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US and UK universities skewed by their foreign recruits

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 27, 2016 12:32 pm    Post subject: US and UK universities skewed by their foreign recruits Reply with quote

In the inaugural Burton R Clark lecture on higher education at the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Global Higher Education, I paid homage to Clark’s classic conception of “The Distinctive College” and concluded that rather than moving to distinctive niches, British and American universities are managing differently to be largely the same.

This conclusion is based on research on universities in the US, UK and South Africa. The marketing efforts of the US and UK universities studied raise questions about the educational value and economic sustainability of the current business model in Anglo-American academe for most universities, which amid austerity measures that disinvest in public higher education incentivise universities to try to recruit international students as a revenue stream.

Competition among British and American universities is narrowly circumscribed both in the markets of fee-paying international students who seem to be their principal target audience as well as in the curricular and institutional missions they are featuring. It seems that 'entrepreneurial' competition to enhance university revenues and prestige entails not-so-strategic imitation more than it does imaginative niche-seeking.

Although they are situated in quite different settings with quite different strengths, all four UK and US universities studied are setting their sights on the same privileged populations of well-resourced students from China and India interested in the private purposes and consumption value of higher education.

The notable exceptions to this Anglo-American model lie in the South African universities studied. These universities presented their purposes to prospective international students in broad terms as serving various public interests. And, as regional hubs for attracting students particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa their recruitment efforts featured an 'Afropolitan' agenda that involved establishing an 'Afropolitan niche'.

In this way, they clearly evidence an orientation to regional student markets as well as to contributing to nation and continent building for South Africa and for Africa, partly by serving as an intellectual hub and partly by engaging in projects aimed at enhancing life in the region.

At the same time, the South African universities are quite similar to those in the UK and US in the form of their marketing efforts, which were image rich, glossy and promotional and much like the business marketing of any exclusive product or service.


Using a global positioning strategy heuristic to analyse the websites of six UK, US and South African universities, all with large numbers of international students, my study focused on the goals, positioning and strategies of universities in marketing to international students on their websites, which are a major source of information for students in the global marketplace.

In their goals, the focus of all the universities is to feature their rankings and qualities as independent enterprises, and to do so particularly in the fields studied by students in the dominant international student markets of China and India – business and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

In privileging students who are able to pay to play, universities are also privileging particular fields of study at the expense of the intercultural diversity and educational balance that is so important to educational quality.

In their positioning, there is a remarkable lack of niche behaviour linked to the distinctive cities, countries and regions in which the universities are situated, except to feature these as tourist destinations for consumption – for instance, for shopping, sport and other forms of leisure – and for experiencing a lifestyle that only well-off students can afford.

In the content backing up their strategies, British and American universities focus on enhancing the lives and mobility of individual students as independent enterprises. The emphasis is more on lifestyle than on academic rigour or transformation or anything academic other than (inter)national rankings.

The presentation used in the universities’ marketing material for recruitment is largely business slick without any business sense of the economic or educational pay-off of the investment in staff and services surrounding the recruitment and servicing of international students.

It is unclear whether investment in non-academic professionals and activities pays off in attracting these students. That could be particularly problematic for UK universities, which seem, on balance, to invest so much in this work at the expense of investment in the academic staff who are so central to providing the high-quality education that international students say is a key source of British universities’ comparative advantage.


The content of recruitment strategies is potentially equally problematic for many universities. Just as the supply of high quality, high-income students is limited nationally, the same is true internationally. At some point, and likely already for many universities, they will be chasing international students for the revenue they bring but at the cost of the quality of education that can accrue to the university.

In regard to the ongoing challenge of strategic enrolment management to achieve balance among various objectives in recruitment, universities seem to be driven primarily by revenue-seeking.

Last and not least important, the “academic capitalism” that is expressed in recruiting international students for revenue is turning universities away from their public purposes, including the public purposes of internationalisation that are aimed at enhancing the collective qualities of life for communities locally, nationally and globally.

Gary Rhoades is head of educational policy studies and practice at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona, USA. This article is based on his inaugural Burton R Clark lecture on higher education at the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Global Higher Education.
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