Thijs van Vugt

Diversification of Student Recruitment Markets


The ongoing global outbreak of COVID-19 is causing a huge stir around the world. Doctors, nurses and scientists are running at full speed to contain the outbreak and develop a vaccine. Nevertheless, it takes several years to develop a vaccine – not early enough to overcome the current outbreak.

Clearly, this outbreak is also affecting the world of international education. It is no secret that China has been the world’s largest source of international students. Countries like Australia, the US and the UK have been over-reliant on Chinese students for many years and they are now heavily impacted by the outbreak as many government responses are disrupting student mobility and limiting international travel. Search behaviour on Studyportals’ websites shows a decrease in the number of Chinese visitors since the Corona outbreak, but also an increase in the interest for online education, to name a few examples. And as universities around the globe have closed down, the need to move courses online is huge, which offers all kinds of threats and opportunities.

But, no matter how we look at this situation, it is about time that universities take the necessary measures to ensure more diversity on campus and online.

The Three Ds of Diversification

In 2008, the European Association for International Education (EAIE) published a book called Marketing Your Institution Internationally as part of their Toolkit Series, edited by Maurits van Rooijen and to which I was a contributor.

Besides the advice to spend about 50% of your time on internal communication and marketing and the other 50% externally, Van Rooijen also recommended the 3Ds of diversification as part of risk management: Geographic diversification, Academic diversification and Product diversification.

Even though most universities want diversity on campus, more often than not (university) marketers tend to look at the low hanging fruits and the easiest markets. Although this may reduce costs (where budgets are limited), it increases the risks quite a bit as one can become over-reliant on certain markets such as China or India. The trick, however, is to find a good balance between costs and risks, which should be a strategic, institutional decision.

Van Rooijen, who at the time was Vice-President of International and Institutional Development at the University of Westminster, mentioned that at his university the official guideline was that no nationality could make up more than 15% of the total international student population. This is what he called geographic diversification. Studyportals recently published two blogposts on how to diversify your student recruitment in Asia and Africa.

Academic diversification ensures that all departments offer degree courses that have a relevance and appeal to international students. That means that a university not only relies on cash cow courses, such as International Business and Psychology, but also on other, less popular subject areas, that may have growth potential towards the future. Studyportals supply-and-demand data shows that this is the case for, e.g., Food Science or Sustainable Development.

The third D of diversification, according to Van Rooijen, is Product Diversification, which is about the type of programmes a university offers: summer school, language programme, undergraduate or post-graduate programmes, on-campus or online. This is the product diversification.

So, the idea of diversification is to manage risks and be able to counter downward trends in one area with upward trends in another. For example, the current corona crisis is leading to all sorts of issues with the enrolment of international students because of lockdown and travel ban measures, financial problems due to the stock market crash and what not. Studyportals visitor data shows that the interest for online education has grown tenfold since 2014, whereas the supply of online courses has tripled. So, universities that have already invested in online education now have an opportunity to offset the (potential) drop in on-campus enrolments by a growth in online enrolments.

Two more Ds of Diversification

Besides Van Rooijen’s three Ds of diversification, I would like to add two more: Distribution of marketing channels and Defence against financial downfall.

Just as putting all your eggs in one basket in terms of target markets and subject areas is a bad policy, depending on only one marketing channel is also very risky. Any university marketer would be well advised to develop an integrated marketing communications strategy, meaning they distribute their marketing messages across different channels: online and offline, education fairs and agents, alumni and partner universities, etc., as well as a variety of online platforms: education portals, various social media, search engine marketing, etc. This is Marketing Diversification.

The fifth and final dimension of diversification is the one of a buffer to “defend” your institution against economic and financial downfall. Making sure that the university builds up sufficient reserves to deal with fluctuations as a result of a drop in student demand from a specific country or for a particular subject area. Or as a result of this current COVID-19 crisis. I call this Financial Diversification.

The Studyportals Analytics and Consulting Team and its associates have tons of experience in international marketing and recruitment for higher education, the development of marketing strategies that can help your university diversify more and the market insights to underpin those strategies. For client testimonials and to contact us, please have a look at our website. We are currently working with many of our clients to help assess the overall impact of pandemic responses and to find mitigation strategies and measures to face the uncertainty in the best possible way.

Studyportals Academy Webinars Series:

Studyportals Academy is organising a series of webinars in the upcoming weeks. We don’t like sitting idle at home so we hope that you can join us for these interactive sessions to learn, expand your horizons or simply take your mind of things for an hour.   

  • Covid-19 impact: risks, opportunities & coping strategies for International Higher Ed, Tue, 31 March (11.00 EDT / 16:00 GMT / 17:00 CET)
  • Diversification of Student Recruitment Markets, the Vaccine for Higher Education, Thursday 2 April (7:00 CET / 17:00 AEDT / 14:00 CST)
  • Marketing Data Analysis and Interpretation: The Beauty & The Beast – Coronavirus edition, Tuesday 28 April (09:00 EDT / 14:00 GMT / 15:00 CET)

See details on the upcoming Studyportals Academy Webinars Series.

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