International recruiters must put a finger in the political crosswinds

The volatility of current affairs means that the old certainties about how to identify receptive markets are gone, says Anna Esaki-Smith

October 15, 2019
Source: Alamy

Not long ago, strategic international student recruitment was relatively straightforward. The tried and tested approach was to scan the globe for possible source countries with favourable youth demographics, promising economic prospects and an education system that introduced English language learning at a young age.

Recruiters also considered the relationship between gross domestic product growth and tertiary enrolments; research showed that a small increase in total economic activity in emerging economies with less than $10,000 GDP per capita could trigger a significant rise in the enrolment rate.

In other words, by assessing countries on these fundamental factors, universities could logically tap markets with an appropriate student pool that could afford, as well as succeed in, the pursuit of overseas study.

Ah, the good ol’ days.

Recruitment in today’s increasingly polarised world, by contrast, demands the political acumen of a statesman, the analytical prowess of an investigative reporter and the forecasting abilities of a keen human resources manager intent on building a workforce for the future.

Take the UK’s recent reinstatement of post-study work rights for international students. This will undoubtedly drive enrolment at UK universities. Employability-focused students put a huge premium on the opportunity to gain work experience for two years after university graduation. Yet few observers saw the move coming.

China’s Ministry of Education, meanwhile, sent the UK a valentine in June by warning mainland students and academics about the risks of studying in the US, pointing to visa restrictions and refusals amid the ongoing trade war between the two countries. This may have been a reason why, in July, there was a reported 30 per cent year-on-year increase in applications from Chinese students to UK universities.

Such political crosswinds don’t show up in standard student flow data, but strategists ignore them at their peril. Post-work rights notwithstanding, the uncertain Brexit backdrop continues to dampen UK optimism as any type of leaving arrangement is an almost certain negative for recruitment from the European Union, given EU nationals’ likely reclassification as international students – with the higher fees that come with that status. UK universities cannot underestimate the detrimental impact of this, given that EU students make up 30 per cent of international students in the UK: more than those from China.

So how does a UK university navigate this landscape? Prioritise Chinese students over diversification, risking continued overdependence on that market? Or work on marketing the value and quality of a UK education across all recruitment countries?

Let’s shift gears and cast an eye towards Asia. In the run-up to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, there was an exodus of residents from the British colony to the UK and elsewhere. Amid looming uncertainty about the future under mainland rule, large numbers of Hong Kong high school graduates also left to pursue university study abroad. That trend eventually faded, thanks to increased prosperity in the territory, a rise in the global ranking of local universities and the escalating cost of studying abroad. Like their counterparts in Japan, young people turned inward, placing a premium on cultural comfort and proximity to family and friends.

But politics may intervene again. One has to wonder what the impact will be on higher education of the increasingly violent pro-democracy demonstrations. Will Hong Kong students commit to remaining at home to see through this difficult period, or will the unsettling events trigger outbound mobility again, as the reality of Chinese rule is driven home?

Elsewhere in Asia, factors other than economics and household wealth are influencing student sentiment towards study abroad. A series of earthquakes in Nepal in 2015 devastated the country’s higher education system and resulted in a marked jump in the number of outbound students, many of them finding their way to Japan. These students, as well as those from Asian neighbours such as South Korea, have boosted Japan’s chances of achieving its goal of hosting 300,000 international students by 2020, spurred by low tuition, prospects for internships, Japanese language tutoring and the possibility of eventual employment.

But, despite this progress, the horizon is cloudy. Will Nepalese students continue to head to Japan as the effects of the earthquakes recede? Relations between Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, have soured over the ongoing dispute about compensation for Koreans forced to labour during the Second World War, most recently manifesting itself in a Korean boycott of Japanese goods. Will South Korean students reject Japan in favour of supporting a national cause?

Now, don’t get me wrong. It remains impossible to strategise recruitment without first assessing a country’s economic robustness, youth population and overall openness to internationalisation. But there will never be another China in terms of sheer demand for overseas study and level of financial resources. And even the China we know today is no longer a sure thing, owing to its ageing population, improved domestic education provision and rapidly improving domestic employment prospects. A decline in its outbound student numbers is widely anticipated.

Considering the volatile state of international affairs, the role geopolitical issues play in influencing how students think and, thus, where they study, will undoubtedly grow. The global rise of nationalism, the possibility of the US and Germany sliding into recession and the proliferation of non-traditional host destinations, with India throwing its hat in the ring, are further muddying any formulas used in the past to determine recruitment strategies. There are no longer any certainties.

My advice in terms of navigating this new reality? Stay abreast of the news, diversify – and hold on to your hat!

Anna Esaki-Smith is co-founder and managing director of Education Rethink, a research consultancy whose inaugural report on the global state of Chinese student mobility will be released in November. 

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Print headline: Navigating change

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