• October 1, 2014

In the Global Competition for Students, a Country's Image Matters

Last year when reports about a possible tripling of tuition for British students were making headlines at home in England, they also became news around the world. International students began worrying that steep hikes were in store for them as well. Their concerns intensified when the British government said it was tightening student-visa rules and eliminating the right to work after graduation.

What those students didn't know was that those changes would have little effect on many of them. But in a world where social media move faster than government clarifications, the damage had been done; Britain was gaining a reputation abroad as an unwelcoming place. And the higher-education establishment had to scramble to set the record straight.

As global competition for international students intensifies, reacting swiftly to news coverage as well as to actual changes in government policy has become an essential part of successful international-recruitment. Perceptions, even when flawed, can quickly affect reality, and for leading destination countries, that can translate into lost revenue.

Australia, where international student recruitment declined steeply after an immigration crackdown and a reputational black eye from attacks on Indian students, offers the most telling recent example of the speed with which hard-won international reputations can be compromised.

Only now, some three years after the initial attacks that prompted a wave of negative coverage, especially in the Indian press, have the figures begun to rebound.

The number of student visas granted by Australia in the nine months ending in September was up 30 percent compared with the same period of time a year earlier. The numbers rose sharply for students from India and China, two countries where Australian recruitment efforts had been stumbling.

Still, many of Australia's universities have fewer international students this year. The most recent quarterly data show 208,079 such students in Australian universities, down nearly 7 percent from the previous year. In August of last year, the government introduced stringent rules that required many students to prove that they had enough cash on hand to pay for their entire course of study.

In response to a great deal of lobbying and an official review of that policy, the government has begun to ease those restrictions. Starting this month, some students will only have to prove they can pay for two years of their education, instead of three, which is the normal duration for an undergraduate degree. The government also says that, beginning next year, it will streamline student-visa processing for many students and ease restrictions on how much students can work, from 20 hours every two weeks to 40 hours.

Changes Pay Off

Even as Australia struggles to regain lost ground in international-student recruitment, others have seized new opportunities. Canada has moved decisively, both at the federal and provincial level, to increase marketing abroad, streamline recruitment efforts, and make the application process easier.

The changes are paying off. Canada's public-university system has seen an 11-percent increase in international enrollments over last year, to more than 100,000 students. At many universities, international students comprise at least 10 percent of the student body.

"We're seeing a much greater sophistication now by universities in developing internationalization strategies that combine student mobility, faculty mobility, and research collaboration in a targeted and prioritized way," says Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

"In the past, universities relied on individual interests. Now there's a much greater sense of a strategic approach."

He says a visit to India earlier this year by a delegation of 15 university presidents has brought about closer ties between India and Canada, with more follow-up to come.

Some of the biggest draws to studying in Canada are that both student and spouse can usually work while the student is enrolled and that there's a good possibility of working after graduation and becoming a citizen. The Canadian government has made it clear it sees today's foreign students as candidates to fill projected skilled-job shortages in its well-performing economy.

Britain has taken a very different approach, including students in its efforts to cut overall immigration numbers, despite objections from the university sector. It also eliminated what was known as the "post-study work route," which gave students two years to remain in Britain and seek jobs after finishing their programs.

So far the new hard line does not seem to have deterred foreign students. That may reflect efforts by the government and universities to clarify that the crackdown on the visa process is focused on weeding out bad-actor private colleges. And while a blanket right-to-work route has ended, the government is planning to replace it with more focused options for university graduates.

While the most recent official figures are for 2009-10 and thus do not reflect those changes, anecdotal reports suggest that enrollments this fall have continued to climb.

In 2009-10 the number of international students in Britain from outside the European Union rose nearly 12 percent, to more than 280,000.

This fall the numbers appear to be continuing to rise, says Joanna Newman, head of the UK Higher Education International and Europe Unit. "We're maintaining our competitive edge in terms of recruiting."

Karen Birchard and David Wheeler contributed to this article.

 


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