Universities are failing to understand the demands and behaviour of a new and radically different generation of international students, a conference has heard.
Colin Gilligan, visiting professor of marketing at Northumbria University, said: "Universities still have a fundamental problem in international recruitment. They don't understand the competition or the customer sufficiently well."
He made the comments at a conference, "Rethinking Higher Education: The Practice of Internationalisation", held in London last week by the UK International Unit, Universities UK, research firm i-graduate and UK Trade and Investment.
Arguing that there was insufficient differentiation between institutions, Professor Gilligan said that the sector underestimated how discriminating the next generation of students would be.
He said: "As universities we have a simple choice: we can either try to ride the wave of change or we can get sucked down."
The new student "consumer" will be far more demanding, he said, more sceptical, more inclined to complain, more experimental and with better access to information.
They will also be less loyal, more outcome-focused, more litigious and easily bored, typified by the constant search for an "excitement hit".
"The challenge for universities is to demonstrate their continuing relevance," said Professor Gilligan.
"The need to excite, enthuse and delight people applies across the youth market ... and that has to underpin what we're doing in universities.
"We're going to be faced with students who will demand in advance evidence of a return on their investment, both of time and money, in education."
Professor Gilligan argued that UK higher education must better embrace technology to connect with this youth market, and said that brand differentiation was going to be increasingly important.
"The student is searching for excitement, for value and for experience, and very often they are searching in the virtual world. We need to recognise just how cynical and jaded this market potentially is. We're selling the most exciting product they will ever buy - and that's not reflected in many prospectuses I've seen."
He added: "In UK universities, with particular markets, we're guilty of over-promise and under-delivery. You can put lipstick on a gorilla, but underneath it's still a gorilla."
Will Archer, director of research firm i-graduate, said that while marketing used to be about "making the odd noise", successful strategies now focused on understanding expectations and ensuring that personal referrals from current students and graduates were positive.
International students do not conform to national stereotypes, he said, and it is necessary to go beyond borders to understand student motives and priorities.
Instead of defining students by nationality, Mr Archer suggested five new categories: "Surfers", "Seekers", "Gekkos", "Bonos" and "Kids" (see box).
Speaking at the same conference, Digby Jones, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, spelled out the global challenges facing the UK economy, and he put universities at the centre of his strategy to meet them.
Arguing that the 21st century "belongs to Asia", Lord Jones said that, while the catalyst for economic growth was transport in the 19th century and manufacturing in the 20th century, wealth and enterprise would flourish around knowledge in the 21st century.
"Knowledge is the only currency a developed economy has in the 21st century," he said.
"Everything else can be done more cheaply somewhere else, and we, 60 million people on an island in the North Atlantic, get that like no other nation."
Lord Jones said that countries with protectionist policies were limiting their global opportunities, and said that a quarter of all UK exports were knowledge services, accounting for 7 per cent of gross domestic product, or £75 billion, while the export of education was worth around £10 billion a year.
"If we are to win in this global war of talent and if we are going to build a safer world, then (universities) are absolutely pivotal," said Lord Jones.
TRIBAL LORE: KNOW YOUR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
In an attempt to better define the challenge facing UK universities looking to improve overseas recruitment, research firm i-graduate analysed the career motivations of 25,000 foreign students in the UK. It then grouped them into five 'learning tribes', each with its own set of priorities and characteristics.
The Surfers (11%)
They are motivated primarily by "life experience", which they value more highly than work, and they do not place great importance on earning a high salary.
The Seekers (24%)
Their main motivation is getting a good job. They want to earn money, but are conservative in their aspirations and are strongly influenced by their parents.
The Gekkos (23%)
Named for Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, they are driven by cash and status, uninterested in "making a difference", and are more discriminating and judgmental than Seekers.
The Bonos (22%)
Named for the campaigning rock star, they are motivated by the greater good and consider recognition to be more important than financial reward.
The Kids (20%)
They don't really know why they are at university and exhibit indiscriminate enthusiasm and unfocused ambition.