This guest blog has been written by Jeremy Cooper, Managing Director at Hobsons.

Strategic issues — from the UK’s Referendum on the European Union to the US Presidential election last year — have the potential to influence where international students choose to study. As the UK higher education sector prepares for the uncertainty of being outside of the EU, it is imperative that universities understand these dynamics and work to maintain the UK’s status as a top global study destination. Through Hobsons’ annual International Student Survey (ISS), we have gathered substantial information on the interests and behaviour of international students through speaking to over 27,000 prospective students considering studying in the UK.

While the results of this year’s ISS generally present a more optimistic picture of the impact of the EU referendum on UK higher education than our research did nine months ago, the sector must still overcome challenges. When choosing a destination, international students are highly motivated by how welcome they feel, with 31% citing it as the most important consideration when choosing a university town or city. Among the 13% of prospective students who said that Brexit has made them less interested in studying in the UK, the most common reason (60%) given was that it made the UK ‘less welcoming to international students like me’.

It is good news, then, that 84% of prospective international students who took part in our survey said that campaigns like #WeAreInternational and #LondonIsOpen positively persuaded them that the UK is welcoming. More can be done by universities, and by all of us with an interest in UK higher education, to give international students a sense that they are welcome here. UK universities and sector bodies must build upon the success of campaigns that promote the UK as a welcoming destination for international students.

President Donald Trump provides us with further evidence of the importance of a destination country being welcoming towards students. Our report includes research undertaken after President Trump’s attempted travel ban, which found that 36% of the prospective students surveyed (who were not from one of the six affected countries) said that the travel ban affects their plans to study in the US. 59% of international students, who had been considering studying in the US, are now more likely to study in the UK as a result of the potential travel ban. We have much to gain as an alternative destination for these international students, if we can effectively project a strong, positive and welcoming message.

Findings from this year’s survey also show that there are many factors that influence international students’ perceptions of quality. With the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), there are an increasing number of metrics available to support their decision making. Although we may not see this reflected in the choices that prospective students actually make, our survey found that 80% of respondents would choose a university with excellent teaching quality over one with high rankings.

Recognition of the TEF rating is still limited but it is notable that already a Gold rating would be regarded as a more important indicator of quality than membership of the Russell Group. We found that 22% of respondents rate a Gold ranking in the TEF as the highest influence while 12% say that Russell Group membership is highest. With the majority of universities to receive silver or bronze awards in the TEF rankings announced next month an increasingly confusing picture for international students considering the UK as a destination for higher education could emerge.

What this year’s findings also show is that whilst the rankings of an institution are undoubtedly still a key factor in decision making, there is much that lower-ranked institutions can do to increase their appeal. They can showcase their track record in teaching quality and highlight their safe and welcoming culture. UK universities would do well to ensure that they understand these challenges and articulate their offer in these terms.

Higher education plays a vital role in the UK economy and society. UK institutions must therefore continue to demonstrate the economic and social value of international student recruitment. As the generation that will have the longest to live with the consequences of current political events, it is important to acknowledge the attitudes of today’s prospective international student population. Universities need to take a dynamic response to the strategic challenges that higher education faces. Above all they must listen to prospective students and recognise and respond to their differing needs.

For more insights on international student recruitment, download the full report here: http://www.internationalstudentsurvey.com/2017/.