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How is international recruitment changing in UK HE?

The recruitment of international students is big business; and none more so than in the UK, where Universities UK suggests that the country attracts one in 10 foreign students who seek to study outside their native country. According to UUK, these students currently generate around £8 billion a year in tuition fees and other investments.

Photo: UCL LondonPhoto: UCL London

"The universities that we work with are all looking to better understand the return on investment for all their activity"

However, the recruitment of these students is also a political and ethical hot potato. In light of recent changes to student visas and given the inclusion of foreign students in the net migration figures, there is a notion abroad that – counter to government rhetoric that the UK is ‘open for business’ – the opposite is actually the case.

This new challenge, allied to the fact that the UK’s long-standing competitors in luring talented foreign students to their shores – Australia, the US and Canada – have upped their game, and relative new kids on the block across continental Europe and China are working much more effectively, means it’s unsurprising that the marketplace is getting tougher by the day.

But these are not the only issues complicating matters. The cost of recruiting international students is rising rapidly.

Vincenzo Raimo, the director of Nottingham University’s International Office, says: “Costs (relating to the recruitment of overseas students) have increased dramatically over the last five years. In the UK we’re having to do more and spend more just to stand still.” And it’s not just those who work within our hallowed institutions who endorse this.

Stuart Rennie says his client list is rapidly expanding

Stuart Rennie is the managing director of SJRennie Consulting, a company that delivers strategic services within international education and recruitment, and he concurs with Raimo’s argument. “To run an international department is expensive,” he says. “Universities can not carry on recruiting students as they have been doing – the salaries, the travelling abroad and developing relationships is too expensive.”

“I don’t have a problem with agents, but we have to make best use of them”

This has led to two trends – outsourcing of international recruitment services and, in some cases, an expectation to rely more on the services of education agencies based overseas to grow international applications, instead of the relentless circuit of student fairs and alumni receptions.

Professor Michael Worton, Vice Provost at the University College London, testifies to witnessing a growing climate of competition. “We live in an era of transnational education,” he says. “Students have different expectations about university, and in particular regard to the employability in the global marketplace. Employers are looking at life skills as well as academic skills. Global mobility is being seen as increasingly desirable.”

And while Worton notes that UCL doesn’t use education agents to assist in recruitment – “This was a very clear policy decision,” he says. “We want to be in control from start to finish” – more and more universities are working alongside, or outsourcing to, agents.

And, aside from education agencies, which can range from one-man alumni counselling to big-name operators (such as the Chopras in India, whom Raimo identifies as among the companies becoming “brands in their own right”) another clear rising trend is outsourcing.

There are many companies who offer student recruitment strategies, and increasingly, such companies offer bespoke services to help an institution actively build student recruitment for desired degree subjects or geographic areas.

“It’s about making universities more competitive and working smarter”

Student Marketing, for example, can find regional salespeople who work under a “white label” set-up to represent an institution remotely, or organise tailored trade missions and fam tours; Student Marketing started offering in-market knowledge and assistance in central and eastern Europe, given its base in Austria, and then expanded the service globally.

Other companies can also be employed to manage social media (such as GoSocial) or to manage enquiries and enhance conversion rates.

Hobsons is one of the better known names that provides a range of services to assist in recruiting international students. It helps its clients, primarily university departments, make better use of the critical information provided to them such as names, email addresses and the like, and act upon this to better handle enquiries and convert more to enrolled students. [more>>]

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