In search of diversity: A challenging but rewarding mission

It is challenging to recruit from new geographies, but the international student market is growing and diversified student recruitment contributes to the creation of more global institutions. Here are key tips on how to hone an institution’s recruitment strategy in a dynamic global market.

The international student market is forecast to grow at around 4% per annum over the coming decade, compared to 5% per annum since 1990. The five million international students at the start of the pandemic are forecast to grow to nine million by the end of this decade.

However, demand and supply are unevenly matched, with demand concentrated in the South and supply in the North. HolonIQ notes that 75% of international student demand hails from Asia and Africa while 74% of the world’s top 1,000 higher education institutions are in Europe, North America and Oceania.

It is therefore important to diversify recruitment efforts. An institution’s diversification objectives will vary depending on its strategy and whether it is a selecting or a recruiting institution.

The world’s top business schools have long competed on the diversity of their international MBA classes. Top MBA classes are composed to maximise geographic representation, delivering over 80 nations in a class of 200. The most selective institutions are already on this trajectory. However, for less selective institutions diversity can come at a price. Limiting the intake from China or India will instantly improve diversity, but also hit income.

In the search for diversity there are key factors out of the control of institutions. These include the general fee levels in the country where they are based linked to the character of student support, national visa processing speeds and success rates and the post study work offer.

These factors can be determinative. When the UK abolished its post study work offer in 2012 absolute numbers of international students fell. When it was restored, numbers rose sharply. Hence, international education leaders should educate their institutions about national dynamics as well as the scope for individual institutional strategies.

From market takers to market builders

When it comes to enhancing diversity, all institutions have limited marketing and brand-building budgets. Consequently, it is not efficient to target a country with small student flows and expect comparable flows to India and China whose scale means they drive international demand.

Any diversity strategy should begin with a deep data dive, focusing on the student flows to competitor institutions in their region or nation. Ideally, they should then segment potential markets into major; developing; and emerging. In the major global sending markets, all institutions are ‘market takers’.

In short, the major sending markets like India, China and Nigeria are a given. Relative recruitment costs are cheap due to volumes, but an institution may cap volumes on popular courses to enhance diversity.

Next come the five-10 developing markets for your region or institution type where significant flows are also achievable with good recruitment practices. Finally, institutions should consider the 150+ emerging nations where student flows will be small to their region or nation. Here an institution is not a ‘market taker’ but can choose where to focus. But this will be a more costly exercise, with a higher cost per student and will involve brand-building and strong local agent relationship management.

Whatever the market, the institution needs to be educated about changing incoming international student expectations. A degree abroad will be the largest purchase of students’ lives to date and so the quality of the experience, the employment prospects and the return on investment are top of mind.

Price sensitive markets like South Asia and Africa where students rely more on borrowing rather than savings to finance their studies means incoming students will be focused on scholarships, opportunities to work part time during their studies and post-graduation employment.

Agents and outreach

An essential element in delivering a step change in recruitment is an excellent ‘go to market’ strategy. All international students start their search online and most will use an agent. Building strong agent relationships is crucial and cost effective as it can deliver reach into geographies where institutions cannot afford a local presence. It also liberates internal resources to focus further down the funnel on conversion post offer.

Prospective students will not make a major lifetime purchase to attend an institution they have barely heard of thousands of miles away unless they are attracted to the staff who will teach them and engaged by current students. The power of peer-to-peer platforms in conversion is just another way in which technology is transforming the pre-arrival student journey.

Institutions need to carefully consider their strengths and sell them. This means really listening to incoming students. Students from China come to Scotland because they see it as clean and green rather than the home of mega cities, for instance.

Institutions also need to win hearts and minds internally and to manage expectations.

Most degrees are at least a two-year buying cycle for international students. Postgraduate demand will exceed undergraduate demand and brand build requires investment. Academic champions are vital to winning hearts and minds. Institutions should use them to ensure they build deep domain knowledge of their target geographies. Champions can also educate an institution about the character of international demand, including programme demand.

Institutions should also build joint academic and professional services teams who embrace how technology is transforming recruitment and admissions. A cohort of early adopters can make progress faster, more efficiently and more economically.

Experts and partners

Another key tip is to keep talking to the experts. These are often third parties, private companies engaged in global recruitment working for multiple institutions simultaneously.

International recruitment will always be a subsidiary part of universities’ activities, but it is the primary function of agents and aggregators. Hence it is important to build relationships with these organisations who invariably offer data and consultancy services, for instance, IDP, StudyPortals, THE and QS. Their comparative data will help hone an institution's recruitment strategy in a dynamic global market.

It is also a good idea to consider a strategic review of the partners in the institution’s recruitment ecosystem. A decade ago, most institutions would have had marketing and agents’ contracts in that ecosystem. Today those partnerships include foundation colleges, school counsellor platforms, English language providers, internship providers, boot camps, agents and aggregators and peer-to-peer platforms.

Triaging applications, making offers in principle and offshoring compliance or processing to assure the credibility of candidates can support the admissions process. It is not practical to build all these relationships concurrently, so it is worth focusing on the ones that are most important to the institution whilst understanding the breadth of the emerging ecosystem.

Another important part of diversification involves institutions building internal strategic intelligence ability in order to analyse their own and purchased data products. Partner companies are also interested in a two-way flow of information, and this can help institutions become a partner of choice.

Becoming more global

Looking ahead, diversity will stay high on university leadership teams’ agendas. International recruitment professionals will increasingly be expected to predict the success of applicants, both in terms of retention and academic outcomes.

Artificial intelligence is already supporting recruitment on search sites and aggregator platforms by better matching of students to institutions. Soon AI will move deeper into admissions, automating back-office processing and supporting greater personalisation.

More broadly, as demand from the South continues to outstrip supply in the North, we will see a renewed interest in transnational education, with more universities building strategic alliances with institutions in the South. This requires institutions to deliver in different geographies around the world.

Moreover, most students in the global North have benefited from some form of financial support during their studies, whether grants or loans. If students from the South are to have the same equitable experiences, we need to be willing to work with financial aid providers.

Currently there is understandable anxiety that financial products are too risky, yet this will subside as the market matures. The goal is for the brightest and best from all geographies to benefit from higher education.

Finally, when you succeed in delivering a more diverse class it requires close working with student support services to ensure their offer is right for those incoming students.

In the UK student services have understandably developed over the last decade to meet the needs of undergraduate Chinese students whereas recent growth has come from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These are more mature postgraduate students (sometimes with families) who are typically more exposed to economic crises back home and are more price sensitive, want to work part time whilst studying and explore post-study work opportunities.

This is an exciting time to be in higher education. It is challenging to recruit from new geographies. Yet it contributes to more global institutions and is enormously professionally rewarding. We will look back on these post-pandemic years as the years when our institutions became truly global institutions, meeting points and learning communities that reflect our world's diversity.

Professor Wendy Alexander is vice-principal, international, at the University of Dundee, United Kingdom, and a Scottish Higher Education Trade and Investment Envoy. This article is based on her recent contribution at NAFSA at an Oxford International Education Group-led session on diversifying international recruitment.