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Rahul Choudaha, Executive Vice President, Studyportals, US

An expert on higher education strategy, Studyportals’ executive vice president global engagement and research Rahul Choudaha is a familiar face at industry conferences . The PIE caught up with him to talk industry-shaping trends, data to devise internationalisation strategies, and the reality behind Australian growth.


"There are limited countries that can still drive the growth Australia would need to surpass the UK"

The PIE: Tell us more about yourself – how did you start working in the international education sector?

Rahul Choudaha: I was born and brought up in India, so I had two career options: either I could do engineering, or I could do engineering. So that’s what I pursued for my bachelor’s, and then I did a master’s in business.

However, I always had a desire for constant learning, and realised that for my mindset there is nothing better than education as a sector.

So I did a PhD in HE administration at the University of Denver, Colorado, covering governance policy, teaching and learning, leadership.

“We are data rich and insight poor”

After my PhD I started working with World Education Services, and then I joined Studyportals last year.

My professional focus in the last decade or so has been on data-informed, future-oriented internationalisation strategies.

The PIE: Data is unescapable in 2018, but how is it used to devise internationalisation strategies?

RC: There is a lot of data available now, given the environment that we are in. We are data rich and insight poor, and this happens sometimes because we are not interpreting the data correctly, we are potentially not questioning the data, not explaining the context in which the data must be used.

All can affect our strategies and outcomes – and then we wonder why our strategies don’t work.

“We always need to contextualise [quantitative data] with qualitative and experiential data”

First of all, we need to understand the rigour, the context, the depth of the data to make sure that the insights that we are generating out of it really stand the test of validity.

Dividing the data into multiple sources is very critical. Often, we get into figures and numbers. I love data from that perspective, but we always need to contextualise it with qualitative and experiential data. Let’s say for example there is a British university aiming to grow its international enrolment, in a political environment which is not supportive – we’ll hold that as an ‘uncontrollable’ constant.

I would say the biggest thing to focus is all the data indicators which can assess the positioning of the institution from the students’ point of view.

The PIE: What type of data can be used?

RC: The easiest one… is rankings, but to me it’s limiting. Yes, it serves a purpose, in terms of helping institutions understand how they compare and benchmark with other institutions, but it’s a proxy, not an absolute measure of quality.

“Sometimes institutions they think they are ‘X’, but in the eyes of the students, they are ‘Y’”

The other way would be benchmarking with other peer institutions, connecting data on enrolments, growth patterns, website rankings, international student behaviour. All these sources can come together in one comprehensive profile.

That’s about self-assessment data – then the institution can benchmark it against the second set of data: that is student data. This can be primary data, about current students, prospective students, alumni, their expectations and opinion and the gap in between, for example.

But also it can be secondary data, from different sources. At Studyportals we have a lot of data about student behaviour, search patterns for example. All of this put together can help create a bigger and more robust picture about the institution’s competitiveness, which is important, because at times there can be a self-perception mismatch. Sometimes institutions they think they are ‘X’, but in the eyes of the students, they are ‘Y’.

The PIE: The CGHE research about Australia overtaking the UK has been mentioned several times at AIEC. Looking at the main destination countries, how do you think global dynamics will shift in the near future?

RC: One thing we are underestimating is the power of the UK as a destination. Not only as a country, but as an ecosystem of high-quality institutions. Despite the political environment, the overall strength is solid. It’s a bit of a far-fetched idea that this will dilute so quickly.

On the other hand, the Australian HE has one of the most qualitatively strong education systems in the world. And so attractiveness is definitely there.

“One thing we are underestimating is the power of the UK as a destination”

I would say that in terms of the capacity, of where the numbers can grow, the reality is that there are limited source countries that can still drive the amount of growth which Australia would need to surpass the number of students in the UK. China is not growing, Vietnam is stagnating and declining, so the big source markets for Australia are not growing. Likewise, with elections coming up, immigration policies could become stricter.

The PIE: How about the US and Canada?

RC: I will refer to a piece I wrote about the three waves of international student mobility. After 9/11, a lot of traffic got diverted to the UK and Australia – that was the first wave. In the second, during the [post-2008 crash] global recession, the US moved up in the global recruitment race, because institutions became very proactive with their outreach, and UK and Australia lost some of the market share.

Canada instead started picking up. But in this current wave, with the political scenario and the nationalistic overtones, the momentum is building for the alternative destinations, beyond English-speaking destinations.

“The momentum is building for the alternative destinations, beyond English-speaking destinations”

It’s east Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, China, and of course all the English medium institutions in continental Europe.

All these shifts tell us that Canada, which has been so successful in the last 15 years or so, very soon will hit that capacity too. Possibly the same pushback that was felt in the UK and in Australia in the second wave will start affecting Canada at some point, despite its very liberal and welcoming tone at this point.

The PIE: At the start of this year you presented in a webinar about the megatrends that will shape higher education. Which of these do you think will be the most powerful for the international education industry?

RC: In the short term, the much talked-about nationalistic forces are still the overpowering trend. But I would not qualify that as a megatrend.

On a five-to-ten-year term, the megatrend that will become more powerful are the demographic factors. High-income countries are facing a population decline while low to middle-income countries are continuing to see population boom. This is really going to change the access and affordability equation in higher education its potential for international markets.

TNE has been talked about for a while, but how you make it financially sustainable and educationally impactful is still not proven.

It doesn’t have the maturity to be really scalable and impactful. That’s where one of the biggest megatrends is: the impact of demographic forces, which are changing the nature of how higher education institutions deliver their programs, to whom, and at what price.

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