Breaking trends

Ted Underwood reflects on the year in international education and looks ahead to the opportunities and challenges to come

What do you do at Christmas time? Invariably it is a time for traditions, both personal and social. For me, I would feel December had been a poor loss if I had not reread ‘The House At Pooh Corner’ and sobbed my way through the final chapter when Christopher Robin is sent off to boarding school whilst my own children stare at me incredulously. But what purpose do these traditions actually have for us? The answer is in the marking of time passing and with that comes the process of reflection. With this in mind, I have scanned through the three Moleskine notebooks that I have used in meetings and for general musings this year to bring you my thoughts on international education in 2015 and some ideas on where we may well find ourselves in 2016.

UKVI are not getting any nicer

Let’s start with the bad news and get it over and done with, shall we? This year we were treated to the introduction of yet sterner regulations for English language tests for students. Students wishing to study academic courses in the UK on a Tier 4 General Student Visa now need to take a Secure English Language Test, essentially an IELTS test with extra supervision. So far, so dull. What really exacerbates the situation in this case is that IELTS, in all their wisdom, have failed to open a sufficient number of centres offering these tests worldwide. Whilst those of you who work in schools might feel inclined to shrug your shoulders because it doesn’t affect students under the age of 18, it is important to look at the UK education industry holistically. What hurts one sector invariably hurts all the others, even if it is just another example of the negative publicity we receive from increasingly draconian and downright senseless visa processes. To put it into perspective, this year has seen the governments of Australia, Canada and New Zealand all introduce measures aimed at attracting more international students. International students now enjoy far greater choice than they did five years ago and scenes of Teresa May snarling over a lectern at this year’s Conservative Party conference at the mention of international students aren’t considered welcoming in any culture. We need to brace ourselves for some serious trials to come in the next few years when it comes to global recruitment.

Brazil is the new India

Do you remember when India was mentioned in hushed tones at conferences as the new land of opportunity? I even went over there in 2014 and opened an office. Sadly, rampant corruption led to serious trust issues with agents and a market which is cost conscious to the extreme meant that other locations easily overtook the UK. This year almost as many Indian students went to Germany as they did to the UK and as an industry I think we can truly rue a genuinely great missed opportunity. Well, this year marketing strategists having been getting similarly giggly and nervous about Brazil. On paper, it looks pretty similar. A vast country with a strong developing economy and gaps in their education which prevent them from becoming the global power they truly aspire to be. I wouldn’t blame any institution from having a look around and seeing what they could get out of it. The problem is, just like India, knowing where to start in such a vast country and, similarly, if you’re going to get a foothold over there you will need your board of governors to sign off a fairly hefty war chest to get you going. Historically, the Brazilians have been fairly focused on the USA and English language courses, but my hunch is that UK summer schools, particularly ones which offer something a little different, such as a particular educational focus, could do rather well over there. You’ll need to brush up on your Portuguese, build a strong network of agents and offer some ridiculous deals at the start, but it might just be worth it.

Quality, not quantity

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s getting harder to recruit students, which means that international cohorts are going to get smaller. Of course the marketing spin on this is to claim that your school is particularly selective and only interested in the cream of the crop. This can have its advantages. Firstly, there’s the good old Cartier effect – if there’s less of your product to go round, people will assume it’s higher quality and aspire to getting their hands on a piece of it. This can be a particularly useful strategy when dealing with elite client groups in territories such the Middle East and Russia, where keeping up with the Joneses is a national pastime. Secondly, it means your prospective students are more likely to be genuinely interested in your school, which results in better conversion rates and less chance of visa refusal. Finally, it allows you to really focus on developing a bespoke experience for your international students and do something really exciting. Several schools are already going down this path with some interesting results. The truism of necessity being the mother of invention could result in us seeing some very interesting international programmes emerge in the near future.

Partnerships

The idea of boutique cohorts is all well and good for the educationalists, but I know it will have the bursars and commercial directors getting a little jumpy. After all, it can hardly be a good thing for revenue streams, can it? Play a long game and it just might be. Asia has long been a strong destination for setting up satellite campuses in partnership with local entrepreneurs and the demand shows no sign of slowing as yet. Simultaneously, other regions around the world are starting to get in on the act. This year has seen a sharp increase in the number of schools which have set sail for foreign shores and, more importantly, done so successfully. To my mind, this is where the future of the British independent sector lies. By providing a package of curriculum, ethos and accountability in situ, schools will secure their own financial future whilst still retaining creative control and the integrity of the core product. It may sound scary, but my advice is that if your school is even thinking along those lines it would be best to strike while the iron is hot. Good luck to you!

And that, as they say, is that. 2016 brings new challenges and opportunities for me too. I’m hanging up the boots of a freelancer and returning to the civilised world once again. I shall be taking up the post of head of international at Stratford-upon-Avon College, a lovely, busy FE College with some serious global ambitions. I’m afraid that this won’t leave me the time to do much in the way of writing so this is my last article for now. To everyone who has ever read an article of mine, possibly enjoyed it and perhaps thought a little about what I’ve written, I am very grateful. Thank you and goodnight.

Ted Underwood is a freelance consultant T: @TSUnderwood

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