Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
17th Dec 2021

Have we reached the tipping point for technology-fuelled recruitment?

This special feature is sponsored by Salesforce.

The fundamental characteristics of international student markets are well known to Monitor readers. Over the last two to three decades, overall global growth has been driven by China and, latterly, India. At the same time, we see important new growth markets emerging in South And Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Indeed, some of the fastest-growing student markets globally are found in each of those regions.

Student flows have historically been concentrated in a relatively small number of top study destinations. But this is changing too, with much greater competition among the top host countries around the world, the proliferation of English-taught degree programmes outside of leading English-speaking destinations, and the emergence of important regional hubs for study.

The overall effect of those trends has been to rebalance market share across a wider number of host countries, which has led in turn to a period of intensifying competition in international student recruitment. To say the least, countries, regions, cities, and individual institutions and schools have all had to work harder to maintain or build their international enrolments over the past decade than they had done in the past.

As recruitment has become increasingly professionalised, we have all also learned to manage the "enrolment funnel", from the wide catchment of inquiries at the top of the funnel and then down through the key conversion points of application, admissions, enrolment, and graduation. We have applied new strategies and tools for recruitment marketing over the years, but even so many systems and recruitment teams have been struggling to keep pace with growing volumes of leads and inquiries, and to balance growth and diversification goals.

And then on top of all that: COVID. We are still measuring the impacts of the pandemic but it is already clear that it is the most significant disruption to international student mobility in the history of our sector. It is equally clear that the experiences of the last two years have placed a renewed emphasis on market diversification for many recruiters, while also ushering in a new wave of technology adoption for international educators.

An October 2020 digital strategy framework, co-authored by Universities UK, points out that the introduction of new technologies, "Can underpin expansion into new markets for recruitment and for delivery, internationally and domestically, and can create new opportunities for revenue." And this is precisely the context for the increasing tech adoption that we see in international student recruitment today.

Another recent white paper, this time from global market intelligence specialists IDC, adds, "Normally, the pace of digital transformation varies across the education sector, but the pandemic has simultaneously driven changes through primary, secondary, and higher education. The winners in this new paradigm, as we have started to witness, will be the institutions that adapt rapidly and invest in carefully selected digital solutions."

The first wave of that more-rapid adoption of technology was of course focused on programme delivery as institutions and schools at every level pivoted to some form of online delivery in the early months of the pandemic. That abrupt shift to remote learning was born of the necessity of the moment but it has also proven to be an important incubator for new models and modes of delivery that will persist long after the immediate challenges of COVID have faded.

The same could now be said of the pandemic's impact on recruitment. Some of the traditional modes of recruitment marketing – including travel abroad for student fairs or other in-person recruiting – are still being badly disrupted this year. Educators are now relying more on education agents or other local partners in markets abroad, and they are quickly expanding their use of digital channels and tools to efficiently reach and engage students.

In fact, it appears we have reached a sort of tipping point for technology adoption in the sector. In the face of surging student demand for study abroad, many educators and recruiters are trying to strike the right balance between automating student communications across digital channels and still providing for the personal connection that has long underpinned many international recruitment and student services.

Coventry University in the UK, for example, was an early adopter of customer relationship management (CRM) technology. Over the past several years, however, the university's CRM strategies have evolved into a more sophisticated digital platform for communicating with prospects and students, and engaging with students throughout their studies. The result is a broad, student-focused platform that automates personalised communications for prospective students, with dramatic improvements in responsive time and effectiveness. At the same time, the platform is used by student advisors at the university in their work with students, and so plays an important part in ongoing student retention and success as well.

This approach reflects the paradox of technology as a lever for student recruitment and student services. "The challenge we have is that personalisation at scale can only be achieved with technology," says Corey Snow, the director of Education Industry Solutions for Salesforce. "But technology only gets you so far. The best way to build meaningful and durable relationships is via one-to-one (or one-to-few) real-time human interactions."

"The promise of technology," he adds, "is that we might provide the right tailored interaction on the right channel at the right time using the right form of engagement – all based upon what we know about the prospect. For example, many might prefer to engage with a chatbot for routine inquiries: 'What is the current status of my application?' or 'What is the next step in my application process?' At the same time, a more open query along the lines of "Why should I attend your institution?' may best be nurtured with a human conversation."

As Coventry's experience suggests, a balanced use of technology can yield real recruitment results. And we see another example of this at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Spain.

UOC has also adopted advanced CRM and automation systems that have led to dramatic improvements in responsiveness and recruiting. In its first year of implementation, UOC reported more than 200,000 high-quality leads, which were initially supported by automated, personalised responses sent within ten minutes of the student's inquiry. UOC's approach is also notable for a highly targeted prospect newsletter that now goes out to more than 500,000 potential students in as many as 21,000 different editions, each of which is formulated according to the student's nationality, programme of interest, and other factors. "Helping each prospective student to find the perfect match in our portfolio with their personal and professional needs at any stage of their career has always been our main goal,” says Director of Recruiting Daniel Téllez.

Every institution and school shares the challenge of meaningfully and efficiently engaging with diverse prospects, applicants, and students across the entire enrolment and admissions process. That challenge looms even larger now in a more intensely competitive environment, and as recruiters continue to open new markets and to build a more diverse enrolment as the sector works to recover from the pandemic. In that process, and in this moment, we can expect a greater role for technology to help drive recruitment results and to free up staff time to where it can be used to the best possible effect: in working directly with students.

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