One of the weirdest – and I mean totally bat-guano-crazy – things in Canadian higher education is the way recruitment of international students is managed. Although the image of international student recruitment is often seen simply as a money-spinner for institutions, the fact of the matter is that most institutions aren’t coming close to maximizing revenue from this source. And that’s not because of any high-minded motives of institutions turning away students they don’t think are suitable for their university experience, either. It’s simply because of the way institutions’ internal budget controls work.
In a regular business, sales forces get the budget they need to hit revenue targets. But if sales are going well, and management thinks they can get more money by investing money in sales, then the sales force will get more money. Simple as that.
Compare this to what is happening at many institutions in Canada around international recruitment budgets, where the discussion is more along these lines:
Senior Admin (to international office): Can you get us more international students? We could really use the cash. Budget cuts, you know.
International Office: Um, sure. But can I have some extra money for that? Recruitment actually costs money. Not to mention support once we get them here.
Senior Admin: What? More money? Didn’t I just tell you we don’t have any money?
International Office: But… we’ll get our money back and more (NB. There are circumstances where this isn’t true, as described back here, but for the moment let’s assume it is). You need to spend money to make money.
Senior Admin: Look, there’s a budget freeze on. If I give non-academic units more money, there’ll be hell to pay. You know how envious everyone already is that you guys get to fly all over the place?
International Office: (Desperately suppressing the urge to start listing decanal and vice-presidential visits abroad) But you’re not “giving us money”. We generate revenue!
Senior Admin: Yes, but there’s nothing in our budget process that allows us to reflect that.
International Office: (repeatedly bangs head against wall.)
Seriously, this happens. The idea of investing money to make money later on isn’t entirely foreign (sorry) to universities – but doing so via the international office often isn’t possible. To a large extent that’s because of their historical roots. Most of them weren’t set up as revenue-generating units – until a decade ago they were mostly busy doing things like checking student’s health insurance, and helping profs on sabbatical deal with accommodation and paperwork. As a result, they tend to get tied up with other administrative units like Student Services or Human Resources (which tend to take a hit when times are bad), rather than with revenue units like Advancement (which usually doesn’t).
(As an aside, I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons international offices turn to agents, rather than building up their own networks abroad; the latter requires upfront investment, while the former just requires paying for students once they arrive – which, as you can imagine, is a lot easier to sell within the bureaucracy.)
If institutions are serious about playing the international game, they need to get serious about how they fund and manage it. Too many haven’t bothered to do that.