Aiming higher

Schools can learn valuable lessons from how universities recruit international students and make connections, says Ted Underwood

There are certain events which punctuate the year for all of us. Shifts in our conscious which are like seasons, indicating the passing of time, jobs to be done or thoughts to be thought.

For you, gentle reader, it is most likely that your year starts in September and ends in July. My uncle was a housemaster at Bromsgrove School and used to disappear with my aunt, cousins and sometimes even me to France every year with his VW campervan for the summer. There, he would pass the days in a vin de table-infused haze of campsite cricket and fruit picking before returning at the start of September. It’s what made me love France and want to be a teacher.

Now, before you all jump onto Twitter and bombard me or, worse still, IET and its brand new shiny editor with robust commentary on just how hard work teaching is these days and how you’re sick of all your friends joking at dinner parties that you finish work at 3.30 every day, may I just say first that my uncle retired over 20 years ago. I am, of course, speaking of a bucolic age long gone. The point I’m trying to make is that in education our calendar runs a little different to everyone else’s. Further examination will reveal that within that push-me-pull-you rhythm of terms and holidays we all have our own particular bench marks. For the head of rugby it will be the Daily Mail Cup Final. This, in turn, will go barely noticed by the maths teacher, all sweaty palmed and bright-eyed with anticipation at the thought of another Maths Jamboree in February.

One of these for those of us in international education should now be the EAIE annual barometer in April. The EAIE (European Association for International Education) is a membership group for anyone working in international education across Europe. Whilst its main body is made up of those working in higher education institutions, I find a great deal of what they say and write to be relevant to schools. International students may grow up and go off to university, but the issues surrounding them for recruitment, retention and development remain pretty much the same.

The EAIE Barometer is a new report which aims to take a snapshot of how the land lies for international education and its development across the EHEA (European Higher Education Area) in 2015. Whilst the respondents to the questionnaires which inform the study are overwhelmingly involved in HE and from all across the EHEA, I feel it genuinely has something to offer independent schools here in Britain. Ultimately, we ignore the trends in how universities internationalise at our peril. They have vast resources at their disposal and if we just all pay attention, they can do a lot of the hard work for us when it comes to working out what works and what doesn’t at a strategic level. Now I would be a pretty unpopular columnist if I just told you to go and read it, you’re all busy enough already, so to save you some of the hard work I thought I would summarise it here:

1 International education isn’t just about revenue generation

When I first read these findings, I allowed myself a cynical chuckle. UK universities are notorious for treating international students like cash cows and treating them little better. But this is a report concerning institutions from across the whole of the EHEA. A great number of them do not make significant financial gains from recruiting international students over domestic ones, preferring to take a more long-term view that if they can snare the best brains in the world and then encourage them to stay, then the quality of their research rises accordingly. This leads to me to believe that the report might just be telling the truth when 56 percent of the respondents reported the primary reason for attracting international students (and staff, for that matter) was to improve the quality of education as whole. If they are sincere, then this can only be a good thing. Internationals can be a useful tool in the classroom to raise standards. Imagine if your most able British mathematics students were partnered up with those quiet, studious Vietnamese in the corner who happily churn out A grades in mathematics. Surely, this would not only help with integration but also help the domestic students to raise their game. I imagine this is being done in a good many places already, but it’s worth considering. Playing to your students’ strengths is nothing new.

2 Institutions with a targeted and planned international strategy do better

And not just in international areas. Those institutions with a thorough international strategy are rather more likely to have a thorough strategy for everything. What’s interesting here is the idea that internationalisation is being embedded into institutions’ strategy as a whole. Can you say the same for your school? If we look at internationalism in the same way that we look at literacy, numeracy and reasoning, essentially as a part of what we all do day in day out, then it becomes a far richer experience for everyone.

3 It’s all about quality

HE institutions are now all about quality rather than quantity. They would rather spend their resources on developing sustainable partnerships with other universities to develop exchanges, dual registered courses and secure routes for postgraduate students than stay on the agent merry-go-round. This to me makes a lot of sense. You can take that 10 percent every agent charges for every student and invest it in face-to-face time with institutions similar to yourself abroad. This could result in students coming for sixth-form study, one-term exchanges or a fruitful summer school market. Whilst I certainly wouldn’t advocate tearing up your agent agreements tomorrow, it’s worth considering other ways of growing your international cohort in a way which will ultimately be more rewarding and potentially just as lucrative. 

For those of you who would like to learn a little more, pop along to where you can download a full copy of the report and find out a little more about what EAIE get up to. The rest of you now have enough to at least bluff your way through that next strategy meeting, good luck!

Ted Underwood is a freelance consultant: @TSUnderwood    

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