Brand is key challenge for international recruitment

Brand awareness is the key challenge facing universities in recruiting international students, according to an audience poll of a global webinar on international student mobility trends: shifting recruitment priorities and strategies.

The largest section of the audience also put establishing strong feeder partnerships at the top of their priorities should their institution's budget for international recruitment be increased by 10%.

The free webinar, on seeking globally mobile students in a world in turmoil, was hosted by University World News, in partnership with DrEducation and StudyPortals, on 12 April.

The hour-long online event received 1,243 registrations with around 37% from the USA, 12% from the United Kingdom, 6% from Canada and just over 45% from the rest of the world.

This webinar is the fourth in the series of webinars on international higher education hosted by University World News and organised by DrEducation. In total, over 4,000 people from around the world have registered for these webinars.

Rahul Choudaha, moderator of the webinar and CEO of DrEducation, noted: “With the political and economic changes in the key source and destination countries, we are in the midst of a perfect storm for international student mobility. In this new context of competition and uncertainty, institutions must innovate to grow international enrolment and support student success.”

Biggest challenge

One in three of the international audience put brand awareness as the biggest challenge facing their institution in terms of international recruitment.

Budget and lack of resources was the main headache for one in four. But visa and immigration policies were not considered to be a major concern for most voting in the snap webinar poll.

The results surprised two of the three panel experts, with Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor for global engagement at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, saying: “Most of the research shows the biggest challenge is brand awareness of the country. There are very few institutions that can stand beyond the country.”

Adina M Lav, assistant provost for international enrolment at the George Washington University in the United States, was also surprised at the focus on university brand and said she was envious when attending international student recruitment events and seeing the British – and also Italian – universities acting together to attract globally mobile students.

“We’re not unified in that way in the US,” she said.

However Kathleen Massey, registrar and executive director of enrolment services at McGill University in Canada, was not surprised at the prominence of brand in the poll.

“Perhaps a number of my Canadian colleagues voted that way, but when we think about institutional brand we are also talking about the brand of the country.

“We work very hard with our colleagues at various levels of government, both provincial and federal, to promote the Canadian brand and we’re aware of the heightened competition. Certainly our brand is better known now than it ever has been.

“McGill University, fortunately, has a very strong institutional brand but we’re not complacent,” said Massey.

If the recruitment budget was boosted

Responding to a question about how the audience would spend an extra 10% if their university's international student recruitment budget was boosted, 29% said they would strengthen feeder partnerships abroad and a quarter would put the money into ‘leveraging technology’ to reach potential applicants who were ignoring their emails by harnessing the latest fads in social media.

Around 15% voted to build agent networks and only 11% would spend the extra money on advertising and promotions, while only 9% would travel to more education fairs.

Massey and Raimo both agreed that strengthening partnerships ‘on the ground’ was the best way to spend any increased budget for international student recruitment.

Massey said she would like to invest extra funds in creating clearly focused pathways and develop ‘creative facilitation organisations’ which moved beyond just using agents to recruit students in different countries.

“And not just institutional partnerships, although these have been very successful for Canada,” said Massey, who added: “I would like to foster collaboration on the ground in specific countries all year round.”

Raimo said his university was clearly focused on increasing international partnerships and boosting recruitment through “offshore secure pipelines”.

He was surprised at the low percentage voting to invest more in agents, saying: “We run the risk of taking agents for granted.”

Raimo said that 40% of international students studying in the UK and Canada are recruited through agents. “The figure is less in the US, but I know more US institutions are starting to use agents.”

He warned: “Just like students, agents have a lot of choice in the different universities they work with and we need to put more investment into agents.”

Agents were now able to ask for higher commissions, said Raimo, and were providing a much greater range of services than just helping student recruitment and were getting involved in supporting students after they graduate. “They are developing their services to perspective students and we are just one part of their mix.”

Massey said McGill University was using agents in their School of Continuing Studies language recruitment programme, but she was wary of using agents for degree programmes.

“Many do very fine work and more are seemingly also providing immigration advice. It is not just pathways to education but also pathways to immigration to the country where the young people may study.

“We have to be very careful when we recruit international students to our campuses and we want to make sure we provide the broad range of services necessary. And that starts with the relationships that we engage at the very point of being a prospect.

“So we want to take care of that relationship and that includes choosing who we work with abroad.”

Taking a different angle, Lav said she would invest any increase in budget in career services to support international students from countries such as India and China.

“We need to think about the outcomes of students, particularly while we remain unsure what the H-1B work visa situation will be in the US.”

She would also like to see investment “to encourage non-Chinese students to be able to work in China for a while”.

Impact of political and economic changes

The webinar was organised to look at the impact of political and economic changes of the past year on future mobility patterns of students, particularly after the UK vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election and the impact this was having on the two largest destination countries for international students.

Raimo said the UK was feeling the chill from the vote to leave the European Union with applications from European Union students already down 7%.

“The biggest hit for the UK is in subjects such as business and law where EU students have been prevalent at undergraduate level.”

But it is not all bad news as interest in postgraduate programmes is up. “In my university applications for masters programmes are up by nearly 25% this year,” said Raimo, who didn’t know the reason, but added that masters applications were booming in many British universities.

Looking ahead, Lav said it was important that universities took international recruitment seriously. “International enrolment is not something you can give to someone who already has a full-time job. We do this a lot in this industry, probably everyone does it, and says, ‘Oh, we’ll just add that to that person’s portfolio'. You need to be more professional and put your money where it needs to go to be successful.”

For enquiries about becoming a partner for webinars in this series, contact Sunita Gordon, email:

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.