This past June, approximately 70 UK Higher Education professionals attended a seminar in London organised by the Chartered Institute for Marketing’s special interest group for Higher Education. The interest group had commissioned a report on international student recruitment from a marketing perspective and the authors, Dr Neil Kemp and Tim Rogers, were there to present their findings.
Over the months prior, Kemp and Rogers had surveyed and interviewed a large number of International Officers and their marketing colleagues from UK universities. They combined the results of their surveys with numbers and data collected on international student mobility by a variety of sources, and presented an overview of past and future developments and trends, and their view on challenges ahead.
To me the most remarkable moment was when the authors revealed that when asked, UK managers only identified other UK universities as their main competitors. Apart from a few mentions of two Australian universities, no other universities or countries were named. I thought that was surprising, to say the least.
It also struck me as rather risky for said universities, given the numbers Kemp and Rogers had presented up to that point showed that even though UK universities had done very well over the past years, plenty of competitor countries are willing and waiting to take over. Kemp and Rogers believe there might be some turbulence ahead for the UK in the short- to mid-term, but are convinced that the mid- to long-term prospects are promising, provided national policies, international student strategies and investments are reviewed, refined and realigned.
In other words, business-as-usual is over and being aware of the very real competition outside of one’s own country seems a wise start.
• In 2011-2012, there were 488,380 international students enrolled in the UK, putting the UK in second place after the USA.
• Over the last ten years about 2.3 million international students studied in the UK and during that period of time, the UK was the only country to not have experienced some decline at some time. However, unofficial data indicates that that decline is now starting to happen.
• In 2011-2012, the increase rate of student recruitment in the UK slowed to just 1.6%. Had it not been for a very large growth in enrolments from China, the large declines from Saudi Arabia and South Asia would have resulted in a real drop.
Source-countries for the UK and the developments in those markets
• China is the leading global market and largest group of international students in the UK. The two main concerns voiced were whether or not this growth is sustainable, and the relative dominance of Chinese students in certain programmes at some UK universities.
• The rate of enrolment of students from India had accelerated strongly up until 2011. Since then there has been a decline, largely put down to changes in UK immigration procedures, particularly post-study employment. Results from competitor countries indicate that there is still growth in the number of Indian students; most notably in Canada due to its post-study employment policy.
• Saudi Arabia has been a market experiencing great growth for the UK, but over the last two years has declined; a trend that only the UK appears to have experienced.
• Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore display an interesting trend: renewed growth in demand for undergraduate studies in the UK (as well as other main destination countries).
Today’s international student market totals approximately 4 million globally-mobile students. Student mobility increases in direct relation to the total numbers enrolled in HE around the world. Since the numbers enrolled in HE in lower- and middle-income countries continue to grow, increasing student mobility must be anticipated. And there are more and more universities and countries who want a share of that growth.
The UK’s main significant competition remains Australia, the USA and Canada. But the researchers also noted other countries attracting large numbers of students, most notably: Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and France. New competition is growing from South East and East Asia, specifically Malaysia, Singapore and China. Other countries are also entering the market, presenting themselves as ‘English speaking’ destinations, including Cyprus, Mauritius, South Africa and the Scandinavian countries.
The researchers also mention the rapid rise of Asian countries as destinations for international students, specifically South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Malaysia. HE Institutions in these regions are offering more programmes in English, and they have aggressive marketing strategies in place, supported by national funding and scholarships. I find source-countries turning into destination-countries to be one of the most interesting trends to watch.
Kemp and Rogers expect the competitive environment only to intensify, with more universities from different countries marketing to the same students many UK universities hope to attract. As a result, Kemp and Rogers point out, UK universities will need to showcase their competitive advantage and execute marketing strategies that match chosen target markets.
With regards to the specific marketing challenges universities face when it comes to recruiting international students, the authors provided some recommendations. They made a point of underpinning that new marketing strategies generally take two or more years to reach impact. With that, they urged the audience to think about where they could introduce changes now, in order to prepare their institutions for the challenges ahead.
I. Increase programme and subject-specific marketing
International student demand is typically focused on a relatively limited range of subject areas. However, as students become ever more sophisticated, the level of information and subject knowledge they require from marketing material is increasing. Centrally located International Offices may have to move to working much more closely with academic colleagues and faculty administrators to ensure that the marketing message is appropriate and compelling for international students in a way that is rarely seen at present.
II. Portfolio review and demand-led marketing.
While universities continue to be largely ‘supplier-led’, those that do review and adjust their existing portfolio to meet student demand are much more likely to be competitive in the coming years, the authors note.
III. The ‘human touch’
The decision to study internationally continues to have a significant emotional element to it. The ‘human touch’ of a university, conveyed either through innovative use of social media or student ambassadors, is now very significant. Prospective students demand to have some form of authentic experience of their university during the application process and International Offices will be faced with increasing demands from students to provide this.
While the performance of many international offices continues to be measured by the number of applications received, the battleground of international student recruitment in the future is likely going to be around the number of offer holders converted to registered students.
V. Service-level quality
Already widely seen across the UK, the use of CRM techniques and software have many a positive impact on the experience of prospective international students, either through the enquiry or applications phases. Such service-level expectations are likely to increase amongst students, especially as they compare their application experience across universities in the same country and in different countries.
The complete report ‘International student recruitment – market context & challenges’ is available to members of the Chartered Institute for Marketing (www.cim.co.uk).
About the authors of the report
Dr Neil Kemp OBE is an international education consultant, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, and teaches on the MA in the Management of International Education at Edge Hill University, specifically the international marketing and internationalisation components.
Tim Rogers is the former Head of Student Recruitment and Admissions at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and previously worked in international recruitment at the University of Warwick.