One way to boost university coffers is to attract fee-paying international students, writes Harriet Swain. But if you want to make the most of your recruitment drive, get those pound signs out of your eyes
Your media studies department is the talk of the Midlands, your chemistry courses have sparked reactions across the South East, and word of your expertise in languages has reached the Scottish Highlands. Now you want to entice a more exotic kind of student - a rich, foreign one.
It might help if you stopped seeing them merely as collections of pound signs. "Don't even start unless you know whether you have the right support systems in place," says Beatrice Merrick, director of sciences and research at Ukcosa, the council for international education.
She says there is a business case for this approach as much as a social one. Happy students will go back and tell their friends and family and that could mean more applications in future.
Mike Goldstein, non-executive chairman of the higher education marketing agency Heist, says you need to understand the education systems that potential students are coming from, their likely proficiency in the English language and what their personal, cultural and religious needs are - in terms of everything from pastoral support to diet. Guy Roberts, a spokesman for the British Council, says this detailed understanding of the market you're targeting should include looking at how your potential "customers" arrive at decisions.
In most cases, these decisions are based on the students applying their own vision of pound signs to your institution. What interests them is the chance to boost their earning power once they graduate. John Oliver, director of overseas relations at Essex University, says: "Some just want to study for the love of it, but that is a minority. Many expect some return in terms of career progression. That implies they need high academic standards and, ideally, personal attention."
A good performance in university league tables - whatever you think of them - is therefore one of the best ways of boosting your attractiveness to foreign students. Another is offering scholarships for high-quality candidates. But offering detailed information about career prospects, language classes and other kinds of educational support is important too.
Once academic expectations have been met, other aspects of university life come into play. Building a word-of-mouth reputation in these areas is important, and Oliver recommends using current or recent students where possible at overseas recruitment events.
But needs differ. Some overseas students want a guarantee of university accommodation at a reasonable price, while for others this is not so important. Some will not want to be on a course filled with their compatriots, others will be keen to have a few people from their own country nearby. While a London location is vital for some, others will want the relative safety of a campus. Knowing who is likely to want what involves thoroughly researching the country from which you are hoping to recruit and, ideally, having some kind of presence there.
It is also likely to involve using others as your eyes and ears. Goldstein advises getting to know people in the colleges from which you are likely to recruit and making contacts within the Government - particularly if government scholarships are on offer. He says employing agents is usually essential but advises choosing them with care. Roberts suggests familiarising yourself with the type of agents available in your target market and the culture that governs the way they work, as well as speaking to the relevant British Council offices and colleagues in other institutions. He advises asking potential agents to provide you with a business plan, to give you an indication of their level of professionalism and understanding.
"Clear and open communication is vital at this early stage," he says.
"Spell out your expectations and explain the level of support you will provide to help an agent deliver results. Make them aware of your broader strategy for the market to avoid potential conflict in the future." A binding written agreement establishing working arrangements is recommended to protect your institution, he says.
The British Council holds training courses on how institutions can work more effectively with agents, as well as running the Education UK Partnership, a member organisation that offers products and services to support individual institutions' marketing strategies and gives discounts on promotional events.
Roger Garrett, director of the Centre for International Studies at Bristol University, says not only is it important to build up contacts over time in countries that send students overseas, but you also have to keep an eye on where the next source of foreign students will be. He suggests keeping in touch with aid agencies - perhaps by becoming involved in consultancy work - to find out where they are making education a priority and where they are offering scholarships to study overseas.
"When you know what the market is, you have to be prepared to be flexible," he says. This could involve providing courses on the ground rather than bringing students over to study in the UK. In the long term, the UK is still likely to benefit: if your courses go down well in a particular country, its government is more likely to find the money to send students to you in future.
Goldstein stresses that overseas recruitment is a long-term game. "It has to be long term because it's important that those recruiting build up trust and confidence in the various agencies that would potentially be supporting students," he says. "Most people would reckon on a number of years before recruitment starts to flow."
Ukcosa, the council for international education, provides information to staff working with international students in the UK: www.ukcosa.org.uk
British Council website for international students: www.educationuk.org
- Research your market
- Have support systems in place
- Perform well in league tables
- Be flexible
- Don't be too impatient