Acumen Leadership in Conversation— with Pete Richards: TNE… It’s time to tap the untapped market for higher education

Pete Richards is Acumen’s Executive Director for UK & Europe and has been working within the Higher Education sector for over twelve years, operating as Marketing Director for Sydney’s highly acclaimed Macquarie Business School, Head of Student Recruitment Marketing at Henley Business School, UK General Manager – International Student Recruitment and Marketing at Navitas and, most recently, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) and Director of Partnership Development (TNE) at Coventry University.

Let’s recap the UK market. What happened in 2022?

From an inbound student recruitment point of view India is continuing to rise and I can’t really see any signs of that slowing down. Nigeria is re-emerging as a really strong market for the UK while China, post-pandemic, seems to be holding firm, if not growing in volume (especially postgraduate recruitment). The flag here is that China may also become an increasingly tough market as local institutions continue to rise in the global rankings. Chinese students were also a little bit more risk-averse in terms of travel post-SARS, so it might take two or three years before confidence in the Chinese market really bounces back to where it would have been had the COVID pandemic not happened.

It was also interesting to see numbers from the US fall a little, again I think this is a reflection of COVID and I expect those numbers to bounce back quickly.

What were the main struggles or complications you heard clients and those in the industry talk about in 2022?

Most institutions thought the sky would fall in when COVID first emerged but, against expectation, what happened was that the volume of inquiries and applications just went really high really quickly. A lot of universities have struggled to wrap their arms around that volume and response times and offer turnaround times have suffered. A number of years ago it became the industry norm for UK universities to respond to an inquiry or give a first response to an application within 48 to 72 hours, but that has blown out to closer to 48 to 72 days in some cases.

I think the other interesting dynamic is that institutions are telling us that the very top of the recruitment funnel has become really messy and unclear, driven by not only much higher volumes (of prospective students), but also there seems to be a lot more incomplete or replicated applications, and even a higher volume of just really poor quality applications.

Do we expect these to continue into 2023?

I really do think that a lot of the current dynamics will continue in 2023, especially the exponential rise of Indian students and enrollment and admissions pressures, and I think that second dynamic will probably get worse before it gets better.

What new concerns face higher education in 2023?

There is a risk that the UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) department, which controls all forms of immigration, could tamper with the ecosystem of student migration. This seems to be the biggest concern on the mind of the sector.

Controlling net migration volumes by utilising student visas is a really easy lever to pull, but that would be a very shortsighted play, as international students contribute so much to the economy  (and the UK as a whole), so I think everyone is holding their breath and hoping that student visas are not adjusted in anyway.

Will the higher education market in the UK be affected by rising inflation and a looming recession?

If you look at the value of the pound, which has fallen against other currencies in recent times, it may actually help with student migration as  it may become cheaper from a foreign exchange perspective for students to come here instead to study, instead of staying in the US for example

However, on the flip side the increase of the raw cost of living in the UK possibly balances those scales somewhat, and may well be a factor for international students that are not just having to pay for their fees, of course, but they’re having to pay for accommodation, food, utilities etc.

Why is Transnational Education (TNE) important for higher education leaders?

A lot of potential students that are seeking to travel to the UK to study realise at a very early stage of their research that cost will prohibit them from doing so. TNE is a great option for potential students that would like to study a UK course, but simply can’t afford to, so the ability to stay in their own country, or even city, to study a UK award without setting foot in the UK is very powerful. 

In my view Universities that can offer that option to potential students should promote it far more aggressively, as many institutions seem afraid to promote their TNE capabilities in case this impacts inbound student volumes, when in fact the opposite is true, and healthy TNE options in a particular country can actually help to drive inbound student recruitment volumes from that country rather than hinder. 

What’s your overall outlook on 2023 in higher education?

I think the UK could very well be on the edge of a golden age for inbound international student recruitment and transnational education, assuming a hard-line policy (regarding student visas) doesn’t materialise from the government.

What do you hope happens?

I really hope that Indian numbers continue to rise. I also hope that South East Asian students become a little less risk-averse than they were in the wake of SARS. 

I’d really like to see volumes rise from Vietnam and Indonesia. Both markets have been predicted to be the next big thing for UK institutions for some time now and both have been slow to burn. We can see the green shoots of growth finally emerging, but I’d like to see UK institutions focus and invest in those markets rather than take the slightly lazy approach of focussing on China, India and Nigeria.

Focussing in a narrow range of markets doesn’t make for a good classroom experience, and having a diverse cultural mix, with students outside of those traditionally key markets, creates an incredible experience for students. 

Are there any messages or particular thoughts that you’d like to share about the market?

I think universities are becoming more open to accepting help from third parties such as Acumen, particularly in the area of admissions and enrollment solutions. There are lots of benefits that a university can gain from such support, such as the ability to scale a team up and down (based on seasonality and volumes), so I hope that more universities become open to this, otherwise the UK could lose students to other markets such as Canada and Australia (if response times fail to improve).

The last message is to encourage universities to continue to drive market diversity.

Check out more from Acumen leadership in conversation for more reflections, insights, and predictions for 2023.