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On Thursday 5th of November 2020, IDP Connect brought together three experts in international student recruitment from institutions across the UK to discuss their use of data in an exclusive webinar.  

The webinar was chaired by Claire Modlen, Market Intelligence Consultant in IQ Services as IDP Connect. The panellists joining Claire were as follows: 

  • David Pilsbury, Deputy Vice Chancellor, International, at Coventry University, who shared key insights on what sources of data are available to institutions and how to successfully integrate this within their teams.


  • Rachel MacSween, Director of International Recruitment Partnerships and Mobility at The University of York, who revealed how York worked with IDP Connect’s IQ team to diversify its international student recruitment and fine-tune its portfolio in key markets.


  • Professor Alan Speight, Vice Principal, Student Recruitment, at The University of Aberdeen, who detailed how his institution utilized data from IDP connect for recruitment strategies in India, as well as its multi-pronged approach to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.


In this article, we will share here the key insights and takeaways from each of our panel of experts. You can access the full recording of the webinar here.  

David Pilsbury: Integrating data into your university’s culture 

Over the past decade, Coventry has seen consistent and accelerating growth in its international student recruitment that well exceeds both the UK average and average for Russell Group institutions. 

Coventry University is now the UK’s largest recruiter of undergraduate international students and the third largest recruiter of international students overall. A position the university has reached, according to David, by taking “very sensible approaches to engage with the market based on a very clear, data-driven understanding of what we need to do and where we need to do it.” 

David emphasised the importance of using a variety of data sources in order to create a holistic picture, urging institutions to not see data in isolation, but to instead focus on building their own ecosystems.  

Coventry has found success by utilising a range of data sources including:  

  • IDP Connect


  • HESA

  • The British Council

  • Coventry University’s own data


He advises that multiple data sources are important, but that it’s key to put the data into context.   

"Embed data analytics into your culture" 

On how institutions need to adapt internally to best use data, David explained: “You need to embed data analytics into your culture. While you have this data at your disposal, it’s important that people make decisions based on that data rather than their own enthusiasms or prejudices.”   

He admitted that creating this type of culture will need investment: in the data, the partnerships and the personnel. Coventry currently has four data insight specialists in the team who sit within the international office, each with a background in retail. David explained: “They deliver actionable intelligence that focuses efforts and allows us to tweak, pivot and respond to the changes in the market.” Adding: “They are fully integrated decision-makers, not just data monkeys.”. He recommended placing data analysts at director levels to ensure data insights are taken seriously and driving decision making.  

“It’s never too late” and “You get what you pay for”

Recognising the daunting prospect of starting data integration from scratch, David reassured the sector that “It’s never too late.” He shared that Coventry only began their data journey in 2012 but now have their own hybrid model of data analysis and use data-based recruitment strategies to great success.  

Coventry’s relationship with IDP began in 2017.  David said that the relationship has paid off, pointing not only to the data provisions of IDP, but also the targeted digital marketing, bespoke landing pages, and general increase in traffic from across source markets. He added that there is integration between IDP and the internal international team at every level, which David believes is for creating a culture at an institution that truly uses data to affect decision making and get the full value.  “You get what you pay for,” David stated, “so make sure you invest wisely and that you get the returns.”  

Long-term vision

For David, the experience of the last few years has demonstrated the importance of using up-to-the-minute data to know where students are, and which markets to focus on. His experience using data for market intelligence has also given him a longer-term perspective. “Markets can change quickly but they don’t often change fundamentally,” he advised, so often by using data to reassess, restructure, and re-engage with regards to approaching a city or sub-region, institutions can turn a failing recruitment program into a success.   

Key takeaway

David’s key takeaway was that Coventry’s success is a testament to the difference having the right data and the right people can make, stating: “As much as we love our data, we love our people more.” The presentation ended with an outline of Coventry’s next steps: 

  • Understanding funnel leakage: where and why they are losing students


  • Portfolio re-vamping to better reflect the demands of the market


  • Mapping the rise of TNE and how Coventry can position itself in this increasingly critical sector


Professor Alan Speight: Using data to support international strategy – and why it’s even more important in times of volatility 

Alan Speight focused his presentation on how Aberdeen University has used data to inform its strategy in India and is continuing to use data in response to the uncertainty and volatility of recent times.  

He began by looking back to pre-COVID-19 and Aberdeen’s goal to use data to: 

  • Achieve a strategic alignment between the university’s academic approach and its overall strategic objectives


  • Highlight certain exposures, looking at the high intakes from Europe, China and Nigeria, to see if they could understand that success better


  • Effectively identify opportunities for growth by looking at market dynamics, international pathways, articulation agreements, TNE’s, online provision and new program developments


  • Look at opportunities in the context constraints, such as Scottish outcome agreement commitments around the proportions of STEM subject students who are recruited from areas of deprivation


  • Identify how the institution could maximise ROI

“A visual representation of these exposures and opportunities” 

Aberdeen approached these goals both through internal projects and via collaborations with organisations such as IDP Connect. Internally, Aberdeen created a matrix based on HESA data which outlined the university’s areas of exposure and opportunities and benchmarked the institution against a set of UK comparative institutions across the globe.

The Matrix provides Aberdeen with its own “visual representation of these exposures and opportunities”. He explained that the data can be looked at horizontally or vertically enabling university staff to easily identify challenges at a school level or at a market or recruitment channel level, as well as seeing how those two factors are interlinked.  

However, Alan noted that Aberdeen’s matrix is limited by its use of HESA data, explaining: “The data is a little dated when we receive it. It’s updated but never quite up-to-date. So, we needed to understand more real-time data.” 

“IDP has access to the big data” 

To gain access to that up-to-date data, Aberdeen reached out to IDP Connect. “We worked very closely with IDP on a review of our activity, presence, market brand awareness and product portfolio development in the Indian context. IDP Connect has access to the big data.”  

Other big organizations that Aberdeen has worked with include a USA market brand survey with Hanover, and research into STEM subject applicants from the UK using QS reports. However, according to Alan, “The one that stands out as most effective for us is the India PGT market review from IDP Connect.” 

Aberdeen used the data, analysis and insights of partner organisations as a base to implement a demand-led data methodology, enabling the university to: 

  • Better understand competitors 


  • Understand the market opportunities available to Aberdeen


  • Review Aberdeen’s programs and analyse gaps in their portfolio 


  • Analyse how Aberdeen promotes programs in the context of each market 


Competitor analysis

“What the IDP Connect research allowed us to do, was to look on a comparative basis with our competitors at our share of the traffic,” Alan explained while sharing 2 graphs from the IDP Connect India PGT report, outlined below. The first depicts Aberdeen’s share of IDP traffic across the institution’s different schools and Alan highlighted the decline in a formerly strong school, in orange, over the period of the research.  

The second graph, showing the sub-disciplines (programs) of that declining school, revealed that the downward trend is largely being driven by a rapid drop in interest for one particular program (in turquoise). 

Alan then shared additional graphs from IDP Connect’s India research, showing the University of Aberdeen’s volume of traffic against that of the competitor set at a subject level and then at subdiscipline level, revealing where Aberdeen over and under-performed. From this data Aberdeen could identify where it needed to:  

- Develop programs where there is high demand, but where no programs exist

- Adapt programs that are failing to attract market share 

- Pull back and focus efforts on more successful programs for specific markets

“Look at a close Geographical level to get a true idea of your performance.” 

Commenting on additional graphs focused on regions, Alan stated “There’s a geographical imperative here. We shouldn’t be thinking of any country as just one market, it’s a combination of markets, and we need to do the deeper dive into those different regional and city locations. You really need to look at a close Geographical level to get a true idea of your performance.” 

IDP International Student Crossroads provides the deeper dive  

Switching from pre-COVID-19 research to the work Aberdeen has done throughout the pandemic, Alan shared some of the sources of information the university has used including: 

- IDP Connect Updates/Student Crossroads  

- QS reports

- British Council Reports 

- HEPI Demand for Higher Education 

- Educations.com 

- UCAS Youth site Findings

He commented, “We’ve worked with all of these [above], and we found particularly useful the IDP International Student Crossroads work because it has done the deeper dive into some of the aspects of student intention.”  

Alan highlighted how the IDP Connect International Students Crossroads gave details such around whether students were planning to defer, the length of time they were considering deferring for and how trends in student intent, motivations, concern and demand differed across markets.  

“Looking at how the tectonics of student flows might be changing” 

Talking about how Aberdeen applied the insights from these data sources, Alan explained: “Despite the uncertainty of the period, the need for our finance department and our executive to have projections as to where our intake was going did not go away. We were able to use the sentiment surveys to put some intervals on those projections.” 

Alan then turned to the Market Tracker tool that Aberdeen has developed internally, providing detail as to how it integrates multiple sources of live and historic data across a variety of metrics to provide long-and-short-term insight. The tool is being developed to project future demand trends “looking at how the tectonics of student flows might be changing”.  

Before closing, Alan emphasized the importance of data not just in portfolio planning and market strategy, but in marketing too. Aberdeen is using data to develop a holistic approach to marketing that uses multi-source analysis undertaken to develop digital marketing strategy per region and per product.  

Rachel MacSween: Using data to diversify your student portfolio  

Highlighting the difference between pre-COVID-19 and during the pandemic, Rachel began by acknowledging that many institutions’ key market research and engagement strategies have been moved online.  

For Rachel, in this new online space, successful strategies for lead generation must be based on data. “At York, we decided to really look at that map and at how we wanted to use it. We wanted to see what the students who are 1, 2 or 3 years from making an application are looking for, and how they are looking.”  

Market diversification 

Taking a specific problem faced by many institutions, Rachel focused on York’s struggles with an over-reliance on China, stating: “We needed to look at how we could diversify into different markets.”  

To resolve this, York commissioned IDP Connect for a consultancy project which combined IDP’s specialist data consulting with their desk research, unique student demand data, application data and global network of counsellors. The goal of the research was to deliver a detailed and data-driven plan. 

York chose 5 markets for the analysis: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. IDP Connect then did a deep dive into what those markets are doing and how York can get more traction in those markets. Key questions that the data needed to answer included:  

- What is York’s current position in those markets, and where are the opportunities? 

- What are students in these other markets looking for and can York match that? 

- If York has what students are looking for, do they know about York? 

- Are there markets that York needs to withdraw from? 

- If students are interested in York but don’t enroll, why is that? 

- What can York do to improve market share in particular markets?

“We wanted to see who was enjoying success in attracting emerging demand and how we could mirror that success” 

Competitor analysis was very important to York who wanted to benchmark against comparable institutions. Rachel explained: “We wanted to see who was enjoying success in attracting emerging demand and how we could mirror that success” 

The institution also wanted to get a clear, unfiltered view of their position in each market. Rachel emphasised that “being unbiased is really important” as the institution was undergoing a period of strategic change and “wanted to take some of the emotion or feeling out of the decision making and use the data to drive those decisions.”  

Student placement insights 

Rachel shared some of the macro-level insights IDP Connect delivered on each specific market explaining that top level trend data is often required to get buy-in from senior figures from across the institution. She further outlined examples of IDP Connect’s subject and sub-discipline level trends in some of the key markets and how this demand was then benchmarked against key competitors. 

“We then looked at major cities and the top 5 courses in each city,” Rachel explained, “and again mapped that against our provision.” This analysis revealed key gaps in York’s portfolio as well as highlighting courses which were underperforming and needed to be restructured or remarketed with new messaging.  

“The qualitative data and the quantitative data really combined well to set a clear direction of travel” 

Rachel shared analysis of how York was perceived as an institution in each market via information collected from interviews and surveys with counsellors and students in each key market. The research looked at areas including: 

- Brand awareness 

- Perceptions of the admissions process 

- The reception to York’s marketing 

- How often York visits and the impact of those visits 

- How in-touch and engaged York is seen to be with in the market

“Some of that was quite stark,” said Rachel, “but it was also helpful to receive that feedback and find out where you could be doing better.” According to Rachel, the feedback enabled York to immediately put in place actions to improve the perceptions of the university, adding: “The qualitative data and the quantitative data really combined well to set a clear direction of travel.”  

“There is so much data that was so incredibly useful”  

While recognising that for institutions one of the biggest challenges it to get budget signed off for this kind of research, Rachel emphasised that that the practical applications of the research have made the investment worthwhile. “We’ve been able to take the data analysis and research that IDP Connect have done and we’ve really been able to look at what our market share is, and then look at what our potential for growth is in those markets.”   

Citing the example of Accounting and Finance as a course, which is predicted to rise by 30% over the next 5 years, Rachel explained how York has been able to look at its current market share in comparison to what it could be in the context of increasing demand. York then looked at data on how attractive they currently are to students and what steps they can take to become more attractive to students. From these two metrics, projected growth and attractiveness, York has been able to make informed decisions about investment and portfolio development.  

Elaborating, Rachel explained, “If a course has a low attractiveness and a low projected growth, we are able to look into program refinement, whereas if there is a high attractiveness and a high potential for growth we put that program into acceleration and say, let’s go! Let's see where we can take that course into those markets”. 

Closing, Rachel highlighted the need to use the data strategically. “There is so much data that was so incredibly useful, that it can be quite overwhelming. So, it’s about saying which parts we can use to inform marketing and recruitment, which part to inform portfolio review, and which to inform other parts of what we are doing as an institution.” 

Working with IDP Connect 

Using a highly tailored approach, we can help you answer the big questions: where, when, to who and why your institution may be losing market share and how to reverse the trend.  

To start a conversation as to how your institution can find an approach that works for your unique needs and goals, reach out to our expert team here

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Ella Grimwade12 November 2020