Building a university: time to change our sales pitch to international students?

Yusra Mouzughi on why universities must sharpen their offer to international students faced with enormous choice

June 9, 2017
Source: istock
Students can feel daunted by the choice on offer when selecting a university course, says Yusra Mouzughi

Having visited several schools in the Gulf in our efforts to recruit and listen to students I have learned one thing - I definitely don’t want to be 17 again.

I would have no objection to having my skin exude youth, a carefree laugh not hindered by a single worry and a world full of choices ahead of me. However, I have no desire to repeat the tricky process of choosing a university, with young people nowadays having to pick from a dizzying array of similar-sounding courses.

The sentiment is shared by many teachers too. Speaking to a particularly difficult head of school who would not grant us access to his students, he explained that his year 12 class had been visited by 93 different college and universities in this academic year alone, all touting their wares to these impressionable teenagers. How are they expected to differentiate between what is good and what is bad when really all the universities are promising the same end product of quality career-focused education, he complained.

Let’s take quality of education for example. I recently asked a group of 120 students on what a good quality degree meant for them.  I was told a range of vague responses from "a degree that guaranteed me a job", "an education that made me different" to the class clown who said "it must include lots of You Tube videos".

Not only are these teenagers having to grapple with vague and elusive concepts that can often baffle academics, they also have to deal with a new world full of contradictions.

On the one hand we tell them that jobs they will be applying for in the next 10-15 years don’t even exist now, but in the same breath we tell them that getting a degree from our university near enough guarantees them a professional job in their discipline.  We tell them that this will be one of the most important choices that they make, knowing full well that in many cases it is their parents who will choose.  And even worse, we tell them that they would be very welcome in our beautiful, safe, vibrant city knowing full well that upon entry, they will be recorded as immigrants and treated with, at best suspicion and at worst contempt. 

Where does that leave us then?  We cannot, nor do we want to, get rid of giving our next generations the luxury of choice.

Given that the number of universities and colleges is on the rise (particularly here in the Gulf), choice will always be there. But the choice may be between more and more vanilla-flavoured degrees with only a hint of differentiation from their rivals.

However, some more ambitious institutions might offer a bolder education which understand and articulates the impact of our education, system and culture on the individual.  For instance, they might address what it means for a teenager to live in a foreign culture for 3 or 4 years?  How does it shape them?  Not just in a professional or career sense but more importantly as a global citizen.

Some of these questions might not always have comfortable answers. For instance, how will graduates perceive themselves and how will they be perceived by their family and society when they return?  Their future employers may welcome them with open arms but what about their fellow employees?  This is particularly relevant in countries where gender stereotyping and restrictions around female independence still exist. 

Now might be the right time for universities to revisit their sales pitch to international audiences and really articulate what value an international education adds to the individual.

Yusra Mouzughi is deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Muscat University, where she is a professor of business management, and will be blogging regularly on the challenges of setting up a new university. The institution is due to open its doors in Muscat, the capital of Oman, in September. 

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