By GRETCHEN DOBSON and DIRK MULDER
In August 2019, there were 423,349 international students enrolled in Australia, which is great for universities and other HE providers. These students contribute diversity in and outside of classrooms, on campuses, in our communities and make valuable financial contributions to the institution they attend. But what happens when they graduate and go home? Then there are the Australian students who go overseas to carve out their niche. Plus, there are transnational alumni who live and work in two or more countries on a regular basis. Think domestic and international alumni working for a multinational and travel regularly overseas (and that can mean back to Australia); or, the international alumni who have called Australia home for many years and make up growing diaspora communities in capital cities and regional hubs.
All these groups are out of scope for the vast majority of the institutions they attended.
The relationship between student and alma mater should run well beyond graduation. In this five part series Gretchen Dobson and Dirk Mulder explore its importance and set-out the key elements to enhance relationships with international alumni.
II: Repeat Business
Part One of this series explored the voice and aspiration of students who graduate into the alumni ranks and what “success” may look like for them – do they feel their experience helped them succeed at home?
Over a continuum of age, professional and personal advancement and stage, this “success” changes. The further from graduation alumni are, the greater their sense of satisfaction with their education. Leveraging this contentment can have direct impact on the international student recruitment and engagement endeavours of institutions.
There are three main foci of these initiatives: new student recruitment, returning students, and those who are willing participants in not so obvious ways.
New students and the decision makers who surround them (think parents and extended family) gather information from a variety of sources in deciding to study abroad. Often a country is in mind, potentially followed by a view towards a city (research shows exposure to a city/country focuses the “where” decision).
As international education matures in Australia, institutions have a much more reputational brand than ten-20 years ago when most were largely unknown overseas. This can help or hinder prospective students’ decisions. Courses on offer also play a significant part in the search.
Once at this point, students and their decision makers have a shortlist of institutions to investigate in detail. They source information from institutions’ websites, ask their agents (if an agent is involved) and evaluate what they find on third party sites.
Education abroad is not discount shopping. With an investment often above AUD$ 100,000, involved, validating the decision and having first-hand insight from someone who has walked the journey is paramount.
Enter alumni. Alumni are the most authentic validators there can be, able to answer all the questions a future student (and their parents) may have: Was it safe? How safe? Was it inclusive? What is the standard of lecturers like? Was it easy to find part-time work? What was the town / city like to live in? What about transport? And, ultimately, where are you now and can I see myself (son or daughter) as you are now?
These are all questions that students and families work through in an attempt to find the best possible return on investment: a better life and opportunities.
Activating alumni is critical and will become more critical over the next ten years.
There are simple steps to ensure future students have an opportunity to engage with alumni:
First and foremost, understand your alumni and be in touch with them. While this may be obvious, not all institutions place as much emphasis on staying in touch with international alumni as they do with their domestic counterparts.
This is somewhat understandable, as the investment required is more than alumni offices can afford. The investment must be owned by the highest office of the institution and it is a long term one. Once this investment is made (with designated staff, alumni contact information, and some budget), then formalising the network to mobilise around some of the following suggestions can be done:
(i) have alumni at interview sessions and presentations offshore. Introducing them early to students and parents alike sets a personal tone that facilitates buy-in
(ii) integrate an introduction to a local alum at the point of enquiry or offer follow up. You will need updated local contact information and/or social media profiles to begin the dialogue
(iii) profile alumni, their education and career paths at events for future students (those who may be enquiries through to those who have offers) to provide a more in-depth engagement, which focuses on student experience and education/employment outcomes. Do not be afraid to have an alumni member on every table of an event which showcases alumni talent
(iv) And, with alumni who can confidently support the job of recruiters, co-sponsor a “back to school” week, with the local alumni group and equip the alumni ambassadors with swag and information to share with prospective students.
Returning students, that is alumni, will inevitably look at upskilling in their lifelong learning journey, perhaps from an undergraduate to a masters by coursework, or a masters to a research program or a professional accreditation in country or on-line.
Again, tracking and staying in touch with alumni is the critical first step. Without this it is hard to start a conversation. Examples of the up-sell are bountiful however few institutions invest in these:
(i) keeping a student on campus may be the easiest. As a student is coming up to completion of a course, mapping out logical second degrees for consideration should not be too difficult. For instance, a student may be about to complete an undergraduate degree in psychology, why not offer a masters in a psychology specialisation or human resources?
(II) reaching students who have completed and returned home is a little trickier. This is where utilisation of in-country resources is important and a local alumni chapter or a few alumni contacts can be deputised to share course offerings and online information sessions with their peers.
(iii) when academics are traveling in the region, they can run a day-long seminar in an exec ed context. Those with campuses abroad or even presences via third party providers have an advantage here.
For those with campuses abroad, how often do you market these programs to alumni who live nearby and are accessible?
The third group who aren’t necessarily an obvious recruitment target are alumni who are leaders in their field, be it community, business or academia. At a macro-level, focusing on the national interest, Austrade’s Global Alumni Engagement Strategy (2016-2020) strongly emphasises this group. However, there are opportunities that exist at a more micro level that may assist institutions in their engagement endeavours. These are alumni who can, via their current role, work with or facilitate an institution to new opportunities. Opportunities may include:
(i) research collaboration – An academic member of staff at a university abroad who seeks to maintain links to their alma mater by co-researching with former faculty.
(ii) profiling – Leading community members who may be willing to, under the brand of the institution, provide insights into their own journey and how they arrived where they are today
(iii) business engagement – facilitating short course or professional practice work with trade associations and professional membership bodies in their own country
(iv) advice and influence – being able to call upon the professional advice of alumni to ensure degree portability and acceptance in professional areas within their own country
These types of engagements aren’t cold calls. They take time to evolve and a longer-term commitment requiring the direct involvement of senior staff. However, once relationships are developed and formed, they provide a richer engagement platform from which the institution can expand their reach.
Conclusion: Alumni are an asset awaiting activation. This activation can assist institutions with their student recruitment aspirations as well as broader engagements abroad. There are suggested steps to inject an authentic alumni voice into recruitment operations and to see alumni as lifelong learners themselves.
This paper is part of a 5-part series aimed at analysing some of the key rationales for servicing International Alumni better and what underpins these. The series is:
Part 1: Voice and aspiration is here
Part 2: Repeat Business
Part 3: Network, Brand and Influencing
Part 4: The Give and the Get (with Donors)
Part 5: Simple steps to enhance a global alumni strategy
In Part 3 we will explore alumni’s ability foster a broader engagement abroad under the title “Networking, Brand and Influencing.”
Dirk Mulder is an international education business developer, strategist and market analyst with over 15 years’ experience in International Education including holding Director positions in international operations at Murdoch University, Curtin University and the University of South Australia. Contact him @ firstname.lastname@example.org
Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with over 27 years’ experience across five continents. Gretchen advises leaders on strategies and solutions that enable institutions, organisations and governments to identify, track and manage relationships with their global stakeholders. Contact her @ email@example.com