What are the elements of a successful national recruitment strategy?

It is by now widely acknowledged that, on a global scale, the recruitment of international students is becoming:

  • More crucial for leading countries’ education systems and job markets as birth rates fall in developed nations
  • More fragmented, with a greater range of countries vying for students
  • Less predictable, with top destination countries losing market share to new entrants
  • More fluid in terms of countries both being sources and destinations for international students
  • In all respects, more competitive

Dozens upon dozens of articles have focused on the reasons for and symptoms of this intensified competition. Many of these have provided advice at the institutional level (e.g., for individual universities) along the lines of best practices in recruiting amid this environment. But few have looked at what can be done at the national level—via national policy and coordinated efforts—to augment the chances of a country’s being successful at attracting international students.

That’s why the recently published Nuffic (Netherlands organization for international cooperation in higher education) report, International recruitment: policies and developments in selected countries, is so noteworthy. The report examines 11 top-level countries’ national-level recruitment initiatives, and in so doing, provides ample evidence for the importance of national policy in the competition for international students.

We encourage you to read the full report if you have not yet done so, but we will also summarise some of the common strategies and insights we took from our own reading.

One: Coordinate the National Brand and Promote It Strategically

The US and the UK have already established strong reputations for excellence as study abroad destinations; they are numbers one and two respectively in terms of top destination countries. Their challenge is to maintain the quality of their institutions and the experience they can provide international students, so that’s where a lot of their investment in international education goes.

But close on the heels of these top two countries are several others, including Canada, France, Netherlands, and Germany. These countries are—wisely—working hard at coordinating their international education brands:

  • Canada has initiated the Edu-Canada branding initiative, which develops and implements marketing in priority source countries and helps Canadian institutions in establishing international partnerships. Edu-Canada has a website that lets international students search for information on the Canadian education system (including programmes offered to international students by Canadian institutions, study costs, and scholarship opportunities).
  • The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science is working on increasing the quality of its HE institutions, strengthening the international profile of Dutch organisations, and increasing the international orientation of Dutch universities.
  • France has CampusFrance, which promotes French education abroad (it operates 128 offices and 27 annexes in 97 countries).
  • Germany has integrated its international education policy with national trade, cultural and international development policies—making it much more effective.

Explicit and coordinated national organisations or initiatives like these can ensure that the desired features of a country’s higher education system are communicated in as compelling and clear a way as possible. They can pave the way for individual institutions to do their own recruiting on a firmer foundation.

Two: Focus Recruiting on Top-Priority Targets

Rather than a shotgun approach where a wide, somewhat random net of initiatives is employed, many countries are now focusing their recruiting on specific targets. Many have a set list of target countries. For example, the Netherlands has ten mostly emerging markets, France looks for large, often Mediterranean/North African student populations, Germany is placing particular priority on India (among other main targets), while Switzerland wants to attract students from both emerging and developed countries. Targeting specific countries’ students allows promotional efforts to be more tailored to their needs and circumstances, and thus more appealing.

Beyond source country, other targets can be useful. For example, Switzerland, due to a lack of capacity in its higher education system, is narrowing its focus to recruiting “top-class master’s and doctoral students in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and hospitality.” This is a great example of a national strategy that recognises a weakness in the country’s HE system (i.e., lack of capacity) and leverages a compelling strength (i.e., excellence in certain sectors).

The UK, meanwhile, because of its strong reputation, can afford to target only high fee-paying non-EEA students because of their huge positive impact on revenues.

Three: Leverage National Strengths

Sometimes there are inherent national factors that can be used to draw overseas students. For example, the fact that many of the world’s leading international organisations are based in Switzerland makes the country attractive to students interested in jobs in this sector. Switzerland’s HE institutions also work closely with various industries, increasing the potential for high-paying/competitive jobs post-study.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, knows that it is seen as a safe and open society, and makes sure to promote these advantages abroad.

A “national strength” can also be viewed from a geographical perspective: for example, it makes sense for France to target Mediterranean students and for Australia to court Asian markets, since the relative closeness of the study abroad option can be very important for potential students.

Four: Develop Niche Areas of Specialty

Amid intense competition, becoming known for a niche area of excellence can help a country stand out from the fray. For example, Switzerland is promoting its excellence in research and ability to cooperate bilaterally in scientific research with seven priority countries around the world. From the Nuffic report:

“The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is the “leading house” for bilateral cooperation with China in order to promote Sino-Swiss science cooperation in biotechnology, life and medical sciences, environment, and urban and sustainable development.”

Germany knows that high among international students’ hopes are (a) a globally applicable education vs. a nationally specific one and (b) good job prospects upon graduation. In this vein, Germany promotes its capacities for “global” education. It offers business courses in English or other key languages (e.g., Chinese or Spanish) with German language courses as complements. It also makes sure its international programmes are highly supported with guidance and supervision.

Five: Make It Easier to Study and Work for Students

Reducing the hassle factor—and increasing the affordability—of studying abroad is a tactic being employed by some countries. France is a good example of a country drawing students in this way: it’s allocating substantial scholarships to high-quality students in Mediterranean countries and more generally, keeping tuition fees low and offering good work opportunities for international students. Canada, too, is keeping tuition fees relatively low (in fact students from France are not even regarded as international students in Quebec and are charged the same as Canadian students). Germany boasts among the most relaxed student visa regulations for international students.

Contrast France, Canada, and Germany to Switzerland and the US: the latter countries have chosen not to focus on ease/affordability of study and instead are competing on the basis of excellence and focusing only on “top-quality” students.

Beyond maximising the ease with which international students can study within a destination country proper, many countries are extending their national education brands abroad: there are German, British, and US institutions around the world awarding degrees and accreditation to students who have never stepped foot into Germany, Britain, or the US. Similarly, many leading countries are investing in partnerships and bilateral/collaborative degree programmes with other complementary countries and institutions. Such overseas extensions can do much for overall student populations and revenues and are quite the trend. The only caveat is that overseas institutional extensions of this sort must maintain the same high standards as those inside the destination country.

Beyond the various national strategies summarised here, there are also the givens that can make or break any national brand:

  • High standards of excellence in leading institutions and programmes
  • A receptive and welcoming attitude throughout institutions (i.e., among domestic students, faculty, and staff) to international students
  • Caring, comprehensive, and well-managed supports for international students to feel comfortable, able, and enthusiastic about their studies and lives in the destination country
  • An overall tolerant, safe society for the mix of cultures and perspectives that internationalisation brings

Please see the complete Nuffic report for more details on national policies and initiatives from around the globe.



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