International Student Recruitment Recipes for Success: Are Third-Party Providers the New ‘Special Sauce’?

With the growing complexity of university admissions, higher education institutions (HEI) are urged to enable their international recruitment better and more efficiently by partnering with third-party providers. The “we can’t do everything” mindset is beginning to seep into conventional thinking, particularly as institutions deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


“We can be more agile, absolutely. We can work in a way that NASA was able to put a person on the moon. We need this blend of public-private partnerships going forward,” said David Pilsbury, former deputy vice chancellor – international at UK’s Coventry University, at a webinar on third-party providers organised by MSM last October 14, 2021. 


What will make these third-party partnerships work to increase international student base and diversify campuses? 


Implement Checks and Balances


It is “absolutely essential” that an institution has in place internal checks and balances to make sure they are making prudent decisions, said Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International (UUKi) and with over 20 years of experience working in higher education policy and politics at national and international levels. 


The objective of growing international enrolments has to be balanced against the need to maintain licenses, compliance, and entry standards to preserve reputation in many cases. Part of this, Stern added, is ensuring a balanced student cohort. “Institutions also need to be thinking long-term about how to balance international and domestic admission, especially with the ever-rising 18-year-olds in the UK population,” she said, citing the need for the “right framework for intelligent decisions.”


Look for Shared Vision and Values


The institution and third-party partner should share values in terms of educational outcomes expected for young people. 


Prof. Ray Priest, international director for Asia Pacific at the University of West England, has visited educational institutions in more than 80 countries and has been involved in transnational education programmes with HEIs in China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Asian countries, enabling him to work with providers from a wide range of backgrounds. Key to his decision-making in choosing one, he said, is the shared goal of meeting the students’ needs and strong relationship building between the parties as well as agents and partners on the ground. 


“Established relationships — I know it’s a cliche, but the reality is that it’s at the core of making decisions. If your values are not in line with the third-party companies, you have got to be on a rocky road,” he said, highlighting effective communication, common financial modeling, and research on the measurable outcomes of the agreement. 


Follow the Strategic Plan You Have in Place


The third-party plan should also align with the international office’s overall strategic plan. For Priest, working with a third party like MSM Global Marketing Office (GMO) for some of their target territories happened to be an extension of what UWE is already trying to do anyway: having in-country staff and pouring attention to the outcomes, to name a few. At the end of the day, how do the third-party services fit into the strategy of the university? 


It’s not just about strategy, too, but how the third party can deliver new skills and demonstrate sustainability.


Use Data to Your Advantage


Step up and partner with people who are interested in developing algorithms and tap into the power of artificial intelligence for data-driven recruitment, urged Pilsbury, today the chief development officer at global education group Oxford International. “I know there is a large skepticism in the sector about this, but digital is impacting every industry and transforming business. It is coming. The question is, what are we going to do about it?” he said. 


It is also crucial to consider the longstanding relationship with more traditional agents and how the landscape will evolve with more third-party organisations developing AI-based solutions, said Stern. What data will do for students and where they will choose to study, what universities need to do differently, and how data improves on underperforming areas and drive positive outcomes are just some questions to answer, she added. 


Think Long-Term


At the end of the day, according to Stern, institutions have to trust the organisation they are working with. “You have to understand what is driving them, what they consider to be a success, and be very mindful of the risks that the institution carries,” she said. 


Universities are also encouraged to look at fellow institutions, learn about their experience in the last five years, and make sure to understand how they got to their current enrolment levels and recruitment success. In an industry faced with new and upcoming trends, many new providers, and a wealth of data and information, the experts agree: think long term and expect it to be a long game. (ANDREW DISBURY)

Andrew has a 30-year career that combines an academic background in international business with education leadership and management experience in China, India, Scotland, and England.


He has held several different positions that include Pro Vice Chancellor for Global Engagement, International Director, Admissions Director, and Principal Lecturer at four British universities. He also served as the British Council’s Education Director in China. Andrew has been a member of MSM’s International Advisory Board since its inception. 


His areas of specialization include student recruitment, customer journey improvement, and enhancing enrollment numbers; developing, implementing, and reviewing education strategy; multi-office team development and management; and diversity and inclusion both in staff management and customer service.


Apart from his track record of participating in national committees, Andrew is an active member of the European Association for International Education, currently serving as the chair of its Awards and Talent Committee. As a student, Andrew benefited from international exchange schemes that allowed him as an undergraduate student to study in China and France.


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