from emerging markets including Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana have increased by between 100-327% (HESA). There are opportunities for Scottish institutions to capitalise on this growth by gaining insights into the motivations and expectations of students in those regions and amplifying messages that align with their priorities.  

With Scotland’s efforts to increase international student mobility, institutions will need additional resource to manage enquiries and applications in the timeframes that students expect. 60% of prospective students interested in studying in the UK expect a complete and personal response to an enquiry within three days (QS International Student Survey 2023).  

By streamlining enquiry and application services, institutions can ensure seamless engagement with potential candidates, nurturing lasting connections from initial interest to enrolment.  

3. Strengthening the student experience 

Students from across the globe are looking for return on investment from their international education. Through dynamic curriculum design, universities can cultivate environments conducive to intellectual exploration, innovation, and holistic growth that ensure students gain good graduate outcomes, an important factor for boosting an institution’s reputation. 

Infusing programmes with experiential learning opportunities, mentorship initiatives, and interdisciplinary collaboration, institutions empower students to realise their fullest potential, enhancing both their educational journey and future prospects.  

Scotland’s top-ranked university, The University of Edinburgh, is ranked 22nd in the world in the QS World University Rankings. Gaining an almost perfect score of 99.9 in the international student ratio indicator, the university is currently undertaking a curriculum transformation project to ensure that teaching develops with the needs of future students in mind, preparing them to tackle society’s greatest challenges and catalyse positive change.  

For almost six decades, Edinburgh has positioned itself as a world leader in developing systems that underpin generative AI, including machine learning and language processing. Now, they’re well poised to move forward with the latest technology and create valuable learning opportunities to support students and faculty in navigating the complex digital world.  

4. Building innovative partnerships 

By forging alliances with universities and organisations both locally and overseas, institutions unlock avenues for cross-cultural exchange, collaborative research endeavours, and enriching academic programmes – all leading to a stronger reputation on the global stage.  

The QS International Student Survey 2023 revealed that 83% of candidates interested in studying in Scotland prioritise a safe and welcoming environment when choosing a city to live in. 

Universities could benefit from a joined-up approach to promoting Scotland as a vibrant and welcoming destination for students, staff and researchers. As part of Scotland’s new International Education Strategy, the government plans to engage Connected Scotland – a collaborative partnership between the region’s 19 higher education institutions and 26 colleges – to enhance the sector’s profile at home and abroad. 

With The University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow featuring in the top 50 student cities worldwide (QS Best Student Cities 2024), there are opportunities to strengthen destination-based recruitment strategies that resonate far beyond the confines of campus. One such opportunity is the universities’ collaboration in joining forces to achieve net zero for Scotland.

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