US 'sleeping giant' stirs in the global recruitment market

The Education-USA initiative to attract overseas students is a wake-up call for the UK, argues Chris Cobb

April 30, 2015

Source: Michael Parkin

While China strengthens and the US giant wakes from its slumber, the UK appears to be sleepwalking into a nightmarish scenario

I have just returned from a conference in Baltimore, where the talk was about the sleeping giant of US internationalisation stirring from its slumber.

Barack Obama has instituted the EducationUSA initiative to accelerate international student recruitment, while the National Association for College Admission Counseling has introduced new rules governing the use of overseas recruitment agents – in effect changing a directive that universities “must not” use them to advice that they “should not”. Taken at face value, the latter development might sound minor, but it is expected to be liberally interpreted and will open up one of the main routes to Chinese student recruitment.

The US already has more overseas students than any other country, but they represent only about 4 per cent of its student population. By comparison, they account for around 20 per cent in the UK and Australia, and 12 per cent in Canada. So the potential for US growth is immense, and given the size of its higher education sector even a relatively small percentage rise would have a considerable impact on other nations’ recruitment.

How prepared is the UK for this?

A recent Hobsons’ report, Beyond the Data: Influencing International Student Decision Making, surveyed more than 18,000 people considering study in the UK or Australia. It found that course ranking is the primary determinant in where they choose to study. Course is even more important than university, as the assumption is that both countries’ institutions are of good quality and standing. It also suggests that perceptions of quality can be based on flimsy evidence, such as responsiveness to initial enquiries or social media feedback.

Meanwhile, a British Council report, Through Student Eyes, describes the experience of “mystery shoppers” looking at the world’s top 500 institutions. It says that the UK and the Republic of Ireland have some of the best websites and recruitment management, but are poor at providing student testimonials. Inevitably, social media and the like fill the gap.

Beyond the Data suggests that countries should do more to promote their university systems’ quality, value and values for the benefit of all their institutions. Germany, France and Italy have excelled at this in recent years.

DAAD, the German equivalent of the British Council, aims to recruit 350,000 foreign students by 2020 and encourage 50 per cent of domestic students to study abroad. International students now make up 11 per cent of the German student population, with numbers doubling since 1995.

By contrast, the UK government has sent out the message (intentionally or not) that foreign students are not welcome. The financial implications of this cannot be overstated. The Brookings Institute, a Washington-based thinktank, estimates that foreign students contribute $30 billion (£20 billion) a year to the US economy. Universities UK estimates that nearly 20 per cent “of the output generated by UK universities can now be attributed to…non-EU students” (£13.9 billion of around £73 billion). Could our government be doing more to support this revenue stream? The answer is a resounding “yes” – but not without a more mature approach to net migration figures and post-graduation work.

The Hobsons survey found that the main reason international students decide not to come to the UK is that we appear unwelcoming to them and do not offer adequate post-study work opportunities, whereas all our key competitors do. Alarmingly, 25 per cent of respondents also felt that a UK degree would not help their job prospects at home. This is a very different perspective from just five years ago and perhaps indicates that the prestige of our competitors is waxing as ours wanes.

The UK’s mixed messages on transnational education have mired our global position: the narrative has to shift from number caps to work opportunities if we are to move on.

In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US has 1.13 million foreign students (a quarter of whom are Chinese) - a 14 per cent increase on last year, 50 per cent more than in 2010 and 85 per cent more than 2005.

According to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data, the number of transnational students worldwide has more than doubled in the past decade and now stands at around four million people. As long as this growth continues, the impact of the UK’s policy mistakes may be masked – but will the quality of applicants hold up?

Growth here has been driven mainly from China, but it is estimated that by 2020 the number of transnational students choosing to study there will exceed the number of Chinese students going elsewhere.

While China strengthens and the US giant wakes from its slumber, the UK appears to be sleepwalking into a nightmarish scenario.

But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. EducationUSA also recognises the need to encourage US students to study abroad. Only 1.5 per cent of Americans currently do so. Let’s prepare a warm transatlantic welcome.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Reader's comments (1)

As an informed parent consumer, international choices are more attractive, and offer a good deal compared to UK £9k plus fees. I know too of great Unis in the US beyond the Ivies. However, my white child goes to a multicultural school, and the Americans should not underestimate the extent to which the murders of young black people by cops have alienated smart British kids of all ethnic backgrounds from the USA. My child will talk about Canada, and mainland Europe, but not US colleges for this reason. This driven by social media. It is ironic, because consumer-driven social media, rather that 'filling the gaps' left by absent student testimonials, is far more trusted and effective in conveying 'what it is really like' than chosen students on a web page.