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How is international recruitment changing in UK HE?

Using or reappraising relations with education agencies, or outsourcing other aspects of international student recruitment – whether that is social media management, enquiry management or regional representation – is on the rise within UK higher education. Jim Butler reports on the new recruitment environment, as competition intensifies for overseas students and operating conditions also turn the screw.
August 23 2012
5 Min Read

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.

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”

StudentMarketing, 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>>]

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.”

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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