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Diversification: international education’s Holy Grail

When Ariana Grande sang that she had 99 problems, she likely didn’t have the state of international education in Australia in mind, but if she did, she’d be right. Here are three of our biggest problems:

  1. We only recruit significant student numbers from a few Asian destinations.
  2. We do not generally get the best and brightest students in the world.
  3. We routinely do not give the students who do come here an excellent education in their chosen discipline because of language barriers.

There are many ways we can change the way we recruit for excellence in student ability. Here I explain why diversity in international education has not happened much to date and how recruitment practices can change to recruit from many more markets.

The cost of recruitment

If you ran a private company, a core aspect of your business would be to know the cost of sales. It is possible to work out the cost of recruitment per student for each international market, it’s just generally not done. The trick is in knowing all the parts of tertiary institutions that touch each project and this grows with the size and geographical sites of an institution.

For example, a vice-chancellor may ‘pop in’ to University A when on an overseas trip (remember when we did that kind of thing). A week later a staff member ‘pops over to China’ for a six-week teaching block at University A (and does no research during this time). Casual staff backfill their teaching. Then university recruitment agents visit University A with their local agents in tow. All these obvious and not-so-obvious costs begin to mount up and need to be wrangled into a project management framework that can calculate a real ROI on international activities for all staff.

Visiting agents, converting data from agent portals (like IDP’s OSCAR) into student management systems, spending thousands of dollars to take part in third-party arranged 'Exhibitions' (that we often pay agents on our part to attend as well as flying in university staff) – these costs for universities or TAFEs constitute the traditional model of agent recruitment overlaid with the often hidden 'engagement' cost. Together they give us the real cost per student recruitment per market.

A true analysis would match these costs with a conversion and retention cost. Again, it is easy to work out the improved revenue for each percentage point increase in conversion of offers, but it is not quite as easy to calculate the costs of the insalubrious activities to our international reputation among prospective students that have come along with our well-developed agent recruitment practices that I described in an earlier article in Campus Review.

In this article I also explained how this traditional model in established markets can largely be done away with or at least enormously streamlined through the use of commercially available technologies.

The problem with not diversifying

I’ve written in Campus Review recently about the problems with continuing a 20th century agent-based recruiting system in established markets in an era of data and analytics. The most obvious demonstration of the geopolitical risks that can’t be managed with this strategy has been the recent threats by China to turn off the tap of Chinese students. There doesn’t need to be a diplomatic war of words about this. China can simply stop recognising Australian qualifications in China.

A few years ago the Chinese Ministry of Education stopped recognising Australian qualifications taught jointly in China where it deemed the ranking of the Australian university or its Chinese university partner to be lower than desirable. We don’t know where this is going to land for Australia but it may not be good.

Unknown and uncontrollable events (like pandemics) and foreign policy changes aside, the quality of an education we give is simply not good enough when we have over 90 per cent of students from one country in a subject. And we can pretend that an IELTS score of 6.0 is perfectly good enough, but whilst we continue to teach in English, we will not have students comprehensively understanding what is being taught and being able to express their thoughts. Anyone who has ever marked an essay by a commerce student with IELTS of 5.5 or 6.0 in writing will know exactly what I mean.

Diversification into new markets

So, how do we dramatically increase the funnel so that we can recruit a truly diverse population of international students? We do know that the non-engagement-related costs of recruitment rises dramatically when you move out of six major markets. It is, as you would have guessed, lowest in China.

We know where the markets for international students are – they are in the MINT countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. These countries have rising GDP, rising bilateral trade with Australia, the largest global proportions of 18-24 year-olds, and education systems that are of a high enough quality to produce students with the potential to meet Australian entry requirements. But there are many other countries not too far behind that are excellent targets.

To further narrow then to Nigeria – the world’s largest youth population and an excellent target for Australia, being also in the Southern hemisphere and Perth being one of the largest international student hubs reasonably close by. Nigeria, as a former British colony, has a recruitment pattern that has been forged by the British Council. This is true in other African countries that are former British colonies, such as Kenya (another terrific target). There are established flows of students between the UK and Nigerian schools and universities. Australia has been the international star of recruitment using the traditional methods of agents, exhibitions and partnering with universities. These methods are required to seed influence and disrupt existing student flows to other receiving countries.

The risks are higher – agents carry significantly higher risks and I have had an agent abscond with all of that semester’s student deposits so he could pay for his father’s knee operation. He wrote a lovely letter apologising to the students – but still, it’s a risk. Similarly, the cost of visiting Nigeria safely is much higher. A better solution is in-country staff who monitor agents and represent universities.

I cannot see a much cheaper way of diversification until these markets have become part of a university’s 'regular' list of high-performing course countries. But it means that recruitment costs have to come down in other areas of the business. All this ecologically unsustainable flying around and staying in 5-star hotels with limos to and from airport lounges in order to recruit students from our large source countries – it’s simply unnecessary given the technology available to recruit students more directly. And at a time when an Arts student might be facing a 113 per cent increase in student fees – how can we possibly justify this pre-pandemic form of recruitment?

As Australian universities begin flying in small numbers of international students, technology must be used to do away with the old factory-style recruitment processes and instead, strategy, data analysis, and careful market seeding for disruption needs to occur if Australian universities are to be free of the risks of over-reliance on a small number of countries.

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Monique Skidmore has been a deputy vice-chancellor international at several Australian universities.

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