The UK: a complex market for international universities

Guides / UK

Earlier this week I had FOMO: fear of missing out. A highly regarded international university held the launch event for their new London office and I hadn’t been invited. I later realised that I was not alone; almost all of the school and independent advisers in the UK who support non-UK applications had been missed off the list. Instead invitations had been sent to headteachers of ‘prestigious’ UK schools, most of which would have been ignored and not passed to the relevant staff member.

This reminded me of a similar situation a number of years ago, when a similar institution was flying teachers from many name-brand UK boarding schools out to visit their new campus in the Middle East. I first came across this programme at a conference: a teacher who had been told me something like “we’ll never have students apply, but they were paying everything and I needed a holiday.” Needless to say this trip became known on the UK school circuit as a bit of a jolly, while those of us at schools like the one where I worked at at the time, who did actually send many students to non-UK universities, were completely ignored for this programme. My emails requesting a visit did not get answered, and to this day I have not been invited.

Since then I’ve seen many international universities dip in and dip out of the UK, base staff here and then pull them out, commit to the UK and then fall away, while at the same time a select group of international universities have quietly, steadily and impressively built their network here. So why is the UK tough, and what do I think works?

The biggest reason the UK is hard, is that we don’t really ‘do’ college counselling in the UK. Most schools manage a university application process – UCAS – and we don’t have discussions about ‘fit’ beyond matching an academic subject to a set of predicted grades, and some sense of geographic preference. As a result, many schools in the UK don’t have people whose main job is to be a specialist in university admissions, and thus adding international applications and outreach to this is hard. Some readers may be surprised to learn that many schools actively discourage their students applying outside the UK, and will turn down requests from non-UK universities to visit their school.

Linked to this is the way that UK universities recruit. UK universities do not visit schools in the same way that international ones wish to: you can’t turn up to a UK school at a lunchtime and find small groups of students talking to a visiting recruiter. They will come and present to the entire year group, or perhaps attend an annual University Fair, but there is no tradition of high school visits. Thus when international universities request a visit, schools are sometimes baffled; many assume you want to speak to the entire year group, and thus say no if they think this a niche interest.

So for those of us who try to get access to students – both universities and organisations like mine – things are tough. Each school has its own calendar, its own events, its own days when their students are free. To get to each HE event involved criss-crossing the country: Monday in Oxford, Tuesday in Manchester, Wednesday in Brighton, Thursday in Oxford again, Friday in London. Then there are UCAS fairs, tours led by IE Week or The Student World, events run by HMC, GSA, COA, IF and the CDI, plus actual time to do follow-up, meet with parents, engage with schools and then have a life beyond actual work.

Given these challenges – and I haven’t even mentioned the issue of competing with a world-class university system which is free at the point of use – how do some international universities succeed? To me there is one ideal model: hire someone British, base them in the UK and give them the freedom and time to develop relationships with schools. In my trips up and down the UK, I run into colleagues from two universities regularly: the University of British Columbia and IE University. Both have British or British-educated staff, who understand the nuances of how the UK system works, who have the time to travel to schools and events, who have persevered in building relationships with schools and other organisations so that they get access to students and parents to explain what they have to offer.

To varying degrees, other universities now mimic this approach: they fly people over regularly, they have a British member of staff who takes the lead in their UK outreach, or they commit to have a member of staff here during the key periods each year. Though figures are hard to come by, from what I hear across my school networks there is strong correlation between the universities that follow this approach and those which get the most applications from the UK.

In this climate, it’s pleasing to see universities succeeding, but also disappointing to often see a great institution appear in the UK one year, have a hard time and never choose to return. There is a model which is working and which others can replicate – though perhaps the quicker option might be to hire one of the handful of university recruiters based here to lead your own UK and European efforts – and a community of school and independent counsellors ready to welcome more colleagues with open arms. And if anyone wants more detailed insight into how to build your university’s brand and network in the UK, please do get in touch.