Driving up market share of foreign undergraduates

While a UK Higher Education International Unit study has credited that country with the highest satisfaction ratings for international undergraduate students, there was no room for complacency in recruiting new students.

The UK grew its international undergraduate student numbers by 46% between 2007-08 and 2013-14, while key competitors Australia, New Zealand and Germany recorded significant declines.

However, the US has historically dominated the market – and continues to dominate – attracting 41.7% of these students in 2013-14.

This compares to the UK (17.1%), Australia (13.5%) and Canada (16.4%) which has also experienced the strongest comparative growth at 70%. The study calculated this pitched Canada as the third-largest provider of international undergraduate education in 2013-14, an advantage the country retains.

The findings were based on international student experience data derived from the independent International Student Barometer survey and supported by international student recruitment and enrolment statistics. The study provides some interesting comparative analysis of the reasons why students choose different destination countries and what other factors may have influenced their decision.

Impact of currency fluctuations

The study shows, for instance, that international undergraduate students registered in Australian universities have risen 14% since 2007-08. The near-crippling strength of the Australian dollar has diminished and correspondingly student numbers were rising.

Currently international students constitute 20% of the country’s undergraduates and 33% of postgraduate students with the former rising 10% in 2015 from the previous two years, even though the country’s comparative share has slipped 19.5%.

Accounting for A$16.3 billion in 2013-14, international education is Australia’s largest services export contributor. Students play a key role in enabling universities to maintain undergraduate teaching programmes with the internationals constituting 44% of enrolments in management and commerce, 27% for engineering and 12% for health programmes.

Declining enrolments forced a government investigation, the recommendations of which included reducing financial requirements; introducing requirements to maintain the integrity of the student visa programme; streamlining visa applications for certain universities; introducing post-study work arrangements and abolishing mandatory student visa cancellations.

In New Zealand international undergraduates are “an overwhelming majority” of international enrolments. Since 2007-08 the numbers have risen 15%, but the country’s market share has still dropped from 6.1% to 5%.

International students also constitute 15% of the total undergraduate student body and are primarily reading management and commerce, information technology and engineering.

New Zealand education ministry analysis has linked the decline in market share to the appreciating currency that effectively escalated costs and negatively affected the primary student market – Southeast Asia, specifically China – from where 75% originated.

However, the country views these students as a means by which to strengthen its economy, social and cultural links; generate export income and stimulate skilled migration.

Longer work visas

Consequently the government established strategies to double its international education efforts by 2025 and now offers international graduates two or three-year work visas and encourages skilled migration by giving international students points towards their immigration.

Another policy change has allowed them to work up to 20 hours per week during term-time and full-time during breaks.

The US hosts the largest number of international undergraduate students – more than double its nearest rivals Australia, Canada and the UK. The figures have also risen more than 50% since 2007-08 to expand its share almost 8%, but international undergraduates remain a small fraction – under 5% – of the total enrolment.

These students study science, engineering and technology – with China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea accounting for 48% of enrolments. Chinese graduates account for 30% of the total, while Indian student numbers are rapidly growing.

“This significant growth can be attributed to increased efforts by US universities to internationalise and expand their sources of revenue as domestic demographics reduce local recruitment potential in many regions,” the study stated.

The view of the US authorities is that, since the US is the most preferred destination, the country can pick and choose the top students to study at their institutions. These students were critical for sustaining science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programmes and could build the intellectual capability and reputation of US universities internationally.

While most students were self-funded, there were growing funding sources from international organisations, foreign governments or universities and employers. However, international students cannot work off-campus and on-campus work is limited to 20 hours per week in term-time and full-time during breaks.

Ambitious strategy

In Canada international students comprised 6% of undergraduates with the study indicating a strong belief among policy-makers for “a considerable untapped potential for future growth”.

Accordingly, the country has an ambitious strategy to boost its student share with these efforts yielding results across the board. Canada has raised its international intake 70% since 2007-08 and recorded a 20% growth in its relative proportion of these students against its primary competitors.

While international enrolments in 2013 came from 194 countries, China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and France accounted for more than 50% and the top 10 countries from which Canada’s international students were drawn account for 71% of foreign student enrolments.

As education is within provincial and territorial jurisdiction, there is no national education ministry. However, each province has recognised the increasing importance of international students and it has become a strategic part of public policy to achieve Canada’s diplomacy, trade and immigration objectives.

In January 2014 the country unveiled its inaugural international education strategy outlining a pan-Canadian strategy to spur consensus across governments, organisations and universities and setting out plans to double the international student population.

The primary focus is Brazil, China, India, Mexico, North Africa, Middle East and Vietnam.

Better branding

The strategy also looks to more effectively brand Canadian education to maximise success; strengthen institutional research partnerships and educational exchanges and leverage people-to-people ties.

In Germany, non-European Union undergraduate enrolments have risen marginally since 2007-08, resulting in a loss of its overall share. The study indicated that Germany has seen modest improvements in the past two years, but the majority of the growth was driven by rising interest from foreign EU students.

“While there are significant language and cultural barriers to studying in Germany, the progressive removal of student tuition fees by regional governments may mitigate against this,” the study stated.

Similarly, universities were encouraged to expand language and cultural activities for international students to improve the country’s ability to attract students. In 2011 the government introduced the Germany Scholarship for high-achieving students whereby recipients receive €300 per month, the funding being equally split between private sponsors and the federal government.

Family influence

In conclusion the study showed family and friends were a key influence in the decision to study abroad. University websites played another critical function with the data suggesting the UK and North America were leading the field.

Rankings played a greater influence in choosing a UK university (33% of recipients) than a US-based one (25%), but this had limited impact in Canada and Australia (6%) and even less in New Zealand and Germany (1%).

Current students played a role in driving choice, but alumni were the “university at large” and should be a greater influence on prospective students than was actually happening.

“Universities across all competitor countries are now advancing alumni engagement strategies – in most cases going beyond traditional (some would say cynical) fundraising – towards a lifelong relationship,” the study concluded.

It is also interesting to note that data on where international undergraduate students were located prior to their programme of study shows that a larger number of students in Australia, Canada and New Zealand were in-country prior to undertaking studies than was the case for the UK or the US.

This would suggest that a more significant flow-through of students from both pre-university preparation programmes and secondary education levels is occurring in these countries.