Kiwi fruits

The University of Auckland may soon become a big draw for UK students, David Baker tells Olga Wojtas

September 11, 2008

David Baker is thought to be the longest-serving international office director at a UK university, but he fell into his job by accident when the traditional merry-go-round of administrative posts came to a halt.

Mr Baker, who for the past four years has been director of the international office at Durham University, was an administrator at the University of Leeds in the 1980s when the pattern in many large civic universities was to spend a few years in departments ranging from planning to human resources. He was in the international office in 1986 when there was a shift to specialisation. "We were doing it on a wing and a prayer in those days - there was myself and one other administrator and a couple of secretaries, and it was about the fee income, pure and simple. It coincided with a period of contraction. The University Grants Committee was cutting back, and this was a source of external income."

Mr Baker oversees 13 staff at Durham, but this month he leaves to become director of Auckland International, responsible for some 30 staff at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He believes the job will not be radically different from the one at Durham.

"It's a top research institution in the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, and all research-intensive universities are now having to compete on the world stage. New Zealand has a population of 4 million and is very heavily dependent on skilled immigration. Auckland is playing a big part in the country's economic development."

And while China is a major target for New Zealand, Mr Baker anticipates that Europe, including the UK, will be increasingly important, particularly for postgraduates. "New Zealand charges domestic fees for research students, which I think is quite enlightened. It's government policy to try to attract strong researchers," he said.

An international office is no longer a bolt-on extra, but has an impact on the entire institution, he said. "Top universities want to recruit the top students from anywhere in the world. When the fee cap comes off, we'll start to see more and more British students include studying overseas in their options, because it won't be more expensive."

He believes that institutional marketing strategies should now focus on improving the quality of the student experience. "I've noticed in the past two or three years that universities are losing ownership of the marketing message because of social networking sites. (Applicants) can easily communicate with students already there and get the low-down from them. If you don't look after your students, you can't expect to attract more in the future."

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