From where I sit - Perception is everything

January 5, 2012

The Knight review of Australia's student-visa programme has ushered in changes Down Under that are an inconvenience for the UK, but they are not the real cause of our current malaise - or the biggest threat.

I've just returned from two years supporting the international student recruitment of leading Australian universities. Through its series of wide-reaching reforms, the Knight review has changed their outlook from abject pessimism to expectant optimism.

UK universities seem to think that the new visa regime implemented by the UK Border Agency means that they have been closed for business.

Yet the reality, regardless of the ongoing financial crisis and UKBA reforms, is vastly different from this perception. The crux of what makes the UK education sector such an enticing prospect for thousands upon thousands of international students is still in place: we just need to do a better job of communicating it - something the Aussies are all too adept at. Our Antipodean friends know that perception is everything.

The Knight review has made the visa process for overseas students more straightforward, financially less burdensome and potentially more rewarding in career terms. You can be sure that Australian universities will be taking on the new message of "openness": expect to see a swathe of marketing collateral to this effect at the next international fair you attend.

In the meantime, the UK is caught in a "perfect storm" - and one that is partially of our own making. We can't control what other countries do, but we haven't done enough to affect those elements within our control: our brand, our offering, our message.

The UKBA is not some evil overlord hell-bent on making our lives as difficult as possible. There is a basic logic behind the UK reforms - it's just a pity that the government has used a whole cement mixer to plug the gaps in the system when a bit of Polyfilla would have sufficed.

The reality is that we provide a world-class education system and the door is still open to international students; the perception, however, is that this is no longer the case.

The UK academy must address the market perception and this starts by managing the message that we collectively take to our key markets. If we are unable to do so, then our competitors will manage our message for us.

It is time to do away with the lamentations and get specific. What is the message that your university wants your target markets and their students to know, and how are you going to ensure that they receive that message with no room for ambiguity?

As a sector and as individual institutions, we need to make sure that we are absolutely clear about our aim, our message and our medium. You cannot buy what is unique about British higher education - its history, quality and prestige. You certainly cannot buy what is unique about your institution. In an increasingly competitive market, the universities that thrive will be those that are able to get specific and differentiate themselves.

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