Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with award-winning international educator and recruitment consultant Marty Bennett.
In our wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the state of international education and recruitment in the US, how US institutions might go about cracking the Chinese market, and what the future looks like for Chinese student recruitment.
Tell me a bit about you and your journey in international education.
Well, I have the distinct honour of being a former international student. I came to the United States from England. My parents are both British. I was born there and we moved to the states when I was only five. So that’s my origin story.
My first job out of college was working for my alma mater in the admissions office, and within a year my boss, the dean of admissions, asked, “Hey, anyone want to go to Germany and Switzerland for 10 days in November?” and I said, “Okay. Twist my arm. I’ll go.” So that’s where it all started, back in 1993.
It’s been a long ride, going on twenty-seven years now this July, and it’s been an incredible learning curve. I’ve been fortunate enough to recruit for four different universities in the US. I’ve also worked at an international school outside of London for a couple of years. I’ve been able to recruit students in over 70 different countries in the time that I’ve worked on the university side. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the State Department’s EducationUSA network, advising centres around the world. I also had the responsibility of building the global platforms for EducationUSA across the major social networks, and that’s led me to some incredible relationships with advisors and regional coordinators around the world.
After I left EducationUSA, I started my own consulting business, doing work with the British Council IELTS, CollegeWeekLive, IDP Connect, US News Global Education, and some other individual universities here in the US.
After such a long career in this space, how do you think that international recruitment has changed over that time?
Oh my goodness, it’s changed probably two or three times over. I think about when I started recruiting in 1993, our university had just gotten their own website up and it was very text heavy, with not a lot of interaction possible at that point. Digital marketing was not even a concept yet.
Then, as search engines developed and the world got better access to the internet, it brought a real shift from a print-focused marketing effort to a digital one. And 9/11 really forced universities to adopt a digital approach, because recruiters weren’t able to travel all the places they used to travel to prior to 9/11 just because of safety reasons.
In 2005, I was at Ball State University, which was part of a state consortium, Destination Indiana, with other state and private universities to rally our resources and present as a unified force to students abroad. We were still really committed to recruiting in the Middle East, but with an inability to travel there, we had to work out, how do we maintain contact with those students and show them that we still really wanted them on our campuses?
And that led to, in 2005, our first live-video college fairs. And this is just when Skype was coming online, and way before Zoom or JoinMe or any of that other fun stuff we’ve seen. This was something that was a priority for us as a group. We had six of our Indiana universities’ representatives come to our campus, and we connected with six different EducationUSA advising centres in the Middle East, from Muscat, Dubai, Kuwait, Amman, Gaza, Cairo, and Rabat.
So we were using a digital strategy to have some face-to-face time with these advisors and students. And that event blossomed into another two or three of those over the next two or three years that also went beyond the Middle East. But it showed the importance of changing up your strategies when faced with obstacles.
That’s interesting in the context of what’s happening in China currently with the various travel bans preventing students from returning overseas for their education.
Yes, I’ve heard that China is actually relaxing their Internet restrictions to allow the 100,000 plus Chinese students that should be in Australia to take their courses and access materials online, which is just incredible. But my goodness, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Australia and their universities.
Yeah, a lot of universities are struggling here. We work with a lot of Australian universities – around 65% of them use our technology – and they’re all telling us how hard they’ve been hit by the coronavirus travel ban. But it also shows the importance of being able to communicate to your students and in an efficient way through WeChat and your website.
Yeah, one thing US institutions are starting to realise is this overreliance on China and the lack of a proper long-term strategy for this region. Starting in the mid 2000s, they started to see that wave of Chinese undergraduates coming that hadn’t really been there in any numbers before then. But when that undergrad wave started building, a lot of those institutions – particularly the big state universities – didn’t really have to do much to attract them. They just started coming. And the universities saw the dollar signs, but they didn’t really understand the implications.
There are so many schools that saw their international populations more than double over the course of three or four years. And now that those numbers are starting to go down, the tuition revenue is also going down and that’s impacting the bottom line. And institutions are kind of rushing to the battlements saying, “Okay, what do we need to do to shore this up, we don’t want this to collapse on us.”
This is an interesting problem, because Australia has treated education as an export industry for quite some time. How you would describe the maturity of US institution in terms of how international education is viewed?
Well, this is the thing – in terms of how we treat international education from a strategic level, at the governmental level, that policy does not exist in the United States. There is no one international education policy.
We have the US Department of State that views international education as very much a public diplomacy tool: students that come study at our universities have hopefully a positive experience here, return home and become future leaders in their countries, which leads to better relations between our governments. And our students that go abroad have similar experiences, are (hopefully) good ambassadors for the US, and come back here better educated about the world outside their borders, outside their state even.
Our Department of Commerce very much takes the export industry view as Australia does, and sees it as something that contributes to our economy, and something we need to be doing more to encourage. But they don’t determine national policy.
And those are the two main bodies that have policy implications for how they do what they do. There is no overarching body that connects the dots between those two. Then we have the Department of Homeland Security, which determines the policies for entry into the United States. All of that has obviously gotten a lot of negative press in the last couple of years, as being reflective of the current administration being much more restrictive or anti-immigrant in terms of their tone and their policies. And some of the things that they’ve come up with have led to some very negative impressions of the US not a welcoming place for students.
In terms of the maturity level you mentioned earlier, I think that it depends who you ask. If you ask the presidents at some of these flagship state institutions, they see it in the larger context of their political environment where they have had declining budget support from the states where they’re located. They can’t just rely on in-state students. They have to go out and look for out-of-state students and international students, and the out-of-state portion of the bill has grown and grown to offset the decline in funding from their state governments.
So they’ve been forced to take the international student recruitment piece and look at it, not primarily for the cultural benefits or the societal benefits. They don’t really necessarily see the real value of having international students in the classroom. They see dollar signs first. Hence the all-in approach on Chinese student recruitment over the last decade, and damn the consequences.
The private universities that have large endowments, on the other hand – they are all for the societal, multicultural, and diversification benefits of having international students in the classroom and on campus. So for top private universities, there tends to be a much more State Department–like view of international education.
So how an institution responds will likely depend on the kind of institution it is. There are two primary ways in how they approach international education: a State Department view or a Department of Commerce view. And there may be blends between the two depending on the individual institution’s priorities.
I’d like to talk a bit more about China in particular. What research should a US institution do, where should they be looking, when they develop their China strategy?
Well, it all depends where their starting point is. For institutions that don’t have a footprint yet in China, in terms of an office or already-established university partners or a network of reliable agents that they’ve been working with for years, then it’s really about developing a network first and realising from people who are on the ground there what the options are.
For example, do I need to be looking beyond Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou? Do I need to be outside the consular cities? Is Chengdu (or whatever it might be) a region I need to be focusing on because they have a sister-city relationship with our town?
There are also the conversations that institutions need to have closer to home: What resources do we have on campus? Do we have any faculty from China? Are there others that have studied or done research with or in China? Are there partner institutions you can do joint-degree programs with as a way to help get things started? If you have exchange programs, can you use that for graduate programs?
If you don’t have partners, then it’s about getting plugged in with either EducationUSA and/or agents that you can trust on the ground.
Certainly in the last 10 years, we’ve seen the rise of China’s various social media apps and the exclusion of traditional US-based social media channels. One of the things I would always tell EducationUSA advisers is live where your audiences live. You’ve got to be where they are. At the time, and still today to a lesser extent, it was Weibo. WeChat wasn’t up yet, but that’s certainly risen to prominence over the last few years. I think having a digital footprint needs to be an essential part of any institution’s China strategy. Having locally hosted and translated websites, in addition to the social piece – that needs to be part of it. Having a physical presence too – you have to go there and have meetings with your agents or hold events at EducationUSA advising centres.
So a digital footprint, a physical presence and partnership-building need to be central components of a long-term strategy.
We’re finding that some less well-known or lower-ranking US institutions are finding it very difficult to crack the Chinese market. Do you have any suggestions for these schools?
I think having that kind of three-pronged approach, I mentioned earlier, to your overall strategy is a good place to start – having a digital footprint, having a physical presence and developing partnerships, whether that’s with institutions, agents and/or EducationUSA.
Then I would suggest breaking that down into a three-year plan or a five-year plan, saying, “OK, we’re going to commit to one trip the first year, two trips the second year; we’re going to commit this much to developing our social media presence through a third party in China; maybe in year five, if we’ve gotten X number of students, we can then look at opening an office in Beijing or Shanghai or wherever the largest concentration of students is coming from.”
I think these institutions also need to look beyond Tier One and Tier Two cities and look at the data in smaller cities. What are the numbers showing in terms of tendencies to consider non-top 100 schools outside of the top-tier cities?
You mentioned the importance of finding a partner network in China. Do you have any tools, tours or events that you would recommend for institutions trying to build such a network?
Well, for those wanting to go down the agent route, the only events that I have heard anyone have any lasting success at are ISEP (International Student Exchange Programs) events.
There’s also an organisation that started in the US in 2008 called AIRC (American International Recruitment Council), which is an American group that certifies agents. Typically, though, it’s only the big players that are part of this. You’re not going to get the mom-and-pop shops using them. They may be doing quality work, but you’ve got to pay a substantial fee (five figures plus) to get certified. AIRC has a conference in Florida every December, and most of their recognised agencies will come to that conference, so that’s a good way for US institutions to make that connection.
If they’re looking at tours, there are CIS (Council of International Schools), Linden and USEG (US Education Group). Those three groups have done tours in China for at least the last two decades, they’re reliable providers and they’ve got a good track record.
There’s also an organisation I was a part of when a state university called AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities). They had a partnership with CEAIE (China Education Association for International Exchange) and those two organisations connected their member institutions for partnerships, so my institution in Indiana had over the course of two or three years developed partnerships through these joint organisations. We developed these joint degree programs, or what we called one-two-one dual-degree programs, where they spent their first year in China, the middle two years in the US, and the final year back in China. So for us, it was having that kind of overarching higher-ed association that could help facilitate partnerships for us.
Then there’s NAFSA: Association for International Educators, which is kind of the United Nations of international education, you’ve got everybody under the sun coming in and selling their wares at their annual conference. There are a lot of country pavilions, and that’s a great way to connect with potential partners. But it’s also a place where service providers and agents will have booths to show you what they can do. So that’s probably the lowest cost way of doing it rather than having to go to China to find partners.
So there’s about three or four different ways that you can go about it when you’re looking down that partnership road. But certainly it can be a meat market.
Another thing that’s been coming up in conversations with schools is that they’re concerned about increasing visa rejections for Chinese students. How do you feel this will impact student recruitment from China long term?
In terms of policy, a lot will depend on the election in November. I think there are concerns with China in terms of intellectual property theft and espionage, and that’s led to an increased cautiousness about visas. The most affected by these visa processing delays has been STEM-related students. I think that’s an unfortunate part of the political tit-for-tat that’s been going on between the US and China on trade war issues. That’s all part of the larger milieu of the world in which we find ourselves in international education – outside events impact us daily, as we’re seeing quite clearly.
I think the numbers of new international students enrolling in the United States has been declining over the last three years, but the reasons for this aren’t all that clear. Some of that may be political, in terms of the rhetoric and so on that is turning off students. Some of that may be process, with students from China having hard times getting visas because of intellectual property and political concerns. It’s hard to parse what is perception and what is reality. In fact, State Department folks said at the AIRC conference in December that they actually in the last year approved more Chinese student visas than they did the previous year. So who knows?
But there’s definitely some larger issues going on that, unfortunately, international students oftentimes can get caught in the midst of. And I think long term, it can’t last longer than another four years.
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