As you might know, I changed countries and positions in the last month, hence my lack of posts (now and probably in the very near future). As some of you might know, I left academia to work at the Nuffic, the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education. This week I started in the department of studies of their Knowledge and Innovation Directorate. One issue I’m currently looking at is the way foreign students choose their preferred study destinations. Market research organisation i-Graduate seems to have found all my answers already… or hasn’t it?

The Guardian reports on a study that looks at what motivates international students to study abroad and what influences their choice of study. I haven’t seen the study and I can’t link to it because it is not available on their website, but looking at the article of the Guardian, it seems to be a case of over-simplification and over-generalisation. According to i-Graduate, the international student population can be divided into five tribes:



First, there are the “seekers”. These students are often at home on engineering, science and business degree courses. They are driven by their parents’ wishes that they secure a good job. They are not fussed about earning megabucks or changing the world. The seeker is happy if its parents are. I-graduate says students from Hong Kong are often seekers. About 24% of the 25,000 international students it polled were in this tribe.

Then there’s the “gekko”, after the hair-gelled and power-hungry corporate finance boss Gordon Gekko of the 1987 film Wall Street. The gekko can be found craving peers’ respect. But even more important to the species is the potential to command huge sums of money. They care about one thing: cash. I-graduate says Polish students tend towards this tribe, as do those studying creative subjects, business and engineering. About 23% of those polled were part of this tribe.

What of the “bono”? This international student is more idealistic than the rest. He or she can be found worrying in a corner about the difference they can make to the environment and is at home on language, science and creative degree courses. They are more influenced by tutors than parents. I-graduate says postgraduates are most likely to be part of this tribe, as are students from the Netherlands and the US. About 22% of those quizzed were members of this tribe.

Then there’s the “kid”, who can be seen wandering aimlessly across campus. The kid lacks focus and is searching for something easy to guide it. It might be for this reason that the kid is the most influenced by university league tables of any of the five tribes. Many of this tribe’s members are undergraduates, but not all. I-graduate says students from Pakistan are often members of this tribe, as are engineering students. A fifth of those polled belonged to this tribe.

And, finally, there’s the “surfer”. The surfer is just looking for fun and is less ambitious than members of the other tribes. He or she cares less about the future and job security than his or her peers. Despite the name, the surfer can be spotted at all universities, not just those on the coast, and is often at home on language degree courses. I-graduate says Spanish and Japanese students tend towards this tribe. About 11% of those polled were members.

The Guardian also asked some experts about their opinion on these ‘tribes’. A few think that the study might be helpful. I tend to agree with the others, who see it as stereotyping and see the nationality tagging of the study as unhelpful or even demeaning.

This article has 12 comments

  1. Will

    Eric, thanks for picking this up. Enjoying your blog. I agree with your concerns.

    As one of the authors of the research, I was disappointed that the article resorted to nationality tagging when our work was all about the opposite.

    The following week (March 25) the Guardian carried a letter setting the record straight. I can’t find a link on their website, so I’ve included the text of it here.

    “Interesting coverage of i-graduate’s early research into Learning Tribes (The New Seekers, March 18). However I must dispel any implication that we are trying to label nations. Our research actually shows how the groups we identify defy being categorised along national lines.

    This work is intended to break away from national stereotypes and add a new dimension to the way we understand international students, by analysing their personal aspirations. The start point for the work was that demographics alone are not enough. We need to look beyond nationality and subject when trying to understand how expectations and perceptions differ. As marketers and educators, we should all stop drawing lines around countries.

    For the universities we work with around the world, the information we gather on student perceptions, motivations and aspirations is used to help identify which groups are most positive about their university experience. Institutions can then decide to what extent they should continue to be all things to all people (and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t) or whether to focus their attention on specific groups. This applies as much to teaching and learning as to student support and recruitment.

    I am pleased that the Learning Tribes research has provoked debate. The serious intention, in everything we do, is to deliver actionable insights – helping institutions to track and respond to the changing expectations of students and stakeholders.”

    Thanks again for picking this up. Happy to debate further.


  2. Eric

    Will, thanks for the clarification. Is the study available for download or can it be ordered somewhere? I’d be interested to read more about it.

    Thanks again

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