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How do universities establish an on-the-ground presence overseas?

As enrolment strategies in international education become more sophisticated and a regional and even country-specific approach is more likely to be adopted by international educators, so the success of market-entry specialists and service providers is growing.

The Guangzhou International Finance Center (right in pic) in China which houses one of the CBBC offices. Photo: Terry Y M Liu

“Over the past years, there has been a surge of activity; universities use this as a base to coordinate student recruitment activity or partnership activity"

And entrepreneurship in this regard seems to most commonplace in two of the largest student recruitment markets, both by geography and potential: India and China.

“We have supported/launched 100+ international organisations into India and China in the past two years alone and have over 150 active clients in total, including education, corporate and various governmental organisations,” explains Adrian Mutton, founder of one such company, Sannam S4.

Sannam S4 began life in India, before partnering with Grok Global – itself focused on the China-entry market – to cover the two biggest student source regions. Now, Mutton has opened in Brazil too.

He explains that it was trying to negotiate market entry overseas himself for his technology company that gave him the idea to start offering springboard services for others.

“I found piecing together the recruitment of new staff, accountants, lawyers, serviced office providers, market research companies etc. to be a real nightmare and I had hardly any time to spend with clients,” he explains.

Services include market research, project management and partner due diligence, and the popular option of establishing local offices/a local presence

He established the business in April 2008 in India with two key staff; an accountant and an administrator, and “we haven’t looked back since”. Services include market research, project management and partner due diligence, and the popular option of establishing local offices/a local presence.

Around the same time, Kim Morrisson of Grok Global was helping Australian and US venture capitalists first understand doing business in China, where she had been based for a few years.

“So we started in 2007 and by 2009 we were almost wholly dedicated to the education market,” Morrisson explains. “We began to hire one or more dedicated staff to work directly with each customer to pursue their agenda, and that is a primary aspect of our business right now.”

The CBBC office in Chongqing, China

The CBBC office in Chongqing, China

Giles Blackburne, Director for Education at the China Britain Business Council (CBBC), attests that its Launchpad service, whereby any company can outsource the hiring of local staff to CBBC, is likewise well used by education clients. So popular in fact, that it has granted its sister organisation, UK-India Business Council (UKIBC) the right to offer the same trademark “Launchpad” market-entry services to businesses keen to get a foothold in India.

“The fundamental thing is that you can’t employ someone in China unless you have a entity registered in China,” explains Blackburne. “If you want someone in China on your behalf, this arrangement works very well. We provide the accommodation and employment solution as well as soft support. “

“The fundamental thing is that you can’t employ someone in China unless you have a entity registered in China”

CBBC currently has 13 offices throughout China and has moved its Guangzhou location to the landmark International Finance Center. For around UK£17,000 per month, an education institution can have a local member of staff, who is technically an employee of CBBC, and who enjoys the camaraderie of working alongside other UK university “employees”.

Shanghai and particularly Beijing are in demand from UK universities, says Blackburne. “Over the past years, there has been a surge of activity; universities use this as a base to coordinate student recruitment activity or partnership activity,” he says. “Particularly with partnerships, universities acknowledge that it is better to have someone on the ground. It can make it much more effective. “

He also nods to additional network capital that CBBC can offer due to the fact that it is the UK government’s official partner for trade promotions in China.

Vincenzo Raimo, Director, International at the University of Nottingham in the UK, agrees that there are a number of benefits to be leveraged from having an overseas “office” or representative, although he counsels that strategies should be revised regularly.

“I pulled back to the UK a post from our East Asia Office this year as I believed conditions had changed such that in this case operating from the UK was just or more effective than an in-country presence,” he notes.

“Foreign universities are uniquely positioned to impact the Indian education ecosystem”

Nottingham, one of the agenda-setters in UK international education, currently has six overseas offices, including one in India via Sannam S4, two in South America (one shared), two within Nottingham campuses already in Asia and one in Ghana that Raimo says UKTI helped them set up.

“The underlying reason for opening an office in-country is to be able to do more effectively what you can’t do as well from the UK – this includes speed of response, intelligence gathering, locally lobbying, real time support and stronger cultural understanding.”

Girish Ballola of Gen Next Education in India adapted his business from a strategic consultancy service to providing onshore “tactical support” in India so his clients could harness stronger links with regional schools that he developed and form powerful partnerships as well as better embed their brand nationally.

The IKC in Bangalore

The IKC in Bangalore

He decided to enable those in his “consortium”, chiefly institutions from the US – where he studied and worked – to use a physical platform in Bangalore (the International Knowledge Centre) that would serve as a base of operations, help foster partnership links, act as a counselling centre, and, given the historical reluctance some US educators had for commission-based recruiting, enable strategies beyond working with agencies, he says.

“On one hand, there are an increasing number of students are exploring studying abroad while on the other, educational institutions, be it a K-12 school or an Indian university, are seeking collaborations with foreign universities to enhance the quality of the programs they offer,” he emphasises. “Foreign universities are uniquely positioned to impact the Indian education ecosystem.”

Vietnam also represents significant opportunity and could be the 3rd most important source market for the USA (already the 8th), according to the Vietnam Education and Training Centre (VETEC). This Ho Chi Minh City base was set up by the California Education and Training Export Consortium (CA ETEC) with a grant from the US Department of Commerce.

“While roughly half of our clients are based in California, interest is growing from schools outside of California, too,” says Director, Mark Matsumoto, adding that interest from US high schools has been much higher than anticipated. VETEC is an in-country base staffed with bilingual student advisors who can help quality-filter student applications and organise bespoke services from “armchair support to active in-country promotions”.

25 US schools have asked VETEC in Vietnam about formal representation

25 US schools have asked VETEC in Vietnam about formal representation

It also arranges a twice-yearly study fair that institutions are likely to attend at least once per year. Formal representation is of interest too, says Matsumoto. “We have had more than 25 schools inquire about setting up formal representation through Vetec and it is likely about 10 of these relationships will be formalized,” he says, confirming, “The tangible benefit US schools have seen from working with Vetec is direct interface with qualified students, upticks in student applications and increased enrollments.”

At the University of Exeter in the UK, Director of the International Office, Shaun Curtis, underlines the other significant benefit of a localized presence, which is building a longer-term respect and visibility.

Working with CBBC in Shanghai and Beijing, Curtis explains that Exeter deliberately set out not to recruit students within China, but to engage local staff to focus on research collaborations, alumni engagement, employability efforts and overall brand building.

“It’s about building confidence and anything around China has to be long-term. Exeter’s name, and commitment, is much more visible than in the past.”

• This is an abridged article that appeared originally in The PIE Review 4. To subscribe, click here.

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