European universities ‘cannibalising’ their own courses

Universities in some European countries are in danger of 'cannibalising' their own courses in the rush to introduce programmes taught in English, the head of international marketing at a leading Italian university warned a conference in Amsterdam last week.

Michelangelo Balicco, who leads the drive to attract international students at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, was speaking at the Studyportals ‘Embracing Change’ Academy in the Dutch capital on 25 April.

He urged international higher education recruitment professionals to use the big data on future marketing trends to challenge university decision-makers when they are about to launch new English-language taught degrees without first analysing market trends or analysing what competitors are already offering.

Balicco has headed international student recruitment at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore for six years, but two years ago he changed track and started using big data, such as those offered by Studyportals – the web-based search provider for international students looking at English-language study abroad options.

‘Cannibalising’ through internal competition

Balicco has used the data to warn his bosses that of the top 20 management-related programmes in English offered by Italian universities, five very similar ones were offered by Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and the internal competition for the same students was “cannibalising” their own programmes.

At the same time as there had been a doubling of the number of English-language taught management programmes offered by Italian universities, from 100 to 200 in three years, and a sharp rise in tuition fees at his university due to a reduction in scholarships for international students, the number of applicants for Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore’s showpiece MSc in management had dropped significantly over the past three years.

Balicco told University World News: “When you are head of international recruitment in a European university, they expect you to grow whatever programmes they put in place and it is your fault if that doesn’t happen.

“But sometimes the big decision-makers launch programmes without thinking about the market and this can lead to internal competition for the same students. That’s what I call ‘cannibalisation’ and it can be difficult to persuade the big guys that their ideas won’t work.

“So I share different types of data with them in a detailed report with the aim of influencing their strategic decisions or to change some activities that plainly are not working.”

Data gives you a powerful tool

“Data gives you powerful tools when you are discussing [programmes] with the decision-makers and can show solutions and alternative programmes that we should be looking at introducing instead. It is much better than just me talking or relying on gut feeling, ” he said.

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan has just over 800 students enrolling directly from abroad and a further 700 classed as international who are living or working in Italy, making 1,500 international students out of a total student population of 25,000.

Most of the English-language provision is offered by the faculty of economics and management, but there is also a medical degree and some new programmes in the faculty of agriculture and environmental studies.

Balicco told University World News of a recent example where he was asked to help market a new English-language bachelor degree in sustainable agriculture for food quality and environment with just four months to attract international enrolments.

Data opens up new recruitment destinations

“Agriculture is not really a traditional subject for us to offer and there are not many 18-year-olds in Italy from our main recruiting grounds, such as private high schools, who are thinking about studying the subject,” said Balicco.

“But the Studyportals data suggested we would find plenty of interest in Sri Lanka, Georgia and Central America – countries and regions we would never have thought of going to for students.

“So we followed the data and now half the international students on the new course are from those areas. Without a strategic data approach, we would never have considered these countries.”

Earlier in the conference, Thijs van Vugt, director of analytics and consulting at Studyportals, told the international audience gathered in Amsterdam that the eight portals offered by his company had links to 150,000 courses taught in English from 3,000 universities in 120 countries.

“We have a massive database using information from the 30 million visitors to our portals and the 140 million pages they view and can profile the different kinds of students by age, gender and country and what they are looking at and provide a good competitive analysis,” said Van Vugt.

“And currently, we have three million registered students mostly looking for courses starting in 18 to 24 months’ time.

“So, while universities mainly use historical data to plan their future strategy and to decide where to go for international students, we look one or two years into the future based on where students are looking to go and what disciplines they want to study.

“But universities shouldn’t just take our word for it. We are just one valuable source of information and they should also use Google Analytics and their own knowledge of the market, particularly if there is suddenly a spike in demand to study abroad as there was after the coup in Turkey. You need to look for explanations if there is a sudden change in the market, as things are likely to get back to normal after a couple of months.”

Van Vugt told University World News that the real value of big data provided by Studyportals and its competitors was in future-gazing.

“What we offer is very different from enrolment data from the likes of HESA – [experts in] higher education student data – in the United Kingdom, or from UNESCO. Their data is at least 18 months old when it comes out, while we are looking at trends at least 18 months in the future.”

Van Vugt told University World News that at least one British university was using Studyportals to track the level of interest in studying in the UK by international students compared with those looking at studying on English-language courses in the rest of Europe after Brexit next year.

“Rather than looking back at what has already happened and assuming the same countries will continue sending students abroad to you, or relying on gut feeling and intuition, informed strategy planning using big data on real-time student demand is about expected future demand.

“That’s why it is so valuable to universities launching new programmes, especially when universities don’t really know the market. That was the case mentioned by Michelangelo Balicco when sustainable agriculture was launched at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.”

To verify the future trends data produced by Studyportals, the company recently carried out a project with Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, and compared international student enrolment in the Netherlands with Studyportals’ data on international students looking to study at Dutch universities over an 18-month period and found a strong correlation between the two.

It has done the same research using UNESCO data from five European Union countries and now hopes to repeat the experiment with HESA data in the UK, according to Van Vugt.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities.