International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Research-based recommendations for HEIs

Last year I took some informal soundings with staff at UK HEIs. They confirmed a lack of guidance on embedding marketing into international campus development to ensure effective positioning and sustainable student recruitment. Investigating further, I could find no publicly available research or detailed recommendations covering this specific challenge.University of Reading Malaysia - artist's impression

So I decided to undertake my own research into the role of marketing in international campus development – with the aim of generating some useful (evidence-based) recommendations.

According to the C-BERT database, there are currently 235 international campuses worldwide. And there have been 29 campus closures to date. In some cases, closures have been linked to over-ambitious student recruitment targets (along with a reality that fell short).

Whilst international campuses remain a minority pursuit within the broad category of transnational education, each institution that commits to establishing an international campus is making a significant investment – in terms of time, money and reputation. A lot of groundwork is needed to give it the best chance of success – and this includes the embedding of a market-informed approach from concept stage onwards.

The research project

Structured interviews were conducted with eight UK and Malaysia-based senior managers (all with some level of responsibility for international campus marketing) at three of the five UK universities with campuses in Malaysia between November 2014 and February 2015.

The main output is a set of recommendations on effective marketing, communications and student recruitment (both during the development phase of a new international campus and once it has opened its doors).

One particular theme that emerged was the need for productive collaboration between UK- and Malaysia-based marketing teams during the development process and beyond. This requires proactive building up of mutual understanding, since each team is expected to operate within a quite different organisational culture.

Home vs international campus culture

One participant observed that negotiating the organisational culture differences between home and international campus can be just as challenging as learning to operate in a different national context.

At one extreme, the home campus is seen as the ‘parent’ and can be perceived as risk-averse, set in its ways and slow to make decisions: a typical large-scale organisation with long experience of operating in its home environment and a certain reluctance to adapt well-established processes and approaches.

At the other extreme, the international campus is categorised as the ‘child’ or, more specifically, a headstrong adolescent, experimenting away and rushing into decisions. This perceived behaviour is associated with its status as a small dynamic start-up business which needs to make its mark in a brand new market.

These ‘extreme’ positions rarely present themselves quite as starkly as this. However, there is often a difference in perspective from staff based at the different campuses. Through my interviews many of the UK-based interviewees emphasised the need for strategic marketing expertise, data analysis and research-informed planning. Meanwhile, the Malaysia-based interviewees tended to stress more strongly the need for local knowledge (about the regulatory and political environment), local market intelligence and practical student recruitment experience.

One participant suggested: ‘This may just be different ways of thinking about the same problem – e.g. understanding demand’. The challenge is to turn differences in perspective into drivers for productive and creative collaboration – and innovative new approaches.

Recommendations for productive collaboration on marketing the campus

A wealth of recommendations emerged from my research (and these will be shared via different channels which I will flag up in future blog posts). The key messages (and some associated quotations) relating to productive collaboration across campuses are as follows:

  • Foster a cross-campus team culture from the start – with a focus on two-way communication. Place strong emphasis on team-building and regular, open communication. Have members of the two marketing teams meet face-to-face as often as you can. Build a culture of working as one big team with commonly shared priorities and a willingness to help each other out.

‘Apportion time for staff to be involved both at home and overseas, and set aside time to build relationships – between the two teams at the different campuses as well as with in-market stakeholders’

  • Recruit the right people early and recognise the value of different expertise and experience. During the project phase, draw on home country expertise in marketing strategy and in-country expertise in local student recruitment. Appoint a strong in-country marketing and recruitment lead at least two years before campus launch. It may be challenging to find someone who combines local HE sector knowledge, student recruitment experience, strategic marketing expertise and an understanding of how UK universities operate. Decide what’s most important and provide the new appointee with a proper induction, ongoing training and support. Plug skills gaps from within the home marketing team or by outsourcing work to in-country agencies.

‘If you can get a really good strategic marketer on the ground early enough it will pay dividends’

‘Combine local knowledge and central strategy – use the central resource but in a tailored way’

  • Clarify – and keep reviewing – roles and service levels. Be explicit about respective roles and responsibilities. Where the home campus marketing team is providing a service to the in-country team, agree on service levels and turnaround time. Appoint somebody at the home campus to be a coordinator for international campus marketing requests. Regularly review the balance of roles and responsibilities: these will need to change over time as the international campus develops greater marketing autonomy.

‘In some areas a hybrid approach is needed. For example, we undertake design work in the UK but printing in Malaysia – this works out best in terms of quality and cost’

‘There was institutional evolution – co-evolution – going on in both places’

  • Create a jointly owned marketing and student recruitment plan. Keep at front of mind that all parties want the international campus to succeed as a strategic institutional development. If this overarching objective and a culture of open communication are firmly embedded, any differences in perspective can become drivers for innovative approaches. Local knowledge should be respected. A broad-based marketing and student recruitment plan should be developed which integrates activities led from the different campuses, coupled with clear accountability and agreed ways to measure success and report on progress.

‘Context really matters. There should be an effort to work across boundaries and take a global approach, but it’s important to be prepared to adapt to the local context when required’

Developing and managing an international campus is an exercise in collaboration – across distance, time zones, national and organisational cultures.

Whilst the recommendations included in this post relate to a specific context (the marketing of Malaysia-based campuses of UK HEIs), I would be interested to hear whether any of them resonate more widely.

If you’d like to discuss further…..

I’ll be at the British Council’s Going Global conference in London where I’m doing a Poster Presentation at 1445 Tuesday 2 June on 'Collaborating across organisational cultures to market your international campus'. It takes place in the Benjamin Britten Lounge on the third floor of the conference centre: poster PP3.07.

It would be great to meet anyone with an interest in international campus development – the theory or the practice!

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