UK universities urged to do more

24 March, 2015

UK universities need to gain a deeper understanding of student markets and reasons for studying abroad in order for the country to remain a top destination for higher education, according to various speakers and delegates at last week’s International Higher Education Forum 2015: The competitive edge held by Universities UK in London, UK.

Speakers from the first panel on Sleeping Giants and Rising Stars in International Higher Education: Joaquin Guerra Achem, Tec de Monterrey, Mexico; Dr. Sebastian Fohrbeck, German Academic Exchange Service, Germany; Val Wooston, University of Maryland, USA; Nicola Dandridge, Universities UK, UK; and Phil Baty, Times Higher Education, UK.

Summarising UK HE’s current situation, Jo Beall, Director of Education and Society at the British Council, said, “Non-EU domicile students are up by four per cent and all that is very good news...” However, she added that growth is slowing and reasons include that China, the largest sending country, is becoming a study travel destination in its own right, and “the number of students coming from India is the lowest it has been since 2005/06. Our special relationship with India through the commonwealth and other axes is not being capitalised on, and I think that does have a lot to do with our visa policy."

In 2011 85 per cent of students wanting to study in the UK had a second destination choice, compared with 98 per cent today, Beall continued. “What that’s signalling is that people have more choice, and are considering more options,” she said. “We have to recognise we are losing global market share... and in addition more players are entering the stage.”  She added that the biggest growth market would probably be Africa and that the UK is not positioning itself well in this regard, and that students rate the UK highly on quality but there is a perceived lack of career enhancement opportunities.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sebastian Fohrbeck, Director of Scholarship Programmes at the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), painted a more positive picture in Germany. He explained that international HE enrolments are growing rapidly because of a target to reach 350,000 by 2020 (there will be an estimated 319,000 in 2015), post-study work rights and free tuition. “If 30 per cent of internationals stay in Germany and pay their taxes, this offsets the cost of providing places without tuition fees for all international students. “ Nicola Dandridge, Universities UK Chief Executive, commented, “We hear about your strategy, funding and visa rules with amazement and envy.”

Dr Faisal Abaalkhail, Cultural Attaché for the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, highlighted that the UK is known for quality among Saudi students. However, “This very positive perception of institutions in the United Kingdom has been changing,” he said. “There has been a discrepancy between the positive perceptions and current realities...some universities are no longer driven by the primary mission to educate and share knowledge across frontiers. Maybe that’s because increasingly are being asked to help improve the national economic performance and GDP, as Higher Education is now branded as an education export.”

Agent usage was highlighted as one of the ways in which universities can maintain and grow their share of overseas students. While Jobert Abueva, Senior Director of Brand Management and Strategic Marketing at Toefl, said that agents play an influential role in students’ decision making process in China during the main panel session, Vincenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice Chancellor from the University of Reading, presented the findings from his study on agent usage in UK Higher Education in a break out session.

Raimo commented that the onus is on institutions to practice due diligence in their agent training, and to take responsibility if a partnership goes wrong. He also said that he found no correlation between the rate of commission paid to agents and the volume of students they send, and that he was surprised by the number of “gentlemen’s agreements” UK universities have with agents rather than proper contracts. The results from the next stage of the research will be released later this year in collaboration with the National Association for College Admission Counselling.

In a breakout session, Duncan Findlater and Daniel Cunningham from Hobsons, an education solutions company, gave advice for universities on attracting international students. A survey of more than 65,000 international students revealed that 36 per cent of students decided against the UK because of a lack of post-study work options, but that the most important objective for more than 35 per cent of students is to continue their learning and development. Universities should focus on factors within their control, such as agent usage and creating brand awareness, they advised.

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