We are facing a global pandemic. China and India, the two largest exporters of students, are still effectively locked down with no end in sight. And despite the optimism of President Trump, the USA seems to be only at the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak. This won’t be over soon and will affect some countries in different ways, and over different timescales.
This is critical for universities. Overseas student fees don’t just balance the books, they fund teaching and infrastructure and subsidise the world-leading research the UK is famous for. They also add massively to our culture and in terms of soft power they extend UK influence across the world.
University teams have not been out to market for those vital prospect meetings and events, and in-country agents are also locked-down. And advising prospects on the university and visa application processes is challenging if not impossible, especially when there is so much uncertainty.
The virus is massively disrupting visa processes and course applications and there’s no guarantee things will be back to normal in the autumn. Even relatively simple things like taking English language tests or planning for flights and accommodation is virtually impossible.
So, with countries in lockdown and planes grounded, what can universities do to secure those vital international students or to fill the financial gap they will leave? Many will increase advertising spend and ramp up conversion plans for later entry – see Turn prospects into students! – but here are some other ideas for you to consider.
Top tips for international student recruitment
Get your entry strategy right – With markets disrupted, universities need to urgently agree the optimum – latest – course start date for autumn 2020. Contingency plans will be vital including the option of a January 2021 start. You need to stay tuned into their markets as Covid-19 is progressing to inform strategic decision making. Given the uncertainty, your conversion plans need to be more flexible, ready to adapt to a much longer recruitment cycle. Make sure deferral is a clear and easy for offer holders. And don’t forget those deferrals need their own comms plan to keep them on board for 2021. Now would be a good time to have an alternative to UK on-campus courses, so explore new options like online courses or transnational franchise partnerships. As a minimum, speak to existing transnational partners about local delivery for students already studying on your courses abroad.
Support your agents and partners – Harness those international student recruitment teams. They have great experience and valuable relationships. Re-train them if required so they can virtually support agents and partners. Regular zoom meetings to check progress and deal with application queries will sustain relationships and build a sense of all being in this together. They are vital partners so keep them informed about any changes at your university, and if you make these short video updates, they can share these with their advisers. And make sure agents have the tools to do the job, like new creative content for their social media and digital advertising campaigns. Don’t forget your own digital channels. How about short videos from your team to explain university and visa application processes for students who might not be getting the normal support from agents? Not travelling, your international teams will have more time to devote to one to one advisory chats with prospects or along with colleagues delivering Facebook Live events – able to reach even more people now geo-gating restrictions have been removed – to answer questions. And remember content about how you’re looking after overseas students during the crisis will really demonstrate how caring you are and reassure worried parents that their children will be in safe hands.
Harness all your resources – As well as your international recruitment team, there is an army of potential advocates you can get on board. Mobilise the alumni, overseas academics and overseas partners in this crisis, to spread the word and support recruitment activities. Brief them on how they can support their university and create new, shareable digital campaigns and content to help them extend the reach of your brand and specific courses. British embassies and consulates are still delivering the GREAT Britain campaign so consider how you might partner with them and provide brilliant stories and content for key markets. And don’t forget national enterprise agencies like Scottish Development International with their global network of offices and the pan-agency international campaign Scotland is Now. Use your existing feeder network of international schools and colleges. Their careers service will be looking for opportunities for their students and may welcome offers of support, virtual events and new shareable content.
Exploit new opportunities – Think local as well as global. Your university may be the ideal solution for young people in international secondary schools looking to stay in the UK. And the same applies to overseas students currently on UG courses at British universities. So, develop very focussed digital marketing campaigns to encourage progression to a UK university or to study on a master’s programme or a PhD scholarship. And don’t forget the home student recruitment market. With the UK economy in recession and people re-assessing their future careers, the demand for postgraduate courses will increase. Review your portfolio now and target these audiences with flexible programmes through new campaigns that really sell the benefits of career change. If your university doesn’t have a global brand to fall back on, then play to your strengths. If you are nimble, develop innovative part-time provision or expand UG apprenticeship programmes. Or promote your flagship PG courses that have very clear USPs and attract a premium price. Not only will these help to balance the books, but they will extend the reach of your brand with a halo-effect for less popular courses.
When everyone is challenged simply by homeworking, and the natural worry about safety, it is easy to forget the future. Evaluate and learn from what you are doing now so you can build it into your plans. Delivered well, digital communication and campaigns are effective, reduce cost and are certainly better for the environment than international travel so consider how to build on these.
In such uncertain times, it will take a real collective effort to recruit students. But working together university teams can make a huge contribution, delivering the best outcomes for their institution and making a real difference to people’s lives and their future.
Take care and stay safe.
Martyn Spence MA (Marketing) FCIM Chartered Marketer