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Dr Jonathan Bridge is a lecturer in Environmental Engineering at the University’s School of Engineering
“Ten years or so ago, a TV commercial from a well-known international bank featured a hapless businessman being hosted for dinner by foreign clients. Eager to please, he clears his plate, only to be immediately presented with a second helping. This too he clears, but to his horror the same thing happens, over and over again, to the embarrassment and discomfort of all concerned. The prospects of success for the business they are conducting are implied, but obvious.
Culinary culture clashes (and more recent questions over the ability of major financial institutions to manage their affairs at home, let alone anywhere else) aside, the essential message of the advert remains sound: to get the best out of the people you deal with, you need to understand in their terms how they go about things, and why.
Global relationships central
For a global institution like the University of Liverpool, the lesson is pertinent indeed. As one of the top 1% of the world’s universities, with 6,000 international students on campus from more than 120 countries, our global relationships are central to pretty much everything we do.
In spite of this, however, some academics – myself included – have relatively limited opportunity to gain insight into the background, culture and ambitions of this major section of our student body and this begs the question, are we really getting the most out of our relationship with them? More importantly, are they really getting the most out of their investment in us?
These two questions have been exercising me keenly over the past year. In early 2013 I was asked to be Programme Director for two MSc courses in civil engineering. The appointment was swiftly followed by the release of a School strategy to grow significantly postgraduate taught (PGT) student numbers; this in an academic discipline where the ratio of overseas to UK students is currently in the order of 8:1. You can appreciate why I now take our relationship with international students very seriously indeed.
With this objective in mind, in February this year I decided to join Rohit Kumar from the University’s Student Recruitment and Admissions Office on a visit to several universities and applications agencies in Chennai and Bangalore, India.
As well as an education in the highs and lows of preparing a simple cup of coffee, Indian-style, and on the sheer number of intentions you can indicate with a turn of the head (way beyond our meagre western grunts of ‘yes’ and ‘no’), I began to realise a few key points for understanding and working with our international students and applicants which it is perhaps worth sharing here.
1. People make a positive choice to apply to Liverpool, against a great deal of competition from elsewhere in the UK, Europe, US and worldwide – they hold us in high regard;
2. The decision to accept a place implies a major financial investment by intelligent, ambitious individuals, and applicants quite reasonably have very high expectations of the return;
3. Neither of these preceding points comes across easily when you are sitting at your desk on a grey Merseyside afternoon staring at a virtual pile of electronic application forms.
4. We have a highly developed, hard-working and imaginative network of agents and contacts which spans the globe and puts enormous effort into supplying us with students;
5. Everyone in this network is crying out for academic involvement to build institutional relationships, gain better access to potential applicants, and raise the profile of Liverpool far beyond that which the agents can achieve on their own.
And there is always the opportunity to combine these trips with research visits to existing or potential collaborators, adding considerable value to often limited research budgets.
A common obstacle raised against proposals to deploy academics in this way is money. Overseas trips and time out of teaching are expensive, and most Schools operate on already-limited budgets. This seems a fair point, until we remind ourselves of the numbers involved here. A typical one-year international PGT student in the UK invests more than £15,000 in their course fees alone. In that context, the target set for expansion of postgraduate numbers in Engineering noted earlier takes on a rather different veneer; the potential gains from even a small increase in PGT numbers are significant.
Investment in the student experience
The ambitions of plans to achieve these gains should scale accordingly, not just in sending more academics on exotic foreign trips to drum up recruitment, but more importantly in investment in the student experience at PGT level and across the institution to make sure that we live up to the expectations that our applicants bring with them.
In the final analysis, regardless of institutional targets or financial rewards the bottom line must be the desire to give the best possible experience to our students, regardless of nationality, in order to get the best possible response out of them. To do this requires action and a willingness to engage with students and potential students, on their terms. This needs to start from the moment we try to recruit them. Serving up the same old annual dish of wait-and-see, they’ll-come-if-they-want and I-don’t-know-why just isn’t an option if we really mean business, as even a banker could tell you.”
For more information on recruitment activity overseas please visit: http://www.liv.ac.uk/study/international/events/
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