A roadmap for building more diversity in your international enrolment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The following item is adapted from the 2017 edition of ICEF Insights magazine
  • The complete issue is available to download now
  • It provides a framework for evaluating and selecting target markets for enrolment growth and diversification

For the past couple of years at least, institutions and schools that aim to build their foreign enrolments have heard the prevailing wisdom about how to recruit: diversify. Which is shorthand, in many cases, for “diversify beyond China and India.”

It’s not that China and India are no longer major drivers of enrolment growth for many countries – they definitely still are. For example, China alone has accounted for about half of overall enrolment growth in the US for the past 15 years. And in 2015/16, between one-third and one-half of international students in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK were from China and India.

But the history of international education tells us that nothing is perennially stable. Political instability, economic crises, a shifting geopolitical landscape, currency fluctuations, visa and post-study work rights policies, natural disasters, and increased domestic higher education capacity are all capable of disrupting student mobility patterns.

Dynamics of emerging markets

For all these reasons, adding a greater mix to your international student population is smart, and targeting emerging markets is often a good idea. That’s because emerging markets have built-in dynamics that promote outbound student mobility. These include:

  • Growing populations projected to continue to increase;
  • Robust college-aged demographics;
  • Overall economic growth and expanding middle classes.

But these factors alone are not enough to merit investment in an emerging market. In addition, a promising market should possess:

  • Government and/or business sector demand for and commitment to an educated workforce;
  • A shortage of higher education capacity and/or quality;
  • A secondary school system able to graduate students who can succeed in higher education.

Even with the second set of criteria applied, there are a lot of emerging markets to consider. The following activities can help in deciding where to focus.

Aligning with national priorities

The governments of most leading destination countries prioritise a group of emerging markets, knowing the significant positive impact of international students on their economies. For example, a few years back, the Canadian government identified Brazil, China, India, Mexico, North Africa, the Middle East, and Vietnam as regions it would help its colleges and universities to recruit from. Government supports for institutions can be extensive, from scholarships to market guides. The US website Export.gov, for example, offers detailed insights into dozens of source markets.

Turn two students into four

A simple but profound truism is that it’s much easier to turn two students into four than it is to turn zero into one. To get to four students, you need two to begin with (i.e., your community of students from a particular home country) and you need connections in that country. If you have zero students and zero presence in a given country, establishing a foothold there will be riskier, time-consuming, and expensive.

Most institutions have a foundation from which to get from two to four (to continue with our metaphor). For example, within your student population, you may have the following relating to a particular source market:

  • Satisfied current students;
  • Successful alumni;
  • Agents/contacts;
  • Relationships with high schools and universities;
  • Data on year-over-year enrolment trends (e.g., growth).

Know the landscape

Designate someone in your international office to comb through recent market intelligence reports to understand the factors that will likely affect your recruiting strategy. Here are some examples – informed by recent articles in prominent market intelligence publications – that make the point:

  • Say you are a university in Malaysia interested in recruiting from Pakistan. You would want to know that China is aggressively recruiting there (including offering generous scholarships).
  • If you are an Australian university, meanwhile, you’d be interested in knowing that the Malaysian government is growing less interested in sending its students abroad, and consequently reducing study abroad funding.
  • If you offer both STEM and business programmes, you would definitely want to know that the vast majority of Indian students in the US are pursuing STEM subjects, compared with fewer than half of Chinese students, and that more than a quarter of Chinese students are studying business/management. You’d want to emphasise your STEM programming in India and highlight both STEM and business programmes in China.

Your research should also explore how your destination compares to other countries in terms of (1) affordability – including tuition, living costs, and how your currency is trending relative to that of the target market, and (2) visa processing – how quickly your country processes visas relative to other countries and how visa acceptance rates compare.

Budget to explore

Once you’ve decided on a few promising markets, you may want to allocate exploratory budget for initiatives such as visits to education fairs and relationship-building activities with agents and schools.

You could designate student ambassadors to fulfil a number of brand-boosting activities (e.g., blogging, showing students around campus either in person or though video) in return for rewards ranging from recognition all the way to small bursaries. Some student ambassadors travel with school representatives to their home country to chat with prospective students.

Scholarships are another way to nudge enrolments along. One Canadian university accomplished this in Ukraine via a contest facilitated by agents: students were asked to submit an essay on the topic, “Why I want to study in Canada.” The university then gave scholarships for the top three submissions.

Eyes on the prize

Achieving greater diversity within your international student population won’t only reduce your risk – it will enrich your campus community.

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