Studying overseas is a major decision, and we aim to provide as much information and support as possible,” relates Thomas Veit at the University of Birmingham, adding, “This means developing our marketing activities in line with the changing expectations and media behaviours of our prospective students.”
The shift towards social media is a significant trend highlighted by Alexandra Cole at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where methods “have changed significantly in recent years to include... online subject presentations, virtual exhibitions, and in particular utilising virtual/social networking tools”. The study abroad team is involved in local and regional consortium activities, she adds, which are moving towards the more cost-efficient means of online resources, while Facebook has been “the most effective tool for promotion” of UEA’s International Summer School.
Nonetheless, the use of agents remains integral in the competitive drive to recruit international students. The University of Bolton is one of the UK’s smallest and newest universities, explains Tom Whittaker, and as such has developed a proactive recruitment strategy and moved away from large direct recruitment events. “With just two international officers recruiting students from around the world, it has been important to develop strong links with high-quality agents who we can trust to undertake our marketing and promotion campaigns in-country with the minimum of supervision,” he says, adding they are approaching a scenario where trusted agents act like regional managers.
At Birkbeck University of London, David Tupper says a combination of marketing activities are used, including “selective attendance at education fairs in countries we regard as priority markets [and] selective appointment of agents in those countries”. He continues, “As far as possible, we try to integrate our activities by inviting agents to support us at events [and] supporting events organised by approved agents.” UEA, meanwhile, uses agents for the recruitment of full degree students outside of North America, advises Cole. And, as Veit attests, the University of Birmingham is looking to partner “with agents in countries around the world, preferring to build a strong relationship with a few. Our aim is to ensure that our agents are familiar with our range of programmes and the support on offer at the university... In the international recruitment team, we have a dedicated Agent’s Administrator.”
In terms of finding and verifying new agents, Whittaker confirms that University of Bolton fields recommendations from other institutions and also receives a number of agent requests. He continues, “It is important to vet these new agents by offering a trial period and researching their work through Internet searches and recommendations from current partners.” Birkbeck University of London utilises a similar method, advises Tupper, “If we wish to appoint new agents, our starting point would be to seek recommendations from other universities, then follow up with in-country visits.”
Naturally, a range of marketing techniques are used in the pursuit of international students. Cole at UEA, for example, outlines education fairs, student and professional-facing exhibitions, conference presentations, secondary school and university visits and visiting guest lecture series, to name a few methods. “Different methods have their own niche effectiveness, and it also depends on the region to which we are targeting.”
Despite a continuing increase in time spent online worldwide, Veit relates that this is no substitute for face-to-face contact. “[Our] academic staff often travel overseas to provide an invaluable first-hand view of the specific programmes and wider university experience,” he says, adding that the institution also has a network of overseas offices with a permanent presence in China, the USA, Nigeria and Brazil.
The abolition of the Post-Study Work (PSW) visa has impacted the UK, although contributors relate this has not greatly affected marketing or recruitment. Cole advises, “There are some regions where changes to the PSW visa have had a negative impact, but the North American study abroad market still considers the UK to be comparatively safe, and the visa process here is easier than it is for study abroad opportunities in some countries.” Tupper, meanwhile, says Birkbeck’s international enrolments for 2012/13 grew, despite the changes to the visa framework.
Another area some universities have explored is partnerships with language providers. “We have a relationship with the Cambridge Education Group (London Foundation Campus) which provides progression routes to Birkbeck through foundation programmes,” confirms Tupper. Cole, meanwhile, advises that UEA works with a very small number of third-party providers in the USA and UK.
Branding to stand out
In the crowded marketplace of recruitment of international students, UK universities need to successfully brand themselves to stand out, often highlighting unique selling points. The University of Birmingham launched a ‘Birmingham Heroes’ marketing campaign in India, Hong Kong and Nigeria “to enable some of our prospective international students and research partners and institutions to find out more about our academics and the research taking place here at Birmingham that has had an international impact”, advises Thomas Veit. “The campaign messages were reputational rather than recruitment-focused, but we expect to see long-term benefits to recruitment and will be developing the campaign further.”
At Birkbeck University of London, where classes are taken in the evenings, “Our unique distinction is that our full-time international students are taught alongside our local part-time students, thus enhancing the learning environment, as many of our students have direct work experience of the subject they are studying,” explains David Tupper. Meanwhile, at the relatively young University of Bolton, Tom Whittaker relates, “We try to focus our branding on what the University of Bolton can deliver: a high-quality, high-value degree course at a modern campus in a thriving town in the north west of England.”