Sophia Kirova

Asia-Pacific steps up ambitions to attract more international students

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Asia-Pacific steps up ambitions to recruit international students

Two components define the Asia-Pacific region like no other economic area in the world: Its heterogeneity and scale. When we talk about higher education in APAC, we lean on those dimensions to aid our understanding of its complexity to tailor our student recruitment strategies accordingly.

Comprised of large and significantly diverse populations, APAC is home to half of the world’s largest metropolitan economies. Unsurprisingly, the universities operating in the area have different education quality, a different maturity of internalisation, and different strategies for growth.

What harmonises the region, however, is its rising potential – and ambition – to compete head-to-head with the established players in the scene of international higher education – not only as an outbound destination, but also a receiving one. While international students already represent a significant proportion of the enrolments in Australia and New Zealand, other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are undergoing a significant shift in strategic focus: From sending students to study abroad, to also welcoming them on campus.

Attracting a larger and diverse pool of international students proves quite an undertaking in times of fierce competition among destinations. In an attempt to dissect the international recruitment challenges and propose strategies to overcome them, three university leaders from Australia, Malaysia, and South Korea joined Studyportals’ Rahul Choudaha, Executive Vice President of Global Engagement and Research, for a webinar discussion.

Demographic woes and political discourse in Asia-Pacific

Depopulation is one of the most troublesome developments affecting several countries across the Asia-Pacific. Following the menacing demographic crisis currently sweeping thought China – the largest economy and biggest exporter of international students globally, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan in particular, are experiencing a dramatic decline in birth rates. This is bringing forth worrisome questions about the economic and diplomatic outlook of the region. As part of the greater economic challenge, higher education institutions are facing the threat of insufficient number of youths to be educated.

Sean Kwan Soo Shin, Dean of Global Education Institute & Associate Vice President for International Initiative at NamSeoul University, South Korea, noted that the demographic decline has overarching implications for South Korean universities, affecting both domestic and international enrolments from key source countries like China and Vietnam, which account for nearly 80% of all international students at NSU. Consequently, diversifying the pool of international students and securing new source countries of international students is a top priority for Asian universities.

Attracting more international students is considered necessary to compensate for declines in domestic enrollments and to strengthen the international competitiveness of Korea’s education system.” New York Times

Even so, internationalisation and diversification are not a simple and straightforward answer. The demographic problem is deeper and will span virtually all nations by 2030. Earlier in 2018, a report by Studyportals identified aging population as one of the megatrends shaping the future of global higher education.   This means that universities must reconsider the profile of the international student beyond the traditional age-learners and at the same time explore new models of reaching adult learners through lifelong learning.

Adding to the concerns is the “impact of new political order [on student mobility] being wildly volatile and unpredictable.”, explains Tze Ay Chuah, Executive Director at QUT International. As most international students come from neighboring countries, the diplomatic agreements between the governments are crucial for effective student mobility. In reality, the flow of students among the APAC countries is sometimes stifled by policies. “The latest government change in Malaysia translated into tighter VISA controls”, fears Sarah Tate, Head of Marketing & Student Recruitment at the Heriot-Watt University’s Malaysia campus.

To stand a fair chance in the competition for international students outside the Asia-Pacific region, a lot of local universities are vying for global visibility and therefore proactively to make it to international rankings.

Successful recruitment strategies that stick with your institution

To increase the competitiveness of his university, Sean Shin of NamSeoul University, is focused on strengthening the existing international, English-taught programmes as well as opening in-demand Master’s in Business and Management and in the surging fields of VR/AR and Entrepreneurship. He is also betting on another strategy: Expert staff.

Invest in your marketing and admissions staff

As any burgeoning market arena, recruiting international students creates the demand for a set of skills and knowledge to be mastered by the university staff. Sean Shin is investing in training the university’s marketing and admissions staff to advise international students on the legal, housing, career aspects of studying in South Korea. Due to considerable language barriers, he is making sure his university employs faculty staff from the university’s target source countries.

In a slightly reversed fashion, Sara Tate is making sure her university is developing a recruitment team who work across Asia to expand the university’s reach. “Being boots on the ground and being out meeting agents helps to inform how we move forward.”

She uses the leverage of international partners to explore different market entry points, which also include agents. “My job is to make sure they have sight of up-to-date market intelligence and feeding back into our strategy.

Invest in student success

Student satisfaction and an end-to-end student experience sit at the core of Queensland University of Technology’s strategy. Tze Ay Chuah shares that a student-centric strategy has been instrumental to the international success of their university, and ultimately, the success of their graduates:

“Our strategy is responsive to the demands of Industry 2.0 and aligned with the goals of students – to succeed in a market where digital skills, management capability, creative leadership and entrepreneurship, and complex problem-solving are demanded”.

Leverage your most successful channels

When it comes to best recruitment strategies and ROI, look no further than your data, says Sarah Tate:

“67% of our students have first contact with us Online”, which is valuable for our budget as it is cheaper to reach students online. We are looking at Analytics to drive our online campaigns and digital campaigns and online engagement. At the same time, we are seeing a reduction in the way students are engaging with us face to face and traditional points of contacts. So, it’s about adapting to meeting the demands of our students and how they want to receive the information.

The evolution of key markets for Asia-Pacific

Uzbekistan has become a major emerging source country, sending a growing number of students to study in South Korea, notes Sean Shin. While the influx of international students comes predominantly and steadily from Vietnam, the University of NamSeoul puts high hopes on Pakistan, India, the Philipines and South Africa, plus the culturally-similar Japan and Mongolia.

Sarah Tate has identified a few segments for the Heriot-Watt University, with Indonesia leading in terms of numbers. The university is actively recruiting in China and India through local offices and the help from agents. Finally, significant interest from Japanese students to complete pre-sessional English programmes as a stepping stone to continue their education in the UK is encouraging the university to market their effort in that direction.

Tze Ay’s recipe is a 10 + 10 strategy, relying on ten proven markets and the exploration of ten emerging markets to maximize the diversity and well as the sustainability of the incoming student.

“A balanced portfolio strategy provides a buffer for the movements across the world”

After one has identified their market strategy, it’s all about how to win those markets. If we had to choose one word to summarise the advice discussed during the webinar, it would be Localisation – this includes content to penetrate specific markets, striking partnerships with local institutes and agents, and hiring staff.

Overcoming the challenges

Every challenge represents an untapped opportunity. The panelists concluded that, to future-proof international recruitment strategies, one needs to look for the fine balance between keeping priorities close to home, staying vigilant of political developments and taking advantage of them, and leveraging data to diversify the pool of countries to source international students.

How are you preparing your institution for the next years? Borrow some inspiration and listen to Sarah Tate, Tze Ay Chuah, Sean Shin, and Rahul Choudaha as they dig deeper into successful strategies to stay relevant for students and overcome the challenges of higher education in APAC – watch the webinar here.

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