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Personalization and Relevance Critical to Success in the International Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | Personalization and Relevance Critical to Success in the International Marketplace
Administrative bureaucracy can make or break an institution’s competitiveness in the IEP marketplace; a system that is specifically designed to meet the unique needs of international non-credit students can put a university ahead of the game.

Globally, the intensive English program (IEP) marketplace is dominated not by colleges and universities but private providers. Many universities have looked to private companies to manage their IEPs while other institutional leaders try to figure out what’s missing from their own offerings. In this interview, David Stremba pulls back the curtain by discussing the competitive advantage private providers have over colleges and universities in the IEP space and sharing his thoughts on how he thinks the market will continue to evolve over the coming decade.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few competitive advantages that universities offering their own, in-house intensive English programs (IEPs) have over private providers?

David Stremba (DS): This is seemingly a straightforward question; one would think that since an in-house IEP is part of, and wholly owned and operated by, a university it should have advantages over the private sector. In reality I would argue that this is not the case in most instances.

Ideally, an in-house IEP would be embedded into the university structures, culture and systems and integral to the university’s internationalization strategy. If university IEPs are embraced, supported and invested in, they can be effective entry points for international students by delivering outstanding and seamless student experiences enabling international students to move onto degree programs once they have attained the level of English language proficiency required. However, although some very high quality in-house IEPs exist, in most instances in-house IEPs are underinvested, separate from core university structures, located on the periphery of campus (both physically and mentally) and not central to their internationalization strategies. In-house IEPs often suffer from a lack of respect by the university academic faculty, limited involvement in strategic planning, limited budgets restricting marketing and recruitment activities, lack of resources to invest in systems and processes and are most often based in low-quality facilities. Finally, most in-house IEPs are run by the teachers themselves, not by professional managers who understand how to run sophisticated academic delivery operations.

Evo: Conversely, what are some of the advantages private providers have over internally developed programs?

DS: Many private organizations have access to significant amounts of capital and are therefore able to invest in the development of large-scale offshore marketing and recruitment infrastructure, implementation of professional systems and processes, high-quality facilities and develop strong, compelling and differentiated value propositions. Private organizations are not weighed down by slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic university structures, and therefore they can react to changes in the market very quickly. Private organizations also have clear goals and objectives to drive success in their businesses, which motivates them to deliver high-quality outcomes and drive exceptional student satisfaction levels. In short, since private organizations do not have a university brand to leverage, they must demonstrate their value and deliver on it.

Evo: How does offering a better administrative system—especially when it comes to enrollment management—improve the experience for international students?

DS: Student administration systems drive the student experience by creating processes that students must follow and/or respond to during the application and enrollment journey. Most university systems were designed for domestic students and “the old world” and are not intuitive. As a result, application and enrollment processes are often convoluted, confusing, illogical and dictated by the system as opposed to responding to students needs.

Students today, particularly international students, do not communicate using standard protocols and tools and have high expectations with respect to response times to inquiries, the quality of the experience and the type of support provided along the journey.

Evo: Looking at the “supply side,” how do institutions benefit from improving processes at every stage of the international non-credit student lifecycle, from discovery (and payment of agents, if necessary) to visa processing to housing to matriculation?

DS: Many if not most American institutions’ systems and processes are designed for domestic students. International students, on the other hand, have different needs and expectations and therefore institutions must adapt their practices in order to be “international-student friendly.”

The system cannot dictate the process; the process must follow the international student journey, which is substantially different from the domestic student journey. The more user-friendly and all encompassing systems can be, the better the student experience.

Institutions that are able to have an end-to-end personalized and supportive process will benefit disproportionately in the international student marketplace.

Evo: Private providers already dominate just under 50 percent of the foundational/pathway program marketplace, according to recent research by StudyPortals. How do you see this market continuing to evolve over the next 10 years?

DS: The global explosion in demand for postsecondary education presents visionary leaders at US universities with a remarkable opportunity. In the last decade, OECD figures show the number of students enrolled in higher education around the world has grown from 100 million to 164 million, with forecasts of even faster growth ahead. Over four million people now study outside their home countries, and by 2025, forecasters estimate this number will be in excess of eight million. Patterns of mobility are changing as more students travel to new destinations to acquire university degrees due to limited educational capacity in their native countries.

The US has the largest share of the students who travelled abroad to participate in higher education, and the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by 8.1 percent to 886,052 during the 2013/14 academic year according to IIE/Open Doors. The United States accounts for 137 of the top 400 institutions worldwide as ranked by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). No other higher education “destination country” compares. In fact, the United States has more institutions in the global top 400 than the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada combined. If students have successful experiences and outcomes at American institutions, their degrees will effectively act as “global currency” that will enable them to differentiate themselves, particularly in their home countries, and gain access to better career opportunities.

However, the sheer number of universities across the US, including hundreds of community colleges providing articulation routes to top universities, creates a dramatically different higher education sector landscape in the US as compared to Australia and the UK. The choices for international students are vast and extensive and therefore in order for a US university to be a market leader, mitigate commoditization and establish a premium position, a competitive advantage must be achieved through compelling points of differentiation. Interestingly, only five percent of American institutions host 69 percent of the 886,052 international students in the country. Nevertheless, there are now 35 percent more international students studying at US colleges and universities than there were a decade ago, and the trend is expected to continue.

More and more US universities will engage in Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) to help drive their internationalization strategies and in many cases launch pathway programs for international students in the coming years. Already over the past 5 to 6 years, we have seen the number of programs in the US grow from only a handful to nearly 30 offerings now in various parts of the country. Considering the spectrum of institutional types in the US, a wide variety of partnership models will emerge outside of the standard bi-lateral PPP’s, including system-wide PPP’s across entire state public higher ed systems, community college PPP’s and various consortia. The US higher education sector is only just a toddler with respect to internationalization and the breadth and depth of PPP’s to come in the future years.

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