While the cost and scarcity of accommodation options for international students has attracted headlines in Melbourne and Sydney this year, news of the housing crisis has not yet spread to prospective students in southeast Asia.
However, a leading international recruitment expert who has been recruiting thousands of students each year for Australian universities, AECC Global COO Daryl Fong, says that universities have only about six months to sort out the housing crisis before news of the issues hits demand.
With decades of experience recruiting students from Singapore, Mr Fong said that universities offering packaged course and accommodation options will do well.
Impact on student demand will be driven less by news stories and more by word of mouth, as students seeking enrolment seek out insights from currently-enrolled international students.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Fong provided insights into a range of key topics. With his group sending thousands of students to Australia each year, Mr Fong’s insights touch on issues relevant to many in the sector.
In welcome news for the SA Government, the pitch to support the proposed UniSA-Adelaide merger on the basis of increased international student appeal appears to be ringing true in recruitment offices across Southeast Asia. Mr Fong said the proposed merger would likely attract the eye of students across the region, as long as it was clearly explained.
“For South Australia, it seems to be a good offer, putting the two institutions in the limelight and amplifying the best of each,” Mr Fong said.
“I am sure some of the programs will be taught in more ATN fashion and some in more of a Group of Eight fashion. Something has to give to reach a compromise for the two institutions.”
When asked whether other regional universities could unlock greater international student demand through mergers, Mr Fong said they may be able to, but they would first need to clarify their offerings. Mergers offered opportunities for greater scale and additional choice for students, but the institutional value proposition needed to be clear.
“Regional institutions already offer a city campus option as well as their regional campuses, so it confuses us,” Mr Font said.
“Do they really want the student to have a regional experience, or do they compromise themselves to offer a city experience? Mergers are not going to help overcome that confusion in what they are offering.”
Universities had had considerable turnover in some marketing teams, with a number of new marketing leaders coming from outside the sector. While this sometimes brings fresh approaches, it also meant that some institutions adopted generic approaches that were not effective in reaching target audiences.
In addition, the structures and personalities of some staff meant that marketing campaigns were sometimes poorly aligned with recruitment goals.
“In some institutions you have the marketing team aiming the gun and the recruiters are the ones shooting. They won’t hit the target unless they are talking to each other,” Mr Fong said.
Australian universities were among the highest in the world – significantly more than key competitors in the UK for example. While many institutions offset the ‘sticker price’ fee by offering substantial scholarships to students, agents can sometimes have a hard time keeping track of the scholarships offered by each institution.
For counsellors working with agents that represent dozens or even hundreds of institutions, it is therefore difficult to quickly and efficiently present real costings to prospective students at their families because of the complex and oft-changing web of fee discounting.
“At the end of the day, it’s the counsellor’s job to remember or try to remember all the scholarships that are on offer at each institution, which is very difficult.
“Information about all the latest scholarships available can also be hard to quickly access online, which increases the challenge for counsellors who need to present options to prospective students quickly and clearly.”
Growth in online study demand
While many students (both domestic and international) hated online study pre-COVID, a combination of increased forced use of online study options by both schools and HE institutions and also improvements in capability and availability of online options means there may be significant growth in international enrolments in online learning in future.
While the face-to-face experience remains preferable for the foreseeable future, institutions could grow markets by offering at least part of a degree online – particularly if those years of study are available at a discounted rate. Even if online programs were the same cost, students who were unready or unable to leave home to study could save a lot of money in travel and living costs, when compared with face-to-face options.
“The Australian Immigration Department has increased the level of funds required to demonstrate students can cover their cost of living in Australia, so many students will start to be attracted by alternate delivery approaches,” Mr Fong said.
“For example, the option to complete a lower priced first and second year online from their home country before coming to Australia for the living and on campus study experience in their final year would be attractive to many students.”