Leonardo lives in Brazil and wants to come to the UK to study for a master’s in literature. He attends a recruitment fair where he can speak to university representatives, pick up prospectuses, chat with current students and watch a presentation by the vice-chancellor.
But this is not a traditional recruitment fair – it is all taking place online. After browsing the various virtual booths and information stands, all it takes is a click on Leonardo’s mouse and he is able to talk to the very lecturer who would teach him if he opts to sign up for a course that has caught his eye. He is impressed, and six months later he is on a plane to Heathrow, about to start his master’s – having yet to meet anyone at his university of choice in person.
In the past, spending thousands of pounds to send university staff to big overseas student recruitment fairs was the only way that institutions could guarantee exposure to hundreds of potential international students. However, more and more institutions are now turning to virtual events – or online open days – in a bid to get foreign students (and their money) through the door.
“They are very cost-effective,” says Lucy Everest, director of student marketing and recruitment at Middlesex University.
“Traditional recruitment fairs are still very useful, but we need to find new ways to engage with students because they don’t necessarily want to travel to the fairs. They want to do their research online.”
Middlesex purchased tailored event software, OnlinEd, from a company called Ivent that is moving into the education sector after building a business providing virtual conferences to government and private sector clients. It enables the university to host Middlesex-specific online open days, for which it recruits students by placing adverts on websites and search engines.
“People have done stuff similar to this before, but previously the technology hasn’t really been that great. Some of the ones we saw last year weren’t really virtual events – they were just somewhere people could go online and chat,” Everest says.
But she says the new software allows Middlesex to set up “booths” within a virtual recruitment fair for different subject areas or departments.
“Students can chat to different people on those booths and receive brochures. We weren’t sure where they’d be popular, but India and Nigeria were two places where they really wanted to engage online, which is great because we already recruit quite a few students from those countries.”
The British Council began running its own virtual exhibitions under the Education UK brand in Pakistan and India in 2010. Since then, it has expanded to Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, Mexico and Canada, and has also partnered with the established US online fair, College Week Live.
At these virtual events, prospective students can see which institutions are in attendance and click through to their profile page. Depending on the event, there may be a live chat facility, live video streams, pre-recorded videos or pictures of the campus and lecture halls.
Each virtual exhibition is tailored to a specific country’s market, taking into account cultural differences and national technological standards. Simpler software is used for countries with less reliable internet access, for example.
The 2012 virtual exhibition for Pakistan received 6,867 unique visitors, with 34 UK universities taking part. Among them was the University of Nottingham, which has been working with the British Council to target overseas students for four years.
“The Pakistan event was very useful. From a security point of view it was difficult for us to physically go there, but the British Council promoted it with A-level schools and among students who were interested in UK study, so it was very targeted,” says Martyn Edwards, acting head of international student recruitment and assistant director in the international office at Nottingham.
“Other countries are just vast,” he continues. “North America is such a nebulous market, and most British universities struggle to recruit fee-paying US students. They have so much choice in their own country, and also it’s very hard to reach them – just going east to west takes a day. But it’s a great example of a place where having a virtual presence can be effective.”
Indeed, competing with US higher education institutions – both for students domiciled in the US, but also for those who are considering universities on both sides of the Atlantic – is one of the reasons Nottingham is embracing online interaction, Edwards says.
“US universities and students are very, very hands-on – much more than we are in the UK with our students. The top US universities will send letters to the students when they get an offer, and a nice personalised letter to their parents, too,” he observes.
“Students get used to virtual counselling, online videos and pastoral care. We found that when we gave them the opportunity to talk to us at the virtual online events, they really embraced it. They expect it from US universities, but not the UK.”
Edwards adds: “You have to remember that a lot of the Brazilian and Mexican students look to the US, too, and we have to compete with their universities’ soft skills, pastoral care, soft selling.”
Catch their eye coming and going
Another advantage of online events, Everest notes, is that even when delegates are only passing through – or fail to turn up at all – the university is able to capture information about them, and thus to market to them via other channels, such as email, later on.
“There is a big drop-off rate in terms of the number of people who book and those actually attending. For normal, in-person events, people tend to turn up more reliably, so in terms of numbers, it’s difficult to predict how many people are going to log in on the day,” she explains.
“But we push the event using internet advertising, asking students to register for the event, meaning that we capture their details. So you can continue to engage with them even if they don’t turn up.”
Although both Middlesex and Nottingham believe they have gained an advantage by hosting and attending online events – and can point to several students who, they believe, would not be at their institution had they not done so – they feel there is still some way to go before the virtual world completely replaces the need for physical overseas events.
“There’s an ongoing dilemma for us about getting the balance right between the physical and the virtual,” says Edwards. “It’s human nature to want to meet someone face to face, but the online meetings allow us to get more staff and students involved.
“Prospective students really want to meet a teacher, particularly if they are looking at postgraduate courses, but academics are very busy with their teaching and research, not to mention the cost of them flying out. Virtual meetings get around some of these problems.”
Everest agrees. “On their own, online open days are not the answer. But as a part of our marketing activity, they are going to have an important role.”