The hard data can only take you so far in planning your international student recruitment pipeline and financial target setting. Having better conversations is the smarter route.  

International recruitment. It’s a significant part of every institution’s business: a benefit in bringing in diverse perspectives in student cohorts and financial income, or a drain on already stretched resources? In this blog, SUMS Principal Consultant Dr Rhiannon Birch and SUMS Consultant Jennifer Sloan take a practical look at how institutions can use their existing resources to reduce risk in internationalisation. 

How did we get here? 

The prolonged growth in international recruitment and continued rise in applications (until recently…) isn’t news. International recruitment on campus and through transnational partnerships has shored up static home funding and kept institutions (almost) financially sustainable. The sector has seen the rise and stagnation of China, the rise and fall of India and Nigeria.  

The increase in applications led to institutions finding new ways to manage recruitment. As markets became more competitive, providers had to quickly find ways to manage application processing at volume and improve the end-to-end international student experience. In the best examples, support services were adapted to meet more diverse student needs, services such as childcare on campus expanded and institutions extended financial support and hardship funding to international students. 

But current predictions of emerging markets and demand need to be set against a decline in student applications and recruitment affected by unwelcoming UK immigration policies which already look like damaging the appeal of the UK as a study destination.  

Where are we going? 

Institutions that budgeted for significant, sustained higher income from international recruitment now find themselves in a worrying place. The new reality, as visa changes affect student recruitment and progression, is that students may look to other destinations – or choose to study closer to home. 

Our trend analysis of the Aggregate Offshore return suggests that institutional tactics have already started to adapt, with growth in delivery via local partners and collaborative arrangements, which were also the focus of recent National Audit Office attention. Regardless of whether institutions now find themselves selecting or recruiting, the macro factors which previously led to sustained on-campus international student growth have changed. 

It would be simplistic to suggest that institutions should have predicted the decline. However, two case studies from the SUMS Knowledge Bank suggest it’s not just about the use of data. 

Institution 1 – data-led but unable to predict the decline  

This institution prides itself on being data-led and has invested in data and analytics development. Data are regularly discussed by the Executive which has a range of dashboarding available to it covering all aspects of university business. But the institution failed to anticipate that its international students would not arrive. Is this because the focus was on data and not on insight? 

Institution 2 – siloed data and no strategic discussions  

This institution has long enjoyed strong global market share based on reputation and prestige. But a catastrophic intake took them completely by surprise. Financial targets were missed with seemingly no prior warning. Could the right people see the right data? Was there a single source of truth? And was this a failure of recruitment, or of target setting? 

What if? 

What if we told you that both these institutions already have answers to their challenges right in front of them? What could have made a difference in these examples? Universities by and large predict future performance from past performance. But this can be risky. What government immigration policy gives, it can also take away – a reality we’re all ruing. Similarly, currency fluctuations as we’ve seen recently with the Naira make the concept of ‘certainty’ very fragile in student recruitment.  Strip away recent intake growth from India and Nigeria from many institutions, and they probably look much the same as they did before. So, rather than relying on historic quantitative trend data, what if we talked to each other? Both institutions could have connected quantitative and qualitative data with real-world insight from different professionals including those not directly included in the recruitment process. 

Is your institution still talking about international student numbers as a sales target, an income source, or as an institutional asset offering something more? Are you operating as experts in silos or having a joined-up conversation which connects planning, recruitment forecasts, budgeting and risk? 

Is growth still the option and can institutions adapt or refresh their strategy and better inform target setting? 

Are you leveraging softer intelligence from in country staff and agents to tell you about what your students want and about their experience of on campus provision? 

Now what? 

If ‘glocal’ provision is the next emerging model and comes with greater volatility in student demand and recruitment, then institutions need to think differently about international recruitment and adapt quickly. Where provision is defined in the UK and delivered by local partners this could enable institutions to operate across their subject provision and at scale while minimising travel for staff and students. But realising this model will be dependent on more than data. 

Rather than operating in silos or just looking at quantitative data, developing conversations between Student Recruitment and Planning can enable target setting to become more tactical and strategic, developing insight which can calibrate what’s challenging but achievable. Connecting data throughout the recruitment cycle could also indicate where students may not be planning to travel or to enrol: your historic application data will give you past conversion rates, but the conversations your post-app conversion team is having right now will tell you who’s coming in the future, and who isn’t. 

There is also an underused source of local intelligence. Many institutions employ in country staff who offer more than just local presenteeism at recruitment fairs. In country staff and agents can offer support beyond recruitment as trusted student supporters and this means they bring insights not just on recruitment trends and likely future subject interest, but on student questions and concerns after enrolment. 

This intentional use of soft intelligence – across our institutions – can help us make better student number planning decisions, shape our portfolios and improve student satisfaction. And the best bit? It’s a resource you already have! 

With expertise covering strategy, planning and student recruitment the team at SUMS Consulting would be happy to help in supporting conversations further. 

For more information on any of the topics discussed, please start the conversation with Rhiannon at or Jennifer at


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