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Challenges of student recruitment in Europe – what does it mean for business schools?

The old continent is famed for the quality and accessibility of its higher education sector. Yet, it is not immune to political and financial influences, and the past years have seen their share of such turmoil.

According to a report by Studyportals, the number of globally mobile international students has been on the rise and is projected to reach 6.9 million students by 2030—an increase of 51%, or 2.3 million students, from 2015.  And yet, at a deeper level, attracting international students is becoming increasingly competitive and complex. This is especially true for nuanced Europe given it comprises 30+ countries with different domestic policies. It is challenging to look at Europe in terms of market entirety: Here, we observe a unique mosaic of high tuition fees and free education, state and private universities, EU and international students’ policies, various immigration procedures and varying degrees of international focus.

In a recent webinar with university leaders from four European countries, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Sweden and France, Studyportals took a closer look at the current challenges for student recruitment in Europe. These challenges expand beyond those of the institutions represented and influence the entire higher education landscape in Europe, including business schools.

Setting the scene for business schools in Europe

To talk about what the future holds, it’s useful to look back at history and the patterns that shaped the nature and direction of student mobility in the past.

Against the backdrop of the Three Waves of International Student Mobility, Rahul Choudaha suggests we are at a time of new political order characterised by nationalistic sentiments and unfriendly policies which resist the incoming student waves. Even though the demand for a growing body of international students is there, the climate is not welcoming.

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The factors we see impact the context of higher education today are the following:

  1. Tightening of post-study work rights
  2. Increasing tuition fees
  3. Devaluating currency in emerging markets
  4. Intensifying competition for student attention
  5. Growing demand for the “value for money

The first effects of the new wave of international student mobility can be seen for instance in the 2016 drop of non-EU enrolments in UK business schools, partially influenced by more restrictive post-study work visa measures, or the increased popularity of one-year business master’s degrees as students search increasingly for value for money, or the flat applications for graduate business studies in 2018, where European universities only saw an increase of 3% of applications compared to 2017.

What can European universities and business schools do to overturn the effect of the above while still being relevant for the mobile-first student generation? The collision of national policies and business school goals almost inevitably sets a course for a new strategy and a sense of urgency to act upon it.

Strengthening industry ties as a response to restrictive post-study work visas

For instance, the University of the West of Scotland reacted to restrictive post-study work visas by tightening industrial links and embedding them through the university’s courses to produce work-ready graduates. The same strategy can be applied to business schools as well, where employability is an even stronger motivator for students to pursue a business degree.

Preparing for changes in student mobility flows

While Brexit is often seen as a British problem, changes in student interest can also influence other countries. During the same webinar, Joachim Ekström, Head of Student Recruitment at Uppsala University noted that institutes in Sweden have been experiencing “an enormous and unexpected increase in the amount of international, non-EU students last year, likely a result of the Brexit effect.” Preparing your business school for similar trends is a good way to stay ahead of the curve and avoid possibly becoming overwhelmed by increased applications which can negatively influence student perceptions of your school.

Shifting perspectives from key markets to key segments

While some business schools still have a few favourite countries to recruit students from, especially as visa restrictions for certain countries are problematic, often times, the business schools that perform best in attracting students are those that are looking for a specific profile, rather than a specific nationality.

Private universities like the American University of Paris (AUP) prefer to centre their recruitment around the student profile rather than certain markets. Tim Rogers, VP and Director of Enrolment Management at AUP, says that for him the segment trumps the market: “Overcoming the barrier of being unknown and having higher fees means making a very clear decision on the type of student you want and will invest in. Students who apply to the AUP are graded on a scale for being the best fit for the institution. And that scale combines academic background and internationality”.

As far as strategy goes, Tim shares that the AUP would look for schools and locations with high adoption of international curriculum, the highest concentration of international schools or the highest concentration of mobile students.

Focus on real connections

“Students see through marketing messages – they don’t believe our corporate videos, don’t trust us when we write stuff on our websites or share cute videos. Broadcasting live things that are happening in the university are engaging, fun to watch, and authentic. It’s hard to fake live.” This is especially important for students investing hefty amounts in a business education.

The significant investment that is studying abroad is also proportionate with student’s high expectations. Students demand more value and attention for their money which is pushing universities to offer live support and personalised communication. “Human contact” is the key word we hear from Tim. “When you charge a large amount – and that’s a warning for everybody – students want more face time, they want to meet a representative.”

“I would never have thought that education fairs would become so effective having done them for the last 30 years, more so that they are becoming an institution like this.”

How is student recruitment changing at your business school? Let’s engage in a conversation through the comments below.

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