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How is international recruitment changing in UK HE?

This in essence is a case of two distinct disciplines coming together – education and marketing. Both entities are making use of the other’s core strengths. It’s about working more effectively and something that Rennie applauds. “Universities do need to be more professional, especially as numbers become critically important,” he claims. “Apart from key educational policies such as academic strategy and decision making, issues around marketing, enquiry and support are increasingly being outsourced.”

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"

Kenny Nicholl from Hobsons believes that just in the last year things have got even tougher: “There are so many more calls on institutional resources; from compliance to increased student expectations being some of the latest,” he says.”The universities that we work with across Europe and Australia are all looking to better understand the return on investment for all their activity and identify where the critical points are that they can make a difference and meet their institutional targets.”

He continues, “We’ve certainly seen a much increased demand for our managed enquiry and offer conversion services over the last year.”

Likewise, Rennie’s client list is rapidly expanding. “We have multiple clients at present across the FE, HE and private sector, and we will need to upscale very soon,” he says. “We are busier than ever and this is due to a number of reasons: desperation to meet targets and numbers; lack of experience and knowledge in international teams; lack of finances to staff up and increase staff roles; the need to set up in new markets quickly. And universities struggling to move on from the old ‘road warrior’ model of international officers travelling the world recruiting students.”

“Universities struggling to move on from the old ‘road warrior’ model of international officers..”

Rennie surrounds himself with other experts who understand strategy, technology and the rise in prevalence of social media. “We look at partnerships, numbers, diversifying countries and targets,” he explains. “It’s about making universities more competitive and working smarter.”

Meanwhile, discussions over if and how to work with education agencies – normally paid a commission fee for successfully counselling and placing a student on an education programme – continue.

At the University of Nottingham, Raimo believes that all involved in the process need to be more open and honest about what it is that they do. “I don’t have a problem with agents, but we have to make best use of them,” he points out – pushing for absolute clarity on working relationships and stating that his institution will openly disclose commission arrangements.

“We all need to be more transparent – we’re not selling Mars bars, we’re selling a lifetime of opportunities,” he says. “As a minimum we need to say which agents we use on our website. From this autumn we will state how much we pay them.”

“From this autumn we will state how much we pay [agencies]”

He also believes that international students are key to a vibrant and diverse university life, a point that all agree with, whatever recruitment methods are employed. “We need international students,” he argues. “They enrich the university.”

Worton at UCL agrees, and while agent-sceptic, he says that his university is embracing the modern world when it comes to recruitment. “We’re diversifying, using the web and social media,” he points out. “We analyse our major markets and look to consolidate and strengthen those areas while seeking to develop new ones.”

In an era of falling domestic numbers, are overseas students the answer? It’s long been known that higher education facilities can charge foreign students more but if costs are increasing are the gains outweighed?

“International students are an important contributing factor to UK university finances,” says Raimo. “But they are not the only answer. They do bring with them very strong income benefits, but there are costs and we have to understand those costs. They have increased significantly over the last few years.”

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