Is your international enrolment strategy sustainable?

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, analysts urged corporate leaders to shift focus from short-term, quarterly results to long-term gains. But that advice has gone largely unheeded.

According to a 2014 article from the Harvard Business Review: “The shadow of short-termism has continued to advance,” and “companies are less able to invest and build value for the long term”.

The recession has also fuelled short-termism in the world of international student enrolment. Given today’s fiscal challenges, competitive landscape and complex markets, the pressure to increase numbers has led colleges and universities to adopt quick fixes.

Annual enrolment reports and rankings compound those pressures and now an increasing number of higher education institutions in key destinations for international students – the US, the UK, Australia and Canada – have sought myopic solutions.

These short-sighted strategies have resulted in poor experiences for international students, as well as financial and reputational risks for the institutions involved. In order to successfully recruit and retain international students, these schools must move towards sustainable enrolment strategies that seek to maximise long-term value.

These are the four questions every institution needs to ask itself in order to move from quick-fix international enrolment strategies to sustainable ones.

Are you focused on quantity at the expense of quality?

When schools take a short-term view of international enrolment – one focused solely on numbers – they may fail to build holistic student experiences. A mismatch in expectations set during the recruitment stage and subsequent experiences on campus contributes to student dissatisfaction and attrition, according to recent research.

This in turn creates negative word-of-mouth among students who are investing substantial financial resources in their education.

It is important to balance ambitions of growth with corresponding investments and infrastructure – both soft and hard. The quality of a student’s experience should never be an afterthought.

Are you reacting instead of proactively planning?

Enrolment strategy is not just about reacting to industry trends. For example, the number of globally mobile Chinese students has increased due to the ability and willingness of an expanding number of Chinese families to send their children abroad.

Many institutions just reacted to this demand, often resulting in over-representation of students from China. This over-reliance is risky as a decline in demand from China could have a significant impact on these institutions.

In addition, over-representation poses challenges for the quality of student experiences. Given the time and effort it takes to engage best-fit students from around the world, a more proactive approach – one built on identifying and cultivating a diverse portfolio of source countries – better ensures long-term results.

Are your efforts integrated with those of other campus stakeholders?

Student enrolment is, by definition, a comprehensive and collaborative process that involves a complex system of campus stakeholders. International student enrolment issues should be part of the leadership agenda.

A recent article in The Presidency, from the American Council on Education, or ACE, representing the presidents of US institutions, highlighted that the pay-off of a well-integrated, comprehensive approach extends well beyond added tuition revenue.

Colleges and universities need to consistently educate leadership, faculty, staff and trustees about the challenges and opportunities unique to international student enrolment. This builds consensus and commitment among stakeholders and helps to align internationalisation goals with institutional missions.

Are your decisions based on evidence?

Given the lack of information and pressure for numbers, critical strategic choices about international student enrolment are often based on anecdotes or opinions. This risky and expensive process of trial-and-error often leads to suboptimal results and can hurt an institution’s image and finances.

A deeper understanding of the value proposition of your institution and how it appeals to specific segments of prospective students is critical to defining strategy.

Choosing where to go, who to recruit and how, requires a purposeful strategy grounded in contextual evidence and a decision-making process which is adaptable to different segments of students.

In conclusion, international student enrolment is a complex, costly and competitive endeavour. It can become even more challenging when ill-informed, short-term and quick-fix approaches are used.

In order to create successful, sustainable strategies, institutional leaders must work towards long-term solutions.

Going back to the world of corporate short-termism, a recent ranking by the Harvard Business Review identified Jeff Bezos of Amazon as the Best-Performing CEO in the World based on long-term results.

Bezos demonstrated his passion in a 1997 letter to Amazon shareholders when the company went public. “Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies,” Bezos wrote.

Is your institution making the right trade-offs to create sustainable international enrolment strategies?

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.