British universities are unprofessional, complacent and naive in their approach to recruiting overseas students, according to a report published by the British Council this week. Their international marketing expertise is so poor that they risk losing rather than improving their share of the growing multibillion-pound global higher education business.
The report warns that there is likely to be a "market break-point" in the next two to three years, in which Britain will be fighting to survive against competitors, such as Australia, that use aggressive and sophisticated marketing techniques, and global players, including corporate universities, that sell technology-based learning.
The report says: "Although it can be argued that Britain's position within the world educational market is strong, it can also be argued that this is deceptive in that competition is becoming far more intensive and customers more demanding, more discriminating and less wedded to traditional patterns of buying."
Research involving students, university international officers and Education Counselling Service staff across the world last year identified 47 major weaknesses in institutions' efforts to sell their courses overseas.
A report on the findings, by Sheffield Business School marketing professor Colin Gilligan, paints a bleak picture of marketing and operational blunders, including:
* Little detailed understanding of the markets n Inadequate funding
* An absence of vision and strategic thinking
* Low levels of marketing expertise
* "Increasingly unrealistic" assumptions about perceptions of British higher education in foreign markets
* Poorly thought-out and sometimes counter-productive relationships between international offices and the rest of the institution.
The ECS, a marketing arm of the British Council, is also criticised for lacking marketing expertise, for being "largely reactive" and for suffering from a lack of consistency of service across different markets.
Professor Gilligan's report is embarrassing for vice-chancellors, international office heads and the ECS in the light of a campaign launched by prime minister Tony Blair last year to recruit 50,000 more higher education students from overseas by 2005.
Professor Gilligan said he had come under fire from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which said he had concentrated too much on weaknesses and ignored success stories.
But he added: "I am sorry that the overall picture is a negative one. This may be uncomfortable, but unfortunately it is the case. I was quite surprised by these results, given that we have been successful in the past and have a 17 per cent share of the overseas market. But it is inevitable we will lose that unless we make major changes and become more focused."
The research included a programme of "mystery shopping" at education fairs among British, Canadian, Australian and American institutions by ECS staff based in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and India.
The overall picture is of a market that is of "enormous strategic and economic importance" to the British economy, but which is "characterised by the lack of marketing professionalism".
"Where examples of good practice do exist, they often appear to be the result of the activities of one or a small number of individuals who have strong commitment to international recruitment," the report adds.
The ECS is supporting Professor Gilligan's conclusions and has promised to beef up training of its own and university international office staff in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
Allan Barnes, ECS director, said: "In the past we were pushing at a fairly open door, but the market has changed and become much more competitive and there is no room for complacency. The undoubted success we have had so far will not continue without some new approaches."
A CVCP spokesperson said: "The report does present challenges to higher education. However, we are disappointed that it does not highlight any of the good practice in international marketing taking place.
"The United Kingdom has more than 200,000 international students - the second largest share in the world. Surely this indicates that UK higher education has a strong reputation abroad. The CVCP is surveying institutions to see how strategic developments are progressing in the light of the prime minister's initiative."