by Shola Adenekan
It may be mid-way through the current academic year for many universities across the globe, but in the boom-and-bust world of international student recruitment, everyday brings new and unpredictable challenges.
For international student recruiters, the quest is to find a rich vein of students from across the world, which will not only enhance campus diversity but also bring in much-needed tuition revenue and also burnish a university's reputation abroad.
Working in International Student Recruitment
Sandra Elliot knows about these challenges. She is the international development director at the University of Cardiff, a post which she has held since 2005. Ms Elliot's responsibilities include the recruitment of international students, helping to forge links with overseas institutions and enhancing the reputation of the university overseas. As part of her job, she often travels to far-flung parts of the globe, which, she points out, is not as glamorous as it might sound – Cardiff Airport at 5am with the prospect of 14 hours travel ahead is unsurprisingly dull! However, she says she would not miss the opportunity to see new places and meet prospective students and other contacts.
"This makes the job challenging at times, but one that is never boring," she says. "In any one day, I can be discussing a new link with an institution in China, finalising details for a trip to Malaysia, giving advice to a department on recruiting overseas students or reviewing plans for the marketing activity we will undertake in the year ahead."
Ms Elliot says that being in charge of overseas student recruitment is a privilege as she is responsible for more than 3,000 students at Cardiff University from over 100 non-EU countries.
The international student market is big business. Studies show that it is a multi-billion pound business for traditional student-destination countries such as Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. International student recruiters in these countries say that their profession is now more challenging than ever due to increasing competition for students from up-and-coming countries such as China, Singapore, Malaysia, and India, and some Middle Eastern countries. e-Learning and distance learning have become viable alternatives to traditional teaching methods in recent years, which presents an added factor. These issues mean new challenges and pressure for those marketing the university brand and for those responsible for recruiting students from abroad. Many in the field point to internal targets to increase foreign student intake and revenue.
"More universities are entering the market and are forming more partnerships with overseas entities, and also using student and academic exchange in order to make themselves known," says Ms Elliot.
It is a view shared by Brett Slatter, the international development director at Nottingham Trent University. He acknowledges that this increasing competition for students is putting pressure on institutions and student recruiters alike to communicate well with the market.
"Differentiation has become very important for many universities," he says. "Management of the brand is now more important than in the past, and so is the accuracy of the information and details we provide in our prospectus."
The Internet and the Overseas Student Market
Student recruiters also say that the internet has become an essential tool to their profession. They now have to engage with new media technologies in order to reach as many students and parents as possible. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, are being used to connect with potential students, in addition to building stronger relationship with sponsors and overseas governments.
"We are looking at our budget and also looking to maintain our market share," says Ms Elliot. "Our main focuses include providing excellent student experience, during and after the university, so that they'll leave with a positive outlook about Cardiff and Britain."
Both Ms Elliot and Mr Slatter say that recruiters are now working more closely with faculties and academics, and taking part in collaborative programmes overseas.
Building Town-Gown Relationships
Cardiff and Nottingham Trent universities are based in culturally and racially diverse cities. But when classes begin, a new foreign-student community can pose a particular set of challenges for the faculty and staff. Officials can find themselves restructuring course schedules, searching for advice about a country's cultural practices, and trying to ensure that the new students avoid a rough landing into campus life. The burden of expectation is also placed on universities across Western Europe and North America to monitor religious radicalisation among students, as many western governments seek to fight terrorism.
The two universities, like many in the UK, say they are always working with their local communities, with students doing voluntary work and with other universities to inform people of the benefit that foreign students bring to the area. Ms Elliot says she has tremendous admiration for the students who travel thousands of miles to commence study in a strange country, especially when, for many of them, it is their first time in the UK. The university of Cardiff always tries to make the transition as painless as possible.
"But there are always issues," she says. "Be they financial, adapting to a difference learning environment grappling with English or just the weather! I'm always amazed at how many global events have an impact on my daily job. As the reputation of Cardiff develops overseas through research, partnerships and the flow of international students, it makes the role more challenging but also more rewarding and ever changing."
Integrating Overseas Students
Ms Elliot points out that her team works closely with the university's Students Union in integrating international students into the main body. The team also works with Host UK so that overseas students can live with UK families for a few days and have a first-hand experience of the British way of life. They also give seminars and talks on culture shock issues and have a budding scheme where new international students engage with local or older international students.
For Mr Slatter, who has previously worked at Monash University in Australia, where he had responsibility for the recruitment of international and domestic students, helping the local community adapt to living with foreign students involves working with the different ethnic groups in Nottingham and also working with the City Council and the East Midlands Development Agency.
"We also provide careers advice as well as language support and teaching assistants for all our students, in addition to giving on-campus accommodation to new foreign students," he says.
Mr Slatter and Ms Elliot advise others in the field to prepare for new challenges due to constantly changing immigration rules, political upheavals and the global economic downturn.
"You need to adapt fast to these changes," says Ms Elliot. "You also need to build flexibility into your plans and engage with overseas governments on a number of different levels outside of student recruitment."