Student recruitment

A murder in Vancouver, the impact of geopolitics on student diversity, and what education institutions can do about it

Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed in a hail of bullets in a car park in Vancouver on June 22nd.  The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau told parliament on 18th September that there were ‘credible allegations’ that the murder was carried out with the involvement of the Indian government.

The following day, New Delhi announced that it would stop issuing visas to Canadian citizens. On October 3rd, it told Ottawa that it must withdraw around 40 diplomats from India.  Over 40% of the new study permits issued by Canada in 2022 were for Indian students.  What can recruiters do to protect their institutions from the impact of a geopolitical crisis?

Geopolitics between Canada and India threatens growth in international student numbers from India

According to the PIE News, the number of new Indian students arriving in Canada in 2022 was 226,450 almost four times the 2019 level.  Canadian recruiters were undoubtedly delighted.  They were also probably pleased with the 84,000 or so new permits issued in 2019 to students in China. Except by 2022 that number had fallen to just over 52,000.  

There are several precedents where over-reliance on a particular source country has later impacted heavily on international student numbers for a destination country and its institutions. Sometimes the shock is sudden, at other times it is attritional over a number of years.

The number of Indian students in Australia in 2009 was 89,483.  By 2013 it had dropped to 36,065.   In 2009, media coverage of crimes and violent attacks suffered by Indian students led to a huge reduction in demand in a short period of time.

A panellist at the recent Education Summit 2023 event in London, Marc Finer of KPMG, highlighted that some members of the Russell Group of leading UK research universities, are struggling with a shortfall in their international student numbers. The drop in recruitment of Chinese students is the main driver.  Since the Covid-19 pandemic, volumes from China have declined to the UK and to its competitor destinations.   Chinese students, and their parents, are well known for favouring high ranked institutions when studying overseas.  HESA data shows that University College London (UCL) was over-exposed. It had 24,145 non-UK students enrolled in 2021-22, 45% of which were from China.  With the trend in reverse, at least for the time being, the financial impact on some universities more vulnerable than UCL could be significant.

For many institutions, concentration risk needs to be mitigated, by further expanding student numbers from select target countries outside the big two of China and India. How should they approach it?

Here are five solutions to explore, to be considered in combination.

1) Develop markets through an in-country presence

2) Pursue appropriate transnational education goals

3) Extend reach using reputable agents

4) Harness the power of private sector partners

5) Leverage the alumni network

1. Develop markets through an in-country presence

Regardless of the approach, having a trusted, proactive representative, or a larger recruitment and market development team, based in each target source market is a must. Whilst a regular in-market presence with travelling staff (international office and academic teams) from the destination institution is also likely to also be of value, development and recruitment work with partners, agents, students, and parents throughout the year is best driven in the same time zone and with a local focus on the objectives.

2. Pursue appropriate transnational education goals

This does not necessarily mean building a branch campus in one of the target source markets, with all the capital requirements, regulatory red-tape and long lead times that might involve.  Joint degree programmes may also have a role to play, as may articulation agreements. These solutions allow students to move easily between institutions, on successful completion of the first part of their degree, or relevant pre-degree qualification, taken in their home countries.  Franchised local delivery could also be an option.  Whatever the objective, forging such agreements is likely to require the systematic building of a pipeline of potential partners, before the right one is identified. Careful due diligence is necessary. Again, this route preferably requires a local market development representative who will identify, assess, and nurture a shortlist of credible alternatives.  It takes time and attention to ensure that a potential local partner will deliver a good quality service, protect the institution’s brand, and put the right level of academic and compliance oversight in place.

3. Extend reach using reputable agents

There are many war stories that international recruiters tell of poor quality or rogue international education agents they have encountered over the years.   The majority of institutions in the United States articulate anti-agent sentiments and ban working with them altogether, at least directly.  But in reality, there are multiple high-quality agents out there. There are also a few highly credible major agents with a multi-source market presence and a reputation for quality, and who can be strong partners to work with to drive revenues and thus reduce concentration risk.  Whilst contracts with such agents are usually signed globally, the importance of the local in-market institutional representative is not diminished as an on-the-ground presence to ensure promotion, follow-up and support with the agent’s local office, education counsellors, and its clients, is essential to maximising the demand generation and conversion of applicants. 

The optimum scale and reach of an agent network is therefore a key strategic choice for universities and schools groups in the business of recruiting internationally. 

4. Harness the power of private sector partners

Private companies have been contracted by public universities in the main anglophone study destinations to provide services to international students for many years.  Now, many are extending their range of services beyond pathway and pre-sessional delivery to a wider range of programmes, including full degrees.  Such companies argue that they are much better placed than public universities to provide international students with the language, teaching, and pastoral support they need to succeed.  An increasing number of them already provide partial or full recruitment services to some of their partner universities.  Universities turn to private sector providers because they can usually do the job of recruiting and teaching international students much more efficiently, and with better outcomes, than the public sector does.

Oxford International Education Group (OIEG) is a UK-based company that provides a whole range of international education services to universities, including courses delivered through its Digital Institute.  Through an online International Foundation programme, which students commonly undertake in their home countries, OIEG provides progression to a range of partner universities, further widening the pool of students flowing to them.  As universities look for new solutions to market entry,  and a greater number of students from diverse source markets, private sector providers are likely to play an increasingly central role in their strategy. 

5. Leverage the alumni network

An institution’s alumni engagement team should be front and centre of any plan to increase diversity and reduce concentration risk.    A key driver of international student decision making is the career opportunities and network advantages that an overseas experience can provide them.  Even if a university or school has had a limited number of previous students from a target source market, there will usually be some that can be engaged.  Nurturing these connections delivers value for alumni, current and future students and enhances brand awareness in their home countries.

International student graduates from university

What is the role of financial aid and scholarships?

When trying to expand in a target source  country, it can be tempting to promote high levels of financial aid and scholarships to smooth market entry.  Financial incentives have a role to play, but they are rarely a panacea.  Only when used as part of a holistic distribution strategy is such an approach likely to be effective.  Moreover, in many source markets, the perception of value can be undermined by heavy discounting.  Certainly, a strategy focused only on financial incentives to students is unlikely to succeed.

Which target countries to focus on?

Recommended target countries for international recruiters depend largely on the type of institution they are representing and the range and reputation of its programmes on offer.    Through its Vision 2030 project, designed to reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons, Saudi Arabia is investing $1 trillion in the tourism industry, including the centrepiece development of the new mega-city of NEOM (meaning ‘new future) over 26,500 square kilometres.   Any institution with departments of hospitality and tourism education will evidently want to put Saudi Arabia on its target list of source countries. More generally, countries with large and growing populations, a rising middle class, supply constraints in the depth and quality of local institutions and some previous history sending volumes of international students abroad are prime candidates for focus.  Indonesia will be near the top of many shortlists, as will Vietnam.

In order to manage future concentration risk, each institution will need a select portfolio of target source countries where its channels to market can be widened and deepened and where its programme offering has a good chance of resonating with the target audience of prospective international students.  All horses will not run well on all courses, and it is also important for institutions to pick their targets carefully and in a way that can be backed up with an appropriate level of attention and resources.

What next for Canada and India?

It is possible that the consequences for universities, colleges and schools from the current situation will be highly damaging for international recruiters in Canada. Certainly it is going to make life tougher in the short term.  However, diplomatic pragmatism and the will to protect an important export sector may alternatively mean that the current tensions de-escalate within a few weeks.

One certainty is that the quest for diversification in international student recruitment will remain top of the agenda for the senior leadership teams in many of Canada’s institutions in the academic year ahead.

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