By Dr SUSIE ROBINSON
In the formative stages of my university education, I had an academic supervisor who housed a lavishly inviting velour couch in his office. It simply invited repose. And repose, he did – allowing himself regular time to ‘think deeply and without distraction’ about his work and research – its current challenges, and future possible directions. Later, as a postgraduate research student in the UK’s divine Cambridge setting, I knew dons who played a regular round of croquet on college lawns whenever the sun shone (not often enough), for the same self-proclaimed purpose of pausing and reflecting.
I fear their luxuries belong to an era now passing, or indeed gone, for those immersed in the realities of today’s university sector, but the discipline of giving one’s work the regular ‘once over’ should never be lost. And, based on the experiences of my team at Higher Education Consulting Group, I observe that one area where the financial stakes in doing so are at their greatest, is international student recruitment.
Every university in Australia, and every outward-looking globalised university around the world, has a team dedicated to securing new international students. Some are slicker than others in their approach, but I’m yet to meet the university that has honed the art to perfection. The underlying concepts are, in essence simple, but deliberate and data-driven execution of them is often lacking. Given there is over $20bn up for grabs in the Australian sector alone, it is clear that getting this right can bring rich financial rewards for higher education institutions.
So, if international recruitment is your game, pick up your virtual croquet mallet, or get comfortable on your virtual velour couch, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I know how my international office is performing compared with appropriate benchmarks?
These benchmarks are the performance of your direct current competitors, but also aspirational benchmarks- where do you want to be? The kinds of benchmarks for which you should have data include:
- conversion rates from application-to-enrolment for target programs
- cost of international office (excluding commissions) as a proportion of international fee revenue
- standard recruitment and marketing budgets and how they look per capita against students enrolled
- optimal number of staff per region/ market and optimal number of agents
- proportion of international students recruited via agent channel compared with direct
- cost of agent commissions as a proportion of international fee revenue
- proportion of international student fee revenue reinvested in international scholarships
- Does my office have the ability to generate robust and reliable reports that show the pipeline of students from enquiry to enrolment?
The ability to capture and interrogate pipeline data is critical, with a well-functioning system quickly and easily producing reports that give hugely valuable insights into the successes and failures in your system. Breaking down and understanding your conversion rates at all stages in the process from enquiry to enrolment can give you edge in showing you where best to deploy scarce resources to best effect. The process of building a pipeline report can be broken down into four distinct steps:
- understanding and mapping business processes
- reviewing data in context of these business processes
- aligning business processes to key statuses within data sets (i.e. understanding what actions are leading to what outcomes at each stage of the journey)
- developing a data model which aligns with business processes, and which, in the form of a user-friendly dashboard, can produce accurate current-state reports, as well as allowing for forecasting based on alternative potential models.
- Have I got my agent mix/ agent composition right, and am I managing my agents optimally?
There are a few key areas that international teams should address to ensure top agent performance:
- Sound agent selection and recruitment practices: operating within a clearly defined cycle of quality agent management; based on a set of weighted selection criteria; and with dedicated website space on the university site for agents.
- Effective and efficient communications and training for agents: tailor EVERYTHING to your university, and invest in the deployment of digital technologies, using an agent Customer Relationship Management system for effective email marketing to agents, as well as a Learning Management System offering online training and webinar series for agents.
- Investing effort in proactive agent management and incorporating incentives for agents: a proper performance plan is key, with KPIs, feedback, compliance data and associated incentives and rewards for top performing agents, including commission management.
- Undertaking marketing aligned with the agent channel: marketing tactics should be tightly aimed at specific recruitment goals and development of key markets, and incorporate both traditional and non-traditional media.
Incorporating the practices listed above, alongside a well-functioning pipeline data dashboard, will soon give you the cues you need to land upon the optimum agent mix for your institution. You’ll understand more quickly when an agent cohort is underperforming, when a market is saturated, what levers to pull in each market, and where your distinctive niche in the market lies.
You’ll also be able to deploy your internal recruitment team resources more effectively, landing on the optimum recruiter-agent ratios that balance the experience and performance of both parties i.e. an experienced recruiter becomes adept at handling larger numbers of agents, but allowances can be made for less-experienced recruiting staff or newly-signed agents.
- How well do I really understand my key markets?
Markets constantly evolve, and the way you approach each market needs careful tailoring. For example, consider emerging vs established; agent-centric vs direct; as well as understanding other factors such as safety risks for your team operating in certain jurisdictions (with associated duty-of-care and insurance considerations); risk of visa fraud amongst student applicants; and changing regulatory regimes at home and abroad.
There are a few unifying motivating factors for students to undertake international study abroad, and these need due consideration too. Keep yourself abreast of relevant research on the topic. Alongside a desire to enhance their career prospects, improve their English language skills, and the common belief that the education systems overseas are better than those in their home countries, prospective students also weigh up other considerations for a meaningful international study experience, such as employability, social integration, and the safety and liveability of their destination city or region.
Your targeted marketing MUST clearly identify the ways in which your institution can uniquely meet the needs of your different markets, and this should be tightly aimed at recruitment, market development and / or conversions. Marketing and engagement that operates multilaterally at the level of the individual prospective student, in partnership with agents, and through strong relationships with sending countries’ bureaucracies and education systems will be key.
A healthy mix of traditional and digital marketing is required, and a strategic calendar of promotions, campaigns, and events deploying print media, apps, social media and website resources is necessary. Oftentimes this will require fresh investment of resource and effort to achieve the right skill mix in the international office team, and close working partnerships with central institutional marketing teams.
- Are my team’s efforts operating in lock-step with the wider institution?
Especially at a time where graduate outcomes are under greater scrutiny, and student experience is widely reported, it is imperative that the students you recruit have a great experience whilst on campus. Those who are satisfied and view their investment in the international education experience as worthwhile, become great ambassadors for your institution, and this makes for a healthy pipeline.
This suggests that higher education institutions need to revamp their student support and career services, and think carefully about nurturing a student culture of inclusiveness. Offering international students work experience opportunities to help them enhance their career readiness, and better bridging the social gaps between domestic and international students can go a long way in creating a truly integrated international study experience, and you can be sure, the word quickly spreads when students have had a great experience.
Looking outside your team may be necessary to ensure you have the five questions posed above well covered. Expert consultants, especially those who genuinely understand the sector, who have worked with international offices globally, and have a passion for data, can be a wise investment. Maintaining great global professional networks can also go a long way to helping you, in terms of benchmarks and market intelligence. But critically, don’t leave it too long until you next take the time to pause, reflect and reshape your international operations.
Dr Susie Robinson is the CEO of Higher Education Consulting Group, a team of Australian and international higher education experts who have more than 70 years combined hands-on experience working within and for educational institutions; and, since 2013 have worked on more than 30 higher education projects that span a range of strategic issues, including deep expertise in higher education program positioning and student recruitment.
This article was written with expert contribution from Kylie Colvin, HECG Practice Lead – Planning and Analytics, and George Hernandez, HECG Lead Digital & International Marketing. For a conversation with any of the HECG team email: firstname.lastname@example.org