The power of storytelling: UUKi’s #WeAreInternational – Transforming Lives campaign

Published 17/11/2023

From Khrystyna, a Ukrainian student studying law at the University of Glasgow, harbouring ambitions to go back to her home country to address war crimes; to Zeeshan, a Pakistani student at London South Bank University, who has set up a charity in his home country to feed the poor; to Charles, a Nigerian student at Anglia Ruskin University, who has received an award for the tens of hours he spends volunteering in his local community – we are international, we are proud, and we want to celebrate our incredible international students community here in the UK.

As the world comes together to celebrate International Students’ Day, I am delighted to be able to write about a campaign my team and I have been leading at Universities UK International, #WeAreInternational: Transforming Lives. This campaign aims to improve perceptions amongst prospective international students of how welcoming a study destination the UK is, by empowering the voices of international students currently here to tell the story of their experiences.

One shining example is Dhionis Llanaj from Albania, who used his graduate-route visa to work as a nurse on a critical care unit at Leeds University’s Teaching Hospital NHS Trust during the pandemic.

Dhionis, who studied at the University of Leeds via a Study Group pathway route, not only balanced his intensive studies in Medical Sciences but also made significant contributions to the healthcare sector in the UK.

Dhionis reflects on his journey, commenting, “Working as an Intensive Care Unit Registered Nurse and studying Medical Sciences full-time was difficult. To attend university, I needed to use my annual leave and request a night shift working pattern. I am delighted to say that I made it.”

Today, he works as an Education Practitioner, training new staff, apprentices and nurses.

The relaunched and reinvented #WeAreInternational campaign comes at a critical time, as immigration policy changes threaten to damage perceptions of the UK as a study destination.

FindAUniversity, a key campaign partner, has been tracking both these factors in regard to prospective international post-graduate taught audiences (a substantial segment of the UK’s international intake). Most alarmingly, these audiences regard the UK as one of the least welcoming of a set of popular study destinations – below Canada, the US and Germany, and only ever so slightly above Australia.

FindAUniversity’s unique ‘share of search’ insights have also seen a significant shift in the study intentions of prospective international Masters students. International interest in UK opportunities dropped by 21 percentage points year-on-year in October 2023, with a corresponding swing to the US and EU.

This shift comes after both the September 2023 intake (the last to be unaffected by visa changes) and the announcement of substantial visa fee increases on October 4.

However, a range of data demonstrates that the #WeAreInternational campaign is pushing back against these shifts. A poll run by UUKi with around 1,500 prospective international students evidences that 38% feel we are a more welcoming study destination after engaging with the campaign.

FindAUniversity has also been tracking awareness of the campaign amongst its audiences, finding a steady increase as universities and partners help share the message. Its data also supports the campaign impact as, amongst over 1,000 prospective international masters students surveyed in September and October, those aware of the #WeAreInternational campaign are 17 percentage points more likely to rate the UK as a welcoming destination.

As Mark Bennett, FindAUniversity’s director of Audience and Insight, commented, “This campaign alone can’t remove the substantial obstacles facing international students, but it clearly can help audiences understand and appreciate the possibilities that are beyond them and underline the welcome, support and opportunities for success that UK universities will always offer students from anywhere in the world.”

More than 80 universities have actively participated in the campaign, which has reached more than 30 million people so far, with content created – by us and by universities – being amplified by many other partners such as IDP, UCAS, QS and more.

We also have campaign partners, such as NCUK, a leading pathway provider in the sector originally founded by a consortium of UK universities, creating content for us. They enlisted the help of their international student ambassadors, currently studying at their UK partner universities, to share their unique perspectives of studying a pathway qualification in their home country before succeeding in their studies at university.

Stuart Smith, NCUK’s CEO, told me, “International students who have transitioned to the UK through an NCUK qualification, offered in over 40 countries, serve as powerful, authentic ambassadors for this campaign. We are committed to empowering their voices and their success stories are a testament to the transformative power of international education.”

Storytelling is a powerful tool for brand building, and a compelling story can set you apart from the competition and resonate deeply with your target audiences – the UK, as a study destination, needs this right now and we must continue to invest in and support the #WeAreInternational campaign.

In a world where universities are facing constant criticism, storytelling in higher education has never been more important – it transcends cultures, enabling us to share experiences and connect with others; it can empower the voices of those at the heart of what we do, informing and inspiring; and it builds a sense of camaraderie, pride and community.

We need to be bold enough, collectively working together and speaking with one voice, to tell our story with conviction, impact and cut through. Let’s remember our true purpose, focus on championing the work we do to live it, an communicate to the wider world what we already know – that we are a welcoming study destination that values the contributions international students make; a study destination that delivers high quality education and outcomes; and that UK higher education has the power to transform lives.

About the author: Andy Howells has been in post as assistant director for External Affairs at Universities UK International since 2019, and he leads UUKi’s campaigns, marketing and stakeholder engagement activities. He’s led his team to multiple award wins, most recently winning ‘Marketing Campaign of the Year’ at The PIEoneer Awards in 2023 for UUKi’s #TwinForHope campaign. Andy has worked in the sector for over 15 years, and from November 27, 2023, he will take up post as chief marketing officer for NCUK.

With contributions from Mark Bennett, director of Audience and Insight at FindAUniversity, and Stuart Smith, CEO, NCUK.

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