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Navigating the Waves: Key Strategies for International Student Recruitment Success

  • 10 April 2024
  • By Vincenzo Raimo
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Vincenzo Raimo, an independent international higher education consultant and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Reading, where he previously served as Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement.
  • The questionnaire mentioned in this blog is embedded as a pdf below and can be downloaded from the website.

The landscape of international student recruitment in the UK has experienced a seismic shift from a period of unexpected prosperity post-Covid, to a challenging environment marked by political, financial, and societal changes. Universities that saw a surge in international enrolments due predominately to favourable external conditions and government policies are now facing a harsh reality. With the UK adopting a frostier stance towards international students, including restrictions on dependents, increased visa fees and health surcharge costs, and negative media portrayal, the January 2024 enrolment figures show a significant downturn, affecting university financial plans and leading to cutbacks and redundancies.

However, this environment has also delineated clear winners and losers, with certain universities more successfully navigating these tumultuous waters. The differentiation lies in the control and implementation of specific factors essential for attracting and retaining international students. Based on over three decades of experience in UK university international student recruitment, the last two as a consultant to a range of institutions, I have identified a range of success factors that are consistently displayed by the most successful universities. These have been grouped into an International Student Recruitment Success Factors Self-Assessment Questionnaire, which serves as a strategic guide for institutions looking to enhance their international student recruitment.

Success Factors Displayed by the Most Successful Universities

The universities that continue to succeed in this challenging climate share some common characteristics:

  1. Strategic Leadership and Planning: This includes visible support from senior leadership, a centralised international unit, and long-term sustainability in planning, emphasising internationalisation as a strategic priority.
  2. Marketing, Recruitment, and Admissions Infrastructure & Operations: Essential elements include staff expertise, targeted market strategies, a significant physical and online presence in key markets, and active alumni network engagement that aligns with recruitment strategies.
  3. Financial Resources: Successful institutions allocate sufficient and strategically planned financial resources, understand the return on investment (ROI) from their activities, and have contingency plans to address financial fluctuations.
  4. Applicant Support and Engagement: This involves streamlined enquiry and application processes, competitive financial aid and scholarships, transparent tuition fee structures, and comprehensive visa and immigration assistance.
  5. Academic and Student Support & Engagement: Universities need to offer academic, social, and language support tailored to international students’ needs, including cultural exchange programmes, flexible payment options, and dedicated career services.
  6. Recruitment Partnerships: Establishing productive relationships with recruitment agents, pathway partnerships, transnational education programmes and progression articulations are key to expanding reach and enhancing recruitment efforts.
  7. Programme Portfolio & Academic Facilities: An attractive and diverse programme portfolio, aligned with global industry demands and integrated with employability support and modern facilities, attracts a wide range of international students.
  8. Reputation & Ranking: Leveraging the institution’s ranking and reputation effectively in marketing efforts are crucial for attracting international students.

Not all successful universities employ all these strategies, but they typically excel in a majority of them, demonstrating a holistic and dedicated approach to international student recruitment.

A Call to Action

The current landscape for international student recruitment in the UK presents significant challenges but also opportunities for universities willing to adapt and innovate. The International Student Recruitment Success Factors Self-Assessment Questionnaire offers a strategic framework for universities to assess their current practices, identify areas for improvement, and implement targeted strategies to enhance their recruitment outcomes.

I urge university leaders and international recruitment professionals to utilise this self-assessment tool to review and refine their strategies. Assess how your institution measures up against these success factors, including strategic leadership, expert marketing, dedicated support, employability enhancement, and overseas engagement. Identify areas for improvement and action to ensure that your university not only navigates but thrives in the competitive landscape of international student recruitment.

In an era marked by rapid change and increased competition, a proactive and comprehensive approach to international student recruitment is more important than ever. By embracing these strategies and committing to continuous improvement, your institution has a better chance of attracting and supporting a diverse and talented student body, contributing to the global reputation and financial health of your university.

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