International students – Now is not a time to stand still

International student recruitment is booming. But not just for the United Kingdom. Although we may have knocked international student targets out of the park 10 years earlier than forecast, now is not a time to rest on our laurels.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) is warning of a chill wind brewing as competition intensifies. In fact, only a fifth of respondents to a recent student survey by international education providers IDP chose the UK as their first choice destination.

As the recruitment race hots up, institutions will need to have the right levers and mechanisms in place to continue to meet targets and safeguard licences, as they widen the net to attract students from less traditional markets.

Keeping student applicants engaged

Having a smooth recruitment and enrolment pipeline in place can be a key differentiator in a competitive marketplace.

Since 2019 the number of international students coming to Aston University has tripled and we have experienced many of the pressures that meeting a significant rise in enrolments can bring. Being kept up to date with how their application is progressing ranks high on the list of student expectations. I would go so far as to say it can make the difference between them deciding to stay in the process or not.

Many international students may never have travelled abroad before and choosing to study outside of their home country is a huge financial and emotional investment. Even once an offer has been received, waiting for a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies and visa can be a very anxious time, especially given all the administration required for many students, who must supply a significant amount of supporting documentation and pass affordability checks.

Knowing what is happening with their application post-offer can help alleviate anxiety and give students more confidence in the process. To help them do this, we have provided all our overseas students with access to a self-service online portal so they can track and manage their offer-to-arrival journey digitally, at any time of the day or night.

The portal has minimised the risk of visa refusal due to incorrect or insufficient documentation too. If students need to supply additional documentation, they are now automatically prompted to do so without having to wait for the admissions team to notify them.

With greater automation of the student onboarding process, delivered through the Enroly platform, we have reduced the number of incoming phone and email enquiries from students by 62% and improved the international student experience in the process.

Turnaround times are much quicker and so we have also been able to increase the number of student offers.

Shorter recruitment cycles and verification checks

Managing and maintaining the uptick in applications is not the only pressure facing university teams. We are dealing with other squeezes on our time and resources too.

One is the growing trend towards postgraduate study. HEPI recently highlighted the impact this will have on international student recruitment and enrolment teams as it goes hand in hand with shorter recruitment cycles.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2020-21 almost two thirds (64%) of the entire UK student population on full-time postgraduate courses were non-UK students.

More international students applying for postgraduate courses such as masters degrees also equals more visa applications as they are shorter in length than an undergraduate degree. This, coupled with an increasing need for UK institutions to focus and attract students from increasingly diverse markets, means it is more important than ever to adopt a rigorous approach to compliance.

To establish student credibility and safeguard their licence, all institutions must ensure offers are only made to students whose reasons for applying are genuine. But spotting fraud is a difficult and laborious task when the application volumes are high, so it is worth exploring ways that staff can carry out the necessary legal checks and requirements without adding to their administrative burden.

Something that worked well for us was to automate the process of checking bank statements. Now, only those statements which contain errors or do not comply with the requirements are flagged so staff can examine them manually. This has saved hours of staff time and reduced the number of students who need to be followed up or provided with specialist support and advice.

We have improved our compliance rates despite dealing with hundreds more applications.

Reducing dropout rates

In a recent analysis of the international student recruitment market, Universities UK noted the declining trend in student applicants from the European Union and China and the resulting implications for institutions. They argue that the shift will mean universities will have to recruit more from countries with a high cost of acquisition and a low conversion rate.

Given this, keeping applicants in the process will take on an even greater significance.
Since we improved our existing process, to more easily identify students who need more support to complete their application while giving more autonomy to those who do not, we have reduced the student dropout rate after offer by three quarters.

For UK institutions to build on recent recruitment success, it will be increasingly important to make the student journey from application to arrival as seamless as possible or we could risk losing out to other study destinations.

Christina Matthews is director of student experience at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom.