17 new frontiers for diversifying student recruitment

Universities need to look beyond the traditional source countries when deciding how best to target international student recruitment. But diversification strategies also need to create more inclusive campuses, say experts behind a new study into the next frontiers for diversifying student recruitment.

Border closures, disruptions to travel, currency fluctuations, diplomatic rows and government interventions have all created growing uncertainties about global study destinations for international students – and that’s even before considering health concerns over the latest variants of COVID-19.

The new report has been produced by Studyportals, the international study choice platform active in 120 countries, and Unibuddy, which works with over 450 institutions of higher education to attract global students.

Seventeen ‘interesting countries’

Titled The Next Frontiers: Diversifying student recruitment, the report suggests “17 interesting countries” for global universities “to pursue”, based on key demographic and economic factors and student concerns across seven areas – from money to admissions.

It deliberately excludes the most obvious destination nations for international student recruiters, namely China, India and Nigeria, and highlights some of the best prospects in Asia, Africa, South America and what it calls “the edge of Europe”.

These are broken down into:

• Beyond India: Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

• Beyond China: Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.

• Edge of Europe: Portugal, Poland, Greece and Romania.

• Up and coming: Brazil, Turkey, Japan and Ghana.

To coincide with the report’s launch on 26 January, a webinar on why diversification should lie at the core of international recruitment strategies was hosted by Dr Carmen Neghina, senior marketing analytics consultant at Studyportals.

This featured David Di Maria, senior international officer and associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Brad Farnsworth, principal at Fox Hollow Advisory, both in the United States.

Diversification can mean different things

Neghina opened the session saying: “Diversification is at the core of every international strategy whether in the US, Australia or the United Kingdom, but it can mean different things in different countries. What it means in the US is not the same for Australia.

“And there are differences between what it means for business schools, research universities and universities of applied science in the same country.”

Farnsworth said international student recruitment has relied on two groups, namely the wealthy and those who are heavily subsidised, as happened until recently for students from Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

He said: “Diversity is potentially a bloated term that can lead into domestic diversification” and suggested those charged with multicultural diversity and international diversity need to work together.

Di Maria agreed and said higher education institutions talk all the time about “efforts to diversify the student body, but without anybody being in charge. It is very rare for anyone to be given overall responsibility.”

He said: “International student diversification can sound simple, but rarely do we talk about training staff to support an increasingly diverse community.”

He pointed out that while institutions need a shared vision to diversifying the student body, they are much looser organisations than corporations and may have six or more cultures competing with each other – some wanting to tackle historic inequalities while others want to respond to other challenges.

“Sometimes it seems that different academic schools, although on the same campus, live in entirely different worlds,” he said.

Government role is important

Farnsworth told the webinar that government policy could play an important role in diversifying the student body and the US was still recovering from “a lot of damage caused between 2017 and 2021”.

“We’ve heard a lot of positive things from the new administration [in the US], but we have a very decentralised system for reviewing visas and individuals sitting across the table or screen from applicants have a lot of say. That probably explains why there is a very high rejection rate from people wanting a visa to study in the US from certain African countries.”

Di Maria said the issue of fraud was also a live issue when it came to validating qualifications in some of the 17 countries mentioned in the Studyportals-Unibuddy report and that could be a reason for recruiters “retreating to the tried and tested areas like China”.

A high number of visa rejections can make the difference between whether or not you can recruit from certain countries, he said.

Farnsworth said that despite all the obstacles, he remained “cautiously optimistic” about an easing of visa restrictions to enable wider international student recruitment to American universities, but “much depends on what happens in embassies and consulates”.

Despite the challenges, he believes the liberal arts model in the US is a big draw, “where intense debate over issues requires a high level of English-language proficiency and is particularly attractive to students from countries even where they have globally recognised universities, but where it is not normal to challenge a professor in class,” said Farnsworth.

Fastest-growing study-abroad markets

Cara Skikne, senior editor at Studyportals, told University World News: “The next frontiers report looks at the factors universities should consider when choosing countries to diversify their student bodies and identifies 17 interesting countries, based on student interest and market size, and for each one it identifies the fastest-growing destinations and subject areas their students are choosing for study abroad.”

The data compares last year (December 2020 to November 2021) with figures for the previous 12 months for students using the Studyportals platform to help narrow down their study abroad options.

Among the key messages is: ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’, with the recommendation that in terms of geographic diversification, make sure that no nationality makes up more than 15% of the total international student population.

The report says the 17 countries highlighted are not an exhaustive list and may not necessarily be appropriate source countries for all regions and types of institutions. Malaysia and Nepal are already sizeable recruitment markets for Australia. Vietnam is already a sizeable recruitment market for Australia and Canada.

The report warns of ‘over-exposure’ of the major English-speaking destination countries to students from one or two countries, with India accounting for 34% of international enrolments in Canada, while the US, UK and Australia all have 30% or more of their international students coming from China.

Beyond India

Beyond India, the report highlights four countries with growing cohorts of 15- to 24-year-olds in contrast to “the general ageing trend in Asian societies”.

Among study-abroad students from Sri Lanka, established Sri Lankan communities in Canada, France, India, Australia and the Middle East and the lack of available university places at home are important push and pull factors, with Finland, Canada and Italy seeing the fastest percentage growth.

Italy is also attracting more interest among students from Pakistan and Nepal – but neighbouring China is proving a massive pull for Nepalese students wanting to stay closer to home and is seen as a good alternative to going to Indian universities.

China is also proving more attractive to students from Pakistan, with Italy and the UK also popular.

The Czech Republic and Portugal saw the biggest percentage growth in study abroad interest among students in Bangladesh, along with the US.

Beyond China

Beyond China, the report says Thailand and Vietnam are “booming in interest for full-time study abroad options”, according to the Studyportals choice platforms.

However, price sensitivity is particularly high among students from both countries and one in five students are looking at courses with no tuition fees.

Students in Singapore are increasingly looking at study options in North America and European destinations such as Norway and Italy.

But Singapore’s own universities also appeal to students from the wider region, with the island state being the among the fastest growing destinations for students from the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. The humanities are proving increasingly popular as subjects to study abroad.

Edge of Europe

Four European countries described in the report as being on the edge of Europe have plenty to offer shrewd recruiters, with student populations eager to embark on studies abroad “to kickstart global careers”.

Traditionally, British universities have fulfilled their needs, but the “inward turn of the UK after Brexit” may provide openings to other destinations for students from Portugal, Poland, Romania and Greece, the report suggests.

Students in Portugal are increasingly looking at other European destinations since Brexit, with Ireland and Italy seen as potential alternatives to studying in the UK and there is growing interest in the US and China.

Germany and the Netherlands are proving top choices for students from Poland and Romania post-Brexit, but Poland has a relatively low student mobility rate of less than 2%.

Romania has the highest mobility ratio among the four ‘edge of Europe’ countries mentioned and students are showing growing interest in universities in Hungary, Italy and Ireland.

Greece has a relatively high female enrolment in tertiary education, at 150%, and the Netherlands has proved the number one study destination choice in the last 12 months. But the fastest growing destination of interest for its mobile cohort is Japan, according to the report.

Up and coming countries

Finally, the report looks at what it calls four “up and coming” countries for student mobility – Brazil, Turkey, Japan and Ghana.

All have large student populations, but international student mobility has been constrained by strong offers at home, visa requirements and monetary considerations.

However, student mobility is changing in Brazil, suggests the report, with Finland and China among the fastest growing countries of interest to challenge the large numbers flocking to neighbouring Argentina, the US and Portugal. “Affordability and availability are key to Brazilian students.”

Germany has traditionally been attractive to mobile students from Turkey, but China, Ireland and Italy are the fastest growing destinations.

Japan has an ageing population, which might put recruiters off, but its combination of wealth and international companies make study abroad a sound investment, with the US, Australia and Canada popular options before the pandemic. Hungary and Singapore are the fastest growing destinations for Japanese students looking at alternative options.

Ghana has the youngest and most mobile cohort of students in Africa with a long tradition of English-taught education.

Its economy is among the most diversified and interestingly its higher education system has historic ties with former Soviet countries, especially with Ukraine. Poland, Norway and Canada were the top three fastest growing destinations in terms of study abroad interest in the last 12 months.

The report concludes that “geographical diversification is interrelated with other aspects of diversification” and decisions about which recruitment countries universities should focus on must consider student interest in different disciplines and subjects, across different levels and formats.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at