Role of support systems in international student recruitment

This text should be appearing in September.
(C) MD 2012

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The current wave of globalisation affects the majority of nations, industries, sectors, individuals and institutions. Higher education has emerged as one of the beneficiaries (see: Hemsley-Brown & Oplatka, 2006; Altbach, 2007), despite an extremely complex process of change impacting national HE systems, supervising and regulating bodies, higher education institutions (HEIs), as well as their staff and students. A global market for higher education has emerged together with previously unseen pressures for change resulting from the emergence of new external forces alongside internal national processes, however the positives are seen to outweigh the negatives. Modern HEIs, until very recently seen as unique sources of knowledge and learning, are now facing not only international competition for students, staff and funding, but must also redesign themselves in an era of falling governmental expenditures, emergence of new centres of learning and knowledge generation as well as justifying their very existence in the face of stakeholder enquiry and media pressures.
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With challenges come opportunities. A major one takes the form of an open global market for international fee-paying students, increasingly seen as vital sources of alternative funding for universities (Heaney et al, 2011). This is especially important to national HE systems that are experiencing shortfalls in tertiary level entrant numbers (e.g. Poland entered a decade-long demographic low in 2010 with the number of new entrants being enough to fill places just at the 110 public HEIs that offer their education for free, leaving the 360 private providers fighting for dramatically reduced numbers of fee-paying students), redistribution of students resulting from a change in Policy (e.g. in UK, where the 2011 change in university fee levels has brought a fall in entry numbers as entrants reconsider the cost-vs-benefit analysis) or the operational costs have risen as a result of deregulation, forcing universities to face steep expenditure increases without matching revenues. Additionally, state budget cuts have impacted most institutions dependent on tuition and research funding from public sources. Academic financial planners know well that such students can be charged higher fees while presenting a large population pool from which selection can be made, and thus offer ideal opportunities for institutional revenue enhancement in the millions of dollars. For some nations, recruitment of sizeable cohorts of international students has become an important “export” industry (Knight, 2011), as is the case of Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada and USA – the global leaders and standard-setters in this industry. There, the benefits from presence of international students are immense – in 2011, the USA alone hosted over 560 000 international students who spent approx. 21 billion USD (IIE, 2011), while 500 000 foreigners studied at Australia’s HEIs, spending close to 17 billion Australian dollars (ABS, 2011).
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Recruitment of international students, those fee-paying and usually self-funded, has in recent years become a highly competitive business, where new entities join every day, be that nations or institutions, in the hope of redirecting part of the multi-billion-dollar flow of people to their campuses. The most recent entrants include Central European states, benefitting from their recent EU membership, Bologna-oriented HE systems and possession of own degree-awarding powers (DAPs) and a resurging South-East Asia with nations beginning to recruit from amongst themselves based on such competitive advantages as quality of education, close proximity, similarity of cultures and the presence of large diasporas from neighbouring states (observers talk about the emergence of new global regionalism in HE – see: Wei & Wei, 2009). Soon, time will come for even newer players – Central Asian republics (a good example is Kazakhstan with its ambitions for an internationalised HE system), Russia, South America, even Africa. Just as products crisscross the world, so will students, seeking the best, cheapest, most useful or prestigious education, regardless of its location. In response, at the level of nations, wide-reaching strategies are designed to facilitate recruitment, from state-funded marketing campaigns, through creation of university consortia aimed at optimising expenses and maximising effectiveness, to a rethinking and redesigning of visa and entry procedures (Knight, 2011). HEIs, be that public universities, private schools with degree-awarding powers, private colleges operating programmes awarded by other bodies, even language and vocational training institutions, are in most cases introducing internationalisation into their mission statements (Scott, 2006), developing marketable and specialised degrees, hiring staff and assembling marketing budgets to sustain large and prolonged campaigns aimed at the international candidate, still undecided about which university to choose. Simultaneously, in countries where English is not the national language, a lot of work is being put into building internationalised academic offers for students interested in learning in today’s lingua franca of academia, politics, media and business.
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It is here, at institutions located in non-English-speaking countries, keen to attract the sizeable community of students keen to learn in English, that a lot of opportunities are missed due to excessive focus on developing degree programmes, while forgetting about the difficult and resource-consuming task of providing the international student, often unable to speak the local language, with adequate levels of non-academic support. The development of internationalised academic programmes may result from a language conversion of existing degrees or the creation of new, often standalone programmes, designed by internal academic staff or with the help of external advisors. The pool of competent English-speaking academics is relatively large in most nations – existing staff may already possess the capacity to teach in English, new assets can be discovered in-house (e.g. people who have studied abroad, taught different subjects, never volunteered information about their abilities or have developed sufficient skills externally but alongside their involvement with the institution). Alternatively, external specialists can be brought in: hired outright for their ability to deliver multiple courses, recruited from neighbouring institutions or from abroad on per-course or per-semester contracts. When supported by adequate learning resources, a BA or MA programme is relatively easy, in organisational terms, to develop and deliver.
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What most senior HEI managers ignore, is the immense support system that also requires a conversion or sometimes even the development of various sub-units, focused on assuring a positive study and living experience for the international student. One reason is that, in most cases, the Presidents, Chancellors, Rectors, even Deans and Vice-Deans are a product solely of the academic environment and thus retain a focus on degree delivery and not administrative support (as academic qualifications and extended experience of teaching/research and management of them is a prerequisite for most senior posts). Another is more indirect – unlike academic staff, for whom engaging the outside community (local, national, international) is a prerequisite, administrative staff operate in a different environment and may, thus, be less capable of internationalising their activities, services, even mindsets. The level of foreign language skills is also much lower and more dispersed, due to the primary organisational focus on local students resulting in foreign language capabilities taking a less important role in the selection/hiring process as well as in continuous professional development (CPD). As such, any strategy aimed at bringing in and retaining sizeable numbers of international students must focus on building a strong administrative system to support the academic offer.
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Creating an effective administrative support system, requires focusing on a fundamental question: what does the international student expect? Four major issues can be identified:
1. International students that have consciously decided on studying in English in a non-English speaking country, are aware of the potential limitations of local staff and systems, e.g. they are not expecting an entire school oriented towards them and all operations in English.
2. Nonetheless, the students expect an adequate-to-good level of support, understood as at least one English competent individual working in university departments that have direct contact with foreign students.
3. Students see a strong correlation between level of tuition (and associated study costs) and the level of expected support – higher tuition calls for extended and more professional support, also encompassing a wider selection of issues.
4. Lack of effective support outside of the classroom is a important reason for abandoning the institution, regardless of the previously seen and accepted benefits of undertaking study in it. Alternatives are sought out in the same country (a search for better support, lower costs, better prestige) or the country may be abandoned altogether. Where leaving is impossible (e.g. due to visa restrictions or lack of viable alternative), negative word-of-mouth advertising will ensue, aimed at dissuading future candidates from making a similar mistake.
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When considering that even institutions in English-lingual countries must consciously design international student support systems (Heaney et al, 2009), the following conclusions can be drawn in regards to the provision of administrative support in non-English-speaking countries:
1. In every administrative department dealing with students, there must be at least one individual with appropriate English skills, to effectively interact with students not speaking the local language. English competency includes the ability to use appropriate academic and administrative terms as well as effective communication using everyday terms.
2. All documentation relating to the life of international students must be translated into English and made available, while administrators must be able to simultaneously work on documents in English and local language to avoid constant translations.
3. The administrative unit’s contact individual(s) as well as remaining staff must be made aware of intercultural issues, to assure that all foreign students are made to feel welcome (as even negative reactions from staff not directly involved are noticed by students).
4. Staff must be open to the challenges stemming from the presence of foreigners and understand that, as clients, they have the right to expect appropriate levels of service.
5. Local students must not be favoured or treated visibly better.
6. A truly minimal solution is the availability of a single competent English communicator and tasking him/her with participating in all interactions between international students and HEI departments. While this option becomes void with the increase of the international student population, it may be seen by some managers as a stopgap solution until proper organisational assets are developed.
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As a result, multiple units within an HEI organisational structure must be prepared for activities focused on the pursuit of, recruitment and support (assuring retention) of international students. In nations where English is not the primary language, consideration must be given to obtaining appropriate level of English-lingual communication amongst recruitment staff who, as the first point of contact between the university and a prospective student, must be able to properly and fully convey all essential and non-essential information, while using appropriate international terminology and maintaining a cultural sensitivity. At this point in time, effective interaction with enquirers assures a higher level of conversion from prospective to actual students. Where applicants are handed over from the recruitment office upon signing up, an intermediate stage (prior to Deanery/Registry tasks) is called for – active support in gaining visas, establishing travel routes, arrival and welcome, search for living quarters and all required registrations (at medical centres, security agencies, etc.). For non-local language speakers these activities can pose a sizeable challenge and negative experiences can easily outweigh the positive impression of the university, especially that classes have not yet began. Later, once academic classes start, such support ought to continue, assuring that issues of a non-academic and external to the university nature, do not negatively affect the international student’s experience. Once arrival and residence issues have been dealt with, students begin their learning process and come across various other organisational units: library, Deanery/Registrar, finance, sometimes even timetabling. Similarly trained staff must be present in those units, assuring effective communication and competent management of international student issues, competently integrating them into the wider student body.
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Provision of competent staff, able to support international students that do not speak the local language requires time, effort and financial outlays, either in the training of existing staff or hiring of new specialists. As a result, the budgets for international recruitment must take such issues under consideration as, in the case of substandard recruitment results (sub-optimal cohorts/groups), initial start-up costs can upset the financial calculations for the venture. However, when analysed from (and planned for) a longer-term perspective, the initial outlays on competent staff will generate a return through positive “word-of-mouth” advertising by satisfied international arrivals who will spread the information about proper administrative support, while simultaneously assuring client retention – efforts made to acquire international students will not be wasted by seeing them leave the university, unhappy with the environment surrounding academic instruction.
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Recruiting international students who cannot speak the local language is a difficult undertaking. The desired revenues, often needed to balance an institution’s budget, can be generated by developing a good academic offering. However, HEI mangers must remain aware of the necessity for creating appropriate supporting services, without which retention of recruited students will be difficult, once they find out that outside the classroom there is little or none support in the foreign language of their study. To assure that students are satisfied, additional costs and efforts must be factored into the development process and those, at least in the early stages, may upset the project’s budget. Successful recruitment of international students must be therefore seen as a long-term, strategic process, which will affect the entire institution.
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Literature

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