4 Lessons on Student Recruiting From Australia

These lessons, which also apply to schools with an interest in Vietnam, are excerpted from a 21 August 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article.  They are based on conversations with administrators at a number of Australian universities.  One of the key points is that international student recruitment must be a part of a broader internationalization strategy.  As Simon Evans, pro vice chancellor for international at the University of Melbourne, put it, “The international element of this university is not built around student recruiting.  It is built around everything that we do.” 


Diversity. The shopworn slogan of real-estate agents is that the three most important things in selling a home are location, location, location. The word that should probably be repeated three times for institutions interested in international-student recruiting is “diversity.” Universities can find it relatively easy to build a pipeline from a single country, especially a populous one like China, that provides a quick and rich student flow. But many of the students, especially if recruited by the same agent, may be interested in the same areas of study, such as business. “Scale makes you create large funnels into narrow areas,” says Sharon Bell, deputy vice chancellor for research and international at Charles Darwin University, in the Northern Territory. Recruiting agents, she says, are motivated by repetition­­. It is easier for them to keep sending Chinese students who want to major in accounting than to find one student interested in environmental engineering, and then another one in music.

A strong flow of students from a single country can become a dry gulch after an agent goes out of business or a diplomatic freeze between two countries ices over student visas. Iran was the largest exporter of students to the United States before 1979, when the shah was overthrown and an anti-American government took over.

Diversity in international students, like diversity in financial investments, helps protect institutions in downturns and makes them more likely to have a net out to catch students in the right places at the right times—such as when a country’s government decides to rapidly increase the number of students it sends out on full scholarships. Think Saudi Arabia.

Partnership building. Australian universities with high student diversity attain it by painstakingly building relationships with trustworthy people and institutions, such as secondary schools that graduate well-prepared students­—”international schools” located around the world that serve professional families and teach in English are one source. The use of agents has become highly controversial in the United States, in part because of concerns that commissions, not students, are the agents’ highest priority. But Australian institutions say they use agents whom they have carefully vetted. “You need an agent to give you more than names and addresses,” says Chris Robinson, associate dean for international at Victoria University’s faculty of business and law, which serves a student body that is 50 percent international. The agents, he says, help students fill out applications, apply for visas, prepare for travel, and let them know how much money they will need.

Joint-degree programs help institutions generate international students. The University of New South Wales, for example, shares an engineering program with students at Thammasat University, in Thailand. The students study for two years at Thammasat followed by two at New South Wales, paying for only two years of the more-expensive study time in Australia, rather than the four years that it would take them if they started at an Australian institution. Thammasat, already well-regarded within Thailand, gets some international clout for its affiliation with the University of New South Wales. The Australian university gets a steady flow of Thai students. Such niche partnerships are labor-intensive, says Jennie Lang, pro vice chancellor for international programs at New South Wales, but worth it.

Remember your alumni. It’s far from an Australian secret, but alumni are great “brand ambassadors” when they return to their home countries. Australian universities have invested heavily and regularly in surveys of the “student experience,” using feedback from the surveys to make sure students get the information and support they need, from well before they show up at an Australian airport until they land a job. Later, universities can actively prompt alumni to refer potential students back and interview them for admission. “Good word of mouth makes for good repeat business,” says Allison Taylor, executive director of international at Macquarie University.

Invest in student safety. An emphasis on safety when recruiting students can be a red flag to them and their parents. With the exception of subtle photographs of quiet, green campuses, it is hard to actively use safety as a marketing plus. But a reputation for safety is important to the parents of prospective students. An attack on a foreign student gets intense publicity in home countries like China and India in a way that is hard to imagine for many Westerners. The viral way in which bad news spreads can result in sharp downturns in student numbers.

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