Is it time for Gilligan II?
“The target for the UK’s market share proposed by the British Council in 2000 was 25% by 2005 – a fantasy figure which just didn’t see the competition coming”
Universities’ international marketing strategies have no doubt grown smarter in the 15 years since an influential report on the subject was published, writes Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading – but as competition stiffens and the challenges facing UK HE change, is it time for a new one?
It’s been 15 years since Professor Colin Gilligan published his report for the British Council on international marketing and student recruitment practices within UK universities. The Gilligan Report challenged UK universities to professionalise their marketing activity and to meet the opportunity of growing international student intakes.
Since then, annual intakes of international students have increased by more than 60%. So did UK universities respond to Gilligan’s observation that they were characterised by “low levels of marketing expertise” and that there was “an absence of real vision and strategic thinking” and professionalise their international student recruitment work? The data would suggest they did. How else could our universities have grown international students by so much?
“There is no doubt that has been a step change in many universities”
There is no doubt that has been a step change in many universities. Most now have international strategies, the focus of which is international student recruitment; a number have developed sophisticated marketing strategies using a range of tools to reach target audiences in a more segmented fashion than we thought possible 15 years ago; and the need to develop, manage and support the customer journey is better understood. Increasingly universities are using external experts to support their objectives: market research firms, international student recruitment agents, and specialist enquiry management services.
Probably the biggest success has been the development and fast growth in provision in-market, both as an end in itself but also as pathway to the UK, securing an increasingly larger share of the sector’s annual intake.
Despite these developments and their undoubted successes, international students have grown at a slower rate in the UK than in some key competitor countries and the UK has actually lost market share to some. The target for the UK’s market share proposed by the British Council in 2000 was 25% by 2005 – a fantasy figure which just didn’t see the competition coming.
“Despite these developments, international students have grown at a slower rate than in some key competitor countries and the UK has actually lost market share to some”
One could also argue that in a time of ‘soft market’ growth and supportive, or at least benign government policy (until relatively recently), UK universities have been riding a wave and the real test is only now with us.
In a much more competitive environment from both traditional and new competitors, as well as increasing local supply of higher education in traditional source markets, including UK branch campuses and other forms of TNE, international student recruitment is getting tougher. And to make things worse, UK government policy is now creating barriers to growth.
Among Gilligan’s observations about UK universities international student recruitment work 15 years ago were:
- A short term focus and an emphasis upon a year-by-year approach to international planning
- Little detailed understanding of markets in which they operate and their long term potential
- Little coordination of resources and efforts between different departments within institutions with the result that in many instances there is a duplication or wastage of effort
- Little customer or competitor research and analysis
- Tendency to spread resources too thinly across a series of markets
- Inadequate attention being paid to long term planning
- Little evidence of market segmentation or targeting
- Unclear selling propositions and vague or non-existent positioning strategies
- Somewhat naïve and … unrealistic assumptions about how the quality of UK education and UK educational experience is perceived not only in many of the newer, but also the traditional markets
- Few attempts to measure or assess in any formal manner the effectiveness of marketing spend
This is just a snapshot. Gilligan’s summary of findings goes over five pages, and many of his observations about our sector are still recognisable today.
So where do we go from here? The sector is very diverse and there are lots of examples of good practice but have we really made the progress as a sector that we sometimes think we have. There’s no doubt that we’re going to need to do more to survive in this more competitive international environment and one with an increasing number of hurdles being placed before us. Is it time for Gilligan II?