British universities rely too heavily on students from Southeast Asia. They must spread their net wider to avoid risk, says Marcel van Miert
THE SLUMP in student recruitment from Southeast Asia has left British universities with a bad case of nerves. The government has rushed to their aid with offers of money for scholarships and there is a mood of solicitude at the feared loss of income for universities and colleges because of the region's currency crisis. This sympathy has obscured the fact that the problem is mostly self-inflicted, a product of poor strategic management.
The 24,000 students who come each year from Malaysia, Thailand, Korea and Indonesia represent a quarter of all overseas students studying in UK higher education. Few modern businesses would rely so heavily on income from one limited market.
The sector cannot be blamed for being heavily involved with the Southeast Asian market but it should not have relied on the region as a "cash cow". Now the cow is sick it is clear there are few markets ready to replace it.
Most businesses will always spread risk to offset the impact of any collapse. The universities must learn from this experience rather than bemoan their misfortune, and move forward with a sense of urgency towards a more strategic, entrepreneurial and outward-looking approach to international student recruitment.
This does not mean that we should abandon Southeast Asia - but using taxpayers' money to help fund scholarships, or dipping into reserves to offer "golden hellos" and other concessions to try to rescue the market is the proverbial finger in the dyke.
It is not just a matter of a temporary decline from one country or region. UK Higher Education plc is struggling in the battle for hearts and minds of students around the world. The United States and Australia are increasingly active on our European home ground while maintaining their other markets. UK higher education has been slow to open up new markets.
It has failed to exploit the supremacy of English as the language of education, or to take advantage of a very high-quality system provided at a relatively low cost by pursuing only the "easy" markets.
There is a straightforward explanation for what at first glance might appear to be a mystery. UK higher education simply tries to sell itself abroad as a single product - often competing against itself - rather than applying the basic marketing principles of trying to understand and respond to the needs of students from different parts of the world, in terms of content, service and pricing.
Instead, they sell a monolithic package of tradition and high standards. They must become more aware of the differences between themselves and the "unique selling points" of their international competitors, rather than just between themselves and the university next door.
Education marketing in this country has perhaps seen itself as removed from other forms of service marketing, and this situation has been encouraged by successive governments attempting to create a uniform service at the same cost for home students.
Overseas students will have a number of offers and will make a choice based on the differences between institutions; price, product and place being the major considerations, together with a high level of service during the application process.
With its basic strengths in education provision, the UK is in a good position to create a string of healthy markets overseas and establish a wider safety net of new student sources. But there needs to be a concerted effort by institutions to compete effectively against their foreign competitors. UK universities tend not to be devoted single-mindedly to overseas recruitment. They make links with countries through research, exchanges and so on, and representation is often through particular departments and not the university as a whole.
The opportunities are there. Look at the United States. Studying at the UK's best might cost about Pounds 7,000, while at Harvard it is $25,000. The New York Times last month reported on the boom in US students who have found that studying abroad is a cheap option rather than a luxury. Savings of about $10,000 a semester have been reported, and the number of students going abroad has risen 84 per cent in the last decade. The latest figures show that 20,000 US students came to the UK for "study abroad" semesters.
Student mobility is set to continue, with Americans in particular looking further afield to Latin America, Africa and Asia. The number of Americans taking semesters in the UK has increased. But no concerted effort has been made to recruit these students or future generations to come and study in the UK for full-time programmes. There is also great potential for recruiting in Russia and the former Soviet states, Eastern Europe and in the growing economies of South America.
A more radical solution, but one that would automatically drive institutions to make more of their undoubted strengths, would be to privatise higher education.
Breaking up this monolithic structure would free individual universities to go out to the world with the kind of dynamic, service-minded products that would make regional crashes a matter only for strategic planners in marketing and admissions - and not for government ministers.
Marcel van Miert is director of recruitment at Regent's College London and chairman of the Council for Independent Colleges and Research Institutions.