Understanding India: A Key Driver of International Student Recruitment Growth
Higher Education Marketing

Understanding India: A Key Driver of International Student Recruitment Growth

Date posted: March 29, 2017

While growth rates of overall international student admissions have been slowing over the past few years from most top source countries, a notable exception has been India. Although often overshadowed by its neighbour to the north – China, which is still by far the world’s largest source of students abroad – India’s year-over-year growth outpaced China between 2013 and 2015, expanding by 62% in the US, 40% in Canada and 50% in Australia during that period.

india student recruitment

India currently ranks number two (behind China) in terms of both population and international student mobility, but with over half of its 1.3 billion people under age 25, it is projected to have the world’s largest number of college-aged students by 2025. Until the country’s decision to ban its two most popular rupee notes last November, it was the world’s fastest growing major economy (it has since fallen slightly behind China). The surprise move to combat counterfeiting and corruption threw the economy into chaos, including students seeking funding to study abroad.

However, the long-term prospects for Indian student recruitment remain very strong. With many schools risking an overdependence on the Chinese market, expanding recruitment initiatives in India is increasingly strategically important. Vast and fascinatingly complex in every way, India represents exceptional opportunity for forward-thinking education institutions.

Understanding the Context of Higher Education in India

India is home to some of the most ancient centres of higher learning in the world, with Nalanda University dating back to the 5th century AD. Following its independence from British colonial rule in 1947, higher education was seen as crucial to India’s self-determination and future development, although it has not been able to keep pace with the country’s rapid modernization in recent decades.

Amidst profound economic and social change, urgent infrastructure development needs, and a quickly growing youth population, the appetite for higher education has never been greater. India’s higher education system has sought to answer this demand by expanding at a fast pace, adding 20,000 colleges and 8 million students in the first decade of this century alone. The proportion of enrolled college-age students has been swiftly rising to an estimated 20 percent – totalling 28.2 million in 2013 according to Unesco (second only to China’s 34 million).

In both China and India, higher education is viewed as a key socioeconomic enabler for both individuals and greater society as the nations transition to becoming more prosperous, knowledge-based economies. While both countries have made impressive progress in expanding their quantity and quality of higher education availability, it’s generally agreed that China’s centralized political structure has made its development more efficient thus far, targeting resources to make selected universities become global leaders and otherwise positioning its system toward national priorities.

As India makes moves, similar to other Asian nations’ approach to university funding, to pour more money into selective top institutions to elevate visibility in world rankings, some have alleged that the majority of its higher education sector has grown without adequate planning for the needs of its expanding economy. The country’s vast size, colonial legacy, excessive bureaucracy, separation of general education from vocational training, and an academic culture that often inhibits meritocracy and curriculum modernization, are some of the significant challenges its higher education system seeks to overcome.

india student recruitment

“The Indian school system…for the general public (as opposed to the privileged few) is in a huge mess, and this affects the standards that can be generated and maintained at the Indian universities,” Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen told Times Higher Education. He resigned his chancellorship at the revived Nalanda University due to conflict between the school’s governing board and what is perceived to be an increasingly intrusive Hindu nationalist government.

Explaining India’s Appetite for Studies Abroad

While recent measures to establish collaborative links with foreign universities, as well as increased institutional differentiation, private sector involvement, research capabilities, and its widespread use of the English language could eventually make India a global education hub, it’s evident that the present system is unable to meet the surging demand for quality education.

With greater completion rates at secondary school and population growth pressures (an estimated 400 million aged 18-24), higher education accessibility, quality and accountability are key issues. Even the best students with 90% marks are frequently denied their chosen institution. Many schools are perceived to be focused on money-making and linear training for a narrow range of service jobs at the expense of quality, relevance, sufficient infrastructure and future opportunities.

Besides these push factors, the growing purchasing power of India’s increasing middle class and the sociocultural capital of a foreign education mean that more families than ever are willing and able to support their child’s studies abroad. Of the 360,000 Indian students currently overseas, more than 300,000 of those are concentrated in five countries – the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. However, the perceived attractiveness of these and other emerging destinations are constantly in flux.

Shifting Attractiveness of Study Destinations for Indian Students

Changing immigration and visa policies led to sharp drops in the UK’s admission numbers over the past five years, although there was a modest increase in late 2016 as a new global recruitment campaign (“Study UK: Discover You”) and scholarship opportunities seek to rebuild the bilateral relationship. Although the UK remains one of the leading destinations for Indian students, an unwelcoming post-Brexit environment that has further reduced or eliminated post-study working opportunities have thrown their future market share into question.

Since 2011, the Indian student population has fallen in the UK by about the same rate as it has risen in the US, both by about 60%. About half of all Indians abroad presently pursue study in the United States following two years of record growth, attracted by its enviable scholarship opportunities and the quality, diversity and reputation of its education. However, hostility toward immigrants following Trump’s election win and recent legislation that makes it prohibitively difficult for US companies to hire foreign workers is prompting Indian students to increasingly look for alternative options.

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“Competing destinations like Australia and Canada with more welcoming immigration policies may benefit from this turbulence,” predicts Dr. Rahul Choudaha, a prominent international education consultant. Both countries have made it national policy to streamline visa and admissions processing and simplify citizenship opportunities for international students following graduation.

Australia has rebounded from a substantial drop following racial attacks in 2009 to become the second favourite destination for Indian students. New Zealand had seen sharp growth since 2013 but a recent drop in visa approval rates (54% of Indians are currently refused) and general confusion about their assessment methods could hinder its success this year.

An initiative to waive tuition fees for international students has seen Germany quickly emerge as an appealing study destination and possibly the European frontrunner by 2020. Its low cost combined with its attractiveness as a high-tech leader saw nearly 14,000 Indians study there last year, despite the language challenges (many master’s programs are taught in English). France and Ireland, which offer 24-month post-study work windows for Indian graduates, are also increasingly attractive destinations.

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A critical shortage of medical school places in India has also resulted in a huge student flow to China in the past few years, with a vast majority returning to India following their studies. Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai are also becoming preferred destinations at the undergraduate level.

Preferred Studies for Students from India

As the traditional Indian student market is primarily concerned with maximizing value and consider post-study working opportunities a key part of their return on investment, restrictive visa and immigration policies can significantly shift their preferred study destinations. Industry demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics grads motivates a high proportion of pragmatic program choices – in the US, 36% of Indian students study engineering and 34.9% study mathematics and computer science.

The majority of Indian students abroad are in master’s level programs or higher, as the nation’s investments in higher education have yet to deliver graduate studies comparable to international competitors. Besides the prestige and quality of foreign education, the opportunity to gain practical experience overseas through internships and employment is a key motivating factor. The potential for long-term residence and immigration after studies certainly improves a destination country’s attractiveness.

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In the US, three-fifths of Indian students are at the graduate level and three-quarters are in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The three-year Optional Practical Training (OPT), providing work experience for STEM grads, had been responsible for significant recent growth but planned changes to these policies as well as the fallout from recent hate crimes could result in a sharp drop this year.

“Making the decision to invest in a master’s program when the uncertainty on the other end is there is an issue for a lot of students in India,” says John J. Wood from the State University of New York at Buffalo. US schools have heard of many concerns about the “Trump effect” during recent trips to India. Although some families are no longer considering studies in the US, providing reassurance about  your university’s welcoming environment may assuage these doubts.

“We were struck by how much US higher education is still considered the holy grail, and that especially in the southern half of India almost every middle class family seems to have a relative in the US,” says Wim Wiewel, Portland State University’s president, which has reported a 27% drop in Indian graduate applicants for next fall. “Thus, if nothing too bad happens in the future we will recover from this, but people are watching.”

Changing Study Preferences of Indian Students

An emerging segment of “highfliers” (academically successful with access to financial resources) are increasingly interested in bachelor’s programs, life sciences  and other alternative study options. “We estimate the bachelor’s market to keep growing aggressively over the next few years, and may perhaps come to account for 50% of the total international education market in the near future,” said Maria Mathai, director of market intelligence firm M.M. Advisory Services.

In such a large nation with diverse ethnicities, values and development, there is some variation in degree interest depending on the region. According to M.M.’s survey of secondary schools, MBAs seem to be most popular in business hubs like Mumbai while bachelor’s degrees are relatively more popular in the southern part of the country.

Research and data analysis can reveal further regional differences in terms of program preferences and priorities that schools can leverage to target marketing initiatives. Web analytics for schools can be used to segment regional interest in particular pages from your website and social media posts, which continues to shift with changing demographics and sociocultural factors. From an extensive study of professional student counsellors and agents, SannamS4 determined greater interest for engineering in southern communities like Bangalore and for arts and information technology in the East.

india regional differences

Effective Student Recruitment Initiatives in India

The decision to study abroad is a big one, particularly for tight-knit Indian families, part of the reason that face-to-face consultation with education agents and student recruitment fairs remain popular in India, increasingly beyond the major cities and often coordinated with national coalitions.

Reports abound about unscrupulous agents, aggressive sales tactics and other unethical practices so exercising due diligence when choosing accredited agencies is highly recommended. Western Kentucky University made news last year for inadequate quality control, which resulted in nearly half of its agency’s recruits being sent home. As instances like this can sabotage your international reputation, it’s important to clarify and monitor your key messaging with any representatives and proactively address concerns of integrity, accountability and transparency.

A comprehensive and coordinated digital marketing strategy offers far better messaging control and return on investment, including initiatives such as website optimization, inbound marketing, SEO, email automation and social media management. However, a diversified long-term strategy that includes in-country fair and information session participation as well as selective collaboration with Indian institutions can be most beneficial.

New regulations were announced last summer to streamline links between Indian and foreign universities. Eligible institutions can offer twinning arrangements in which students begin in India before going abroad for part of their studies. It’s a significant potential international recruitment channel and creates new opportunities for engaging with partners in India. Other collaborative possibilities include distance education, student and faculty exchange, and joint research programs.

Word-of-mouth is still important for student recruitment in India where students will often rely on the recommendations of their friends and extended family. Involving alumni and students’ families in networking events to highlight your school’s career outcomes, inclusive community and reputable education can be a powerful persuasive influence.

Digital Marketing Strategies for India

Students and their families choose international study locations because of the perceived long-term opportunities. A clear and simple recruitment message that is true to your school and respects their primary motivations will pave the way to sustainable success. Emphasize the high quality of your academic experience (demonstrating award-winning faculty, enviable world rankings or other evidence whenever possible), unique industry connections or study opportunities, and employment outcomes or other market validation.

Expanding and showcasing your post-study employment networks will appeal to ROI-focused student prospects. A sophisticated web presence, including a dedicated section for students from India, regular blogging and a prominent social media presence is essential. Whether they learn about your school through an online search or via local agents, prospects will look to your official website to answer key questions and find out more about your offerings.

Example: The University of Manchester makes it easy for prospective Indian students by providing an introduction to their multicultural campus, employability and career resource information, testimonials from Indian students, entry requirements, contact data for reps in India, and scholarship opportunities.

university india manchester

Millennials worldwide love interacting with social media on their mobile phones, and India is no different. Facebook is most popular, followed by WhatsApp (which has its most monthly active users in India) and LinkedIn. Promoting your official social media sites and those for your Indian students’ association can help prospects connect with your school and reach out for questions.

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Higher education inbound marketing initiatives involve creating a regular flow of targeted and optimized content that addresses prospects’ unique backgrounds, motivations and concerns. Amongst your other content, try featuring posts relevant to Indian families, such as the long-term benefits of study abroad, profiles of successful students or alumni, and campus resources that help Indian students feel at home.

These posts are hosted on your website and optimized for search engines so prospects seeking this type of information may find your helpful article on Google, be intrigued by its interesting and informative nature, visit your website and enter your recruitment funnel. Seek to integrate moving video testimonials and colourful images throughout your website and other content, featuring your welcoming campus, state-of-the-art facilities and post-study opportunities and vibrant Indian student community.

A growing number of resources are available to connect interested Indian prospects directly with schools. Adopt a coordinated approach to social media marketing and instant messaging to quickly and effectively respond to new requests, efficiently integrating new leads into follow-up processes with a CRM program. Email drip marketing campaigns can be strategically organized to send automated and customized messages to targeted prospects at coordinated times.

As its economy continues to improve and demographic forces create a booming demand for higher education, India is poised to become an even greater source of international students. Establishing connections with institutions in the sub-continent and providing the desired resources to a satisfied base of Indian students can set your school up for sustainable recruitment success.

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Patrick Quinn has a passion for words and ideas. He mostly focuses on seeking and revealing the best practices and latest trends that can be applied to higher education marketing strategies.

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