The challenge of attracting international students in an increasingly competitive marketplace

“Universities might not be corporate entities, but they do need to adopt a business mindset to compete successfully”

How can universities in the UK protect themselves from losing ground to other countries hungry to encourage more applications from international students?

Although currently sitting at number two in the global rankings, the higher education sector is facing rising competition from other nations keen to maximise the income and enrichment that international students bring to campuses. And the stakes are high, writes Ian Anderson, Global Enterprise Architect at Ellucian.

Apart from the purely financial element, the Higher Education Policy Unit estimates international students are worth £28.8 billion to the UK economy, they also make our campuses more culturally diverse, which in today’s global economy is a real plus.

The increasing level of competition in international student recruitment means that it’s more important than ever that institutions can demonstrate their worth. The fact that despite a rise in the number of international students choosing to study in the UK, the country has lost market share in 16 out of 21 top sending markets for international students, should perhaps give pause for thought. Remaining an attractive option, therefore, is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

Taking a leaf out of the business sector playbook by adopting some of the processes and mechanisms used by successful commercially operated businesses could help universities to stay one step ahead of the competition. Students need to know they are getting a good return on their investment with a high value being placed on graduate and post graduate employment as well as the quality of teaching.

Increasing international applications

Understanding what works and what doesn’t is vital for any business to maximise opportunities for growth. Universities might not be corporate entities, but they do need to adopt a business mindset to compete successfully to as expand, attract, and retain students and staff.

A report by UCAS identified that international students often struggle during the application and decision-making process with choosing the right university, accommodation, visa process and funding.

Knowing where there are any ‘pinch points’ in the recruitment process or spotting a pattern occurring in discontinued applications will give institutions the opportunity to address the situation and reduce the chances of an application being discontinued and taken up elsewhere. Likewise, being able to identify a trend in countries with fewer applicants, could make the difference to converting an enquiry into students coming through the door, or not.

Historically however, the organic way in which institutions have grown their administrative support functions has led to a less accurate or streamlined process. Working off spreadsheets and manually entering information is both resource intensive and can result in duplication, inaccurate information and missed opportunities.

In a competitive marketplace it is important to have easy access to real-time visibility of data to react quickly to market and customer needs.

A more integrated approach

What do international students want? If universities assume choices are made based on one thing when in in reality the market has moved on, then they will lose out to a competitor who does know what is currently most important to the prospective students.

For instance, recent research revealed that international students need more relevant career support if the UK is to remain a favoured destination in which to study. So, a university prospectus where degree courses do not major on this could potentially fail to attract students.

If universities are to stay ahead of the game, pulling information into a dashboard, such as the number of scheduled teaching and assessment contact hours or what percentage of graduates’ gain employment and in which sectors, will keep courses relevant to the needs of the students and employers. Sharing metrics and information between departments will assist universities to take a more joined-up approach to meeting students’ needs.

The business of education

The pandemic has changed the educational landscape and resulted in both challenges and opportunities. To not only survive but thrive, institutions need to follow the processes and trends seen in the business world and assess how they operate through a business/consumer lens.

About the author: Ian Anderson is Global Enterprise Architect at Ellucian and has spent over 30 years working within the UK Higher Education sector helping institutions to ensure they have the right processes and capability to be able to adapt and grow in an increasingly competitive marketplace.