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The challenges facing international higher education student recruitment

Rufus Spiller Creative Director (AsiaPac)

HE workshop in Singapore

Last month,  Cory Hughes, our head of Hong Kong, and I ran a workshop with Pacific Conferences on Marketing Strategies for Higher Education Student Recruitment in Singapore, based on a future vision from our Digital Campus report. We took the delegates through a series of tasks to define opportunities for business transformation. Big stuff. Any of our clients who have been through this process with us on a project will know that this is a pretty huge undertaking usually taking over a month and incorporating feedback from many stakeholders. So, doing the same thing in two days with multiple businesses was always going to be pretty intense.

In preparing for this workshop Cory and I used our combined knowledge of the Precedent user experience insight processes to create a workbook that broke each task into a manageable exercise. This alone was a fascinating way to break down some of the fundamental processes that we use to understand and bring about organisational change through digital on a daily basis. Ultimately the workbook broke down into;

• Current Objectives
• Audience Identification
• Persona Creation
• User Expectations
• User Journey
• Developing a Strategy
• Reviewing Opportunities

Ultimately, leading the organisation from the existing business state to a future vision by way of a focus on the user.

We settled in our well air conditioned conference room with educational institute marketing delegates from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, China, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia and got down to it.

Similar challenges transcending international boundaries

The first thing of note was that each of the opening challenges facing the delegate institutions were similar. While almost every education client we engage with has a unique position, the holistic opportunities are often aligned with the overarching industry challenges; the basics of student attraction, academic retention and ongoing funding. These can often be masked by localised competition or internal institutional priorities but the essentials are, rightly, almost always the same. How can we attract the best students, academics and funding appropriate for our unique educational offering and therefore be seen as the premier destination for our target market?

Past the similarities of the opening challenges come the biggest differentiators and, with this, the biggest challenges of the workshop. Where Precedent usually work with one organisation we are often dealing with a relatively small target audience (even when someone claims to be targeting ‘everyone’ it is rare that this does not mean a few discreet but wide groups) but here we were looking at almost every conceivable educational target from parents and primary education to further educational research and post education alumni.

Running an audience KJ exercise has never been so wide reaching and varied (or so difficult to keep silent!). I think we could have covered the entire room in post-it notes and still have need for more space. From a positive point of view all the assembled organisations either had, or had understanding of, personas, therefore when we asked them to select one audience type to develop we were able to generate a rich, interesting user pool. It was at this point we realised that we needed to focus on each delegate group as a separate entity which made things really interesting for Cory and myself. From this point onwards we were running ten micro consultancy workshops concurrently.

Sketching the user’s journey

From the audience identification and refinement we moved on to building individual user stories. This part of any workshop is always fascinating because you begin to learn about what the organisation thinks happens to users in a specific situation, this is also the first time that we can unleash some creative thinking. I usually start these sessions with a pep talk about everyones innate ability to draw. As a side note I do believe that everyone can draw, it is simply the case that we are discouraged as we get older and this becomes an ingrown belief that we cannot. Sadly this belief is so ingrained into society these days that in exercises like this I am often the person who holds the pen and therefore sometimes I worry that we lose some additional character from the exercise. This aside we had some great moments; the team who wanted to start their user journey ‘pre-conception’ will always be a stand out (thankfully they did not want to include birth as a possible ‘pain point’). My favourite user story was around the Chinese school leaver user which went something like this:

‘While the student is studying for GAOKAO (the Chinese final exams) most likely their parents will have applied to all of the top universities in China on their behalf. At this point the student is aiming for grades that will get them into any institute on this list. When the results come out and if they have achieved good grades, they will automatically be sent offer letters from ALL the institutions. They then have two days to make the massive life decision on where they want to further their education. The clock is effectively ticking and it is a case of first come first served, so if your post goes missing or you are a little unsure you can easily miss your spot. On the other side of the coin, if you do not make the grade or miss your window for the top tier, you have to find an institute that will take you within around ten days or all the alternative places will be filled. This is where our organisation can come in and offer a safety net as they will often not have considered us but we offer a competitive standard of education.’

This was a very pragmatic story, one where the institute knew it was not first on the list but they could offer students something of value right when they needed it. So the challenge became an exercise in ‘just in time’ marketing to this user group and reduction of the barrier for decision making so institutes can reap this potentially huge customer base. From this lots of interesting ideas around SMS and email marketing started to surface.

This was the kind of insight and solution that Cory and I were hoping to examine over the two workshop days and we had a room full of great ideas like this. It was a great atmosphere, with at least one team working out how they could assign budget directly to a project they had conceived during the exercise and planning their next steps right there in the room. Developing ideas like this is what makes our jobs exciting. Seeing the potential of how a solution could fundamentally change a business around a genuine user need has always been what fascinates me since I started out in digital.

Sometime later, post workshop, over Singapore Slings at Raffles to close out the trip, Cory and I reflected on how things had gone. I do not think we could have foreseen the variety and passion for solving problems but it was extremely gratifying to think that over two days we had helped ten organisations consider, plan and, in some cases, enact transformational change. Just two days! As one delegate put it; ‘It’s just great to get some time together out of the office to plan’.

Sometimes, it seems, we just need a bit of space to think big!

To learn more about our work in the Higher Education sector, you can read our case study on Monash University or get in touch on +61 3 9633 5100.