How to grow international undergraduate student numbers

The global student mobility landscape is in constant flux and is often influenced by external factors beyond the control of higher education institutions. Consider how a combination of changes in the external environment, including demographics and economic growth, has influenced the patterns of the top senders of international students to the United States.

China took over from Japan as the leading source of international students in 1999-2000, before being overtaken by India in 2001-02 and then regaining the reins in 2009-10. Japanese enrolments, by contrast, have plunged from a peak of just over 47,100 in 1997-98 to less than 20,000 in 2011-12.

Meanwhile, student enrolments from select emerging markets have grown rapidly. Enrolments from Saudi Arabia, for example, have increased by 700% since 2002-03, from 4,200 to 34,100 in 2011-12.

In addition, other factors such as post-recession budget cuts have prompted many institutions to actively recruit international students.

And while the catalysts to recruit international students are often external, institutions have frequently found themselves internally underprepared for these shifts in the environment that demand more proactive strategies. Moreover, insufficient understanding of near-term student mobility trends and recruitment practices can be detrimental to their future strategic internationalisation efforts.

With these considerations in mind, the latest research report from World Education Services, International Student Mobility Trends 2013: Towards responsive recruitment strategies, analyses global mobility patterns and their implications for prioritising resources and building capacity for proactive international student recruitment.

Growth in international undergraduate enrolment

One overarching mobility trend of the new millennium has been the rise of international students at the undergraduate level. In other words, students are increasingly studying abroad at a younger age.

Driven by increasing affluence in source countries like China and Vietnam and by government-initiated scholarship programmes such as in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, more fully funded students are heading abroad. It has been reported that in 2012, over 95% of Chinese students studying overseas were self-funded.

Similarly, as of January 2012, two-thirds of all Saudi students pursuing higher education abroad were funded by their government.

This trend in undergraduate mobility couldn’t be any timelier for institutions seeking ways to expand their sources of revenue. All four of the main host countries – the US, the UK, Australia and Canada – have significantly increased their intake of international undergraduate students between 2004 and 2012 – see figure one.

Not surprisingly, because of their aggressive recruitment practices, the UK and Australia have seen the strongest growth, with increases of international undergraduate students in excess of 60% during this period. The US and Canada by comparison have seen international undergraduate growth between 40% and 50% in the same timeframe.

Australia has the largest concentration of international undergraduates, with three out of five international students enrolled at the undergraduate level in 2012.

When compared to graduate enrolments, undergraduate enrolments in the US have clearly been the engine of growth, with figures jumping 37% between 2004 and 2012 as compared to 10% at the graduate level during the same period.

Although the US falls behind the three other big English-language destinations in percentage growth, it has the greatest potential to attract more international students at the undergraduate level.

Whereas 13% and 24% of the total undergraduate population was international in the UK and Australia respectively in 2012, in the US the proportion of international students was just 2% of the overall student body in 2012.

Framework for responsive recruitment strategies

In order to gauge how higher education institutions are responding to changes in the external environment and shaping their recruitment plans, we surveyed select US international enrolment officers and gathered in-depth qualitative responses.

The survey responses suggest that current institutional priorities are focused on achieving aggressive, diverse and efficient international enrolment growth.

Based on a synthesis of the experiences and recruitment practices shared by respondents, the report recommends a framework for responsive strategies that emphasises the interplay of technology, partnership and research. See figure two.

This framework enables institutions to leverage: 1) technology for expanding reach in a cost-effective manner; 2) partnerships for creating pathways and visibility; and 3) research to prioritise efforts and measure return on investment.

For optimal recruitment outcomes, higher education institutions should employ these three key practices in tandem to produce aggressive and efficient international enrolment growth. This will not only help institutions prioritise their efforts by knowing what works and what does not, but will also allow them to use the segment-based outreach strategies that are more cost-effective.

To achieve international enrolment goals in a cost-effective manner without compromising the ideals of internationalisation, higher education institutions would need to:
  • • Understand the decision-making processes, needs and preferences of the new segment of international undergraduate students.

    Unlike the graduate segment, the decision-making process of undergraduate students is more susceptible to external factors, such as location, parents, support services and word-of-mouth via social media. Their mobility patterns and preferences are also distinct from international graduate students.

    Higher education institutions cannot simply extend the practices designed for recruiting and admitting graduate students to this unique and emerging segment of undergraduate students.

  • • Adopt responsive institutional strategies and practices that are mapped to student needs. International enrolment strategies are effective and sustainable only when they are aligned with the specific needs and preferences of the targeted student segment.

    Proactive universities and colleges can respond effectively to the rise of well-funded international undergraduate students by developing their internal capacities and implementing a strategy based on the iterative interplay among technology, partnerships and research.

There is no magic formula for achieving sustainable international student enrolment growth, especially in the unpredictable environment of globalisation. Each recruitment strategy has its own promises and challenges and yields varying degrees of success.

But by implementing a holistic strategy based on technology, partnerships and research, institutions can make their international student recruitment responsive and productive.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.

* This is an adapted version of the article published in World Education News and Reviews.