Why an International School Strategy is Essential for Universities' Enrolment Management

We explain why it's never been more essential to place international schools at the heart of your wider international enrolment efforts.

When you, or your enrolment management team, hear the words ‘international school’ what comes to mind? 

Do you picture an English-speaking student body that is composed of the children of expatriates? Do their parents work for multinational corporations or governments? Are the parents wealthy? Does the school boast impressive teaching facilities? Does it offer a prestigious globally recognised curriculum like the International Baccalaureate? 

We’ve just described some of the key characteristics of a typical international school. But here’s the catch. We’ve just described a typical international school from 25 years ago. 

In 2021, the words ‘international school’ describe a broad range of global secondary education institutions. The international schools market has grown and diversified beyond all recognition since the year 2000. This growth and diversification shows no sign of slowing. 

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According to ISC Research, since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of international schools grew from over 2,500 in 2000 to over 12,000 in 2020: an increase of 349%. 

In the year 2000, the global international school student population stood at just over 969,000. The most common way of thinking about these students was labelling them as the children of expats, a way of denoting that they commonly had wealthy, Western families who had relocated across the world to work in multinational corporations or organisations. 

In 2020, ISC Research reported that the number of international school students had risen to 5.98 million. Alongside the children of families we mentioned above, demand for school places is also increasingly fuelled by local families. As of 2019, ISC reported that 80% of the students enrolled at international schools were local nationals. 

For example, in the past twenty years, emerging market economies such as China and the United Arab Emirates have come to dominate the international schools market, with other countries in Asia, such as Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, also seeing a surge in international schools demand. 

These local families recognise the value of an international school education in furthering their children’s higher education and career prospects. Equally, they see this secondary education as a route into an international higher education and a globally recognised degree certification.

What does a growing international schools market mean for universities' enrolment management?

The growth of the international schools market coincides with more countries taking steps to further internationalise their higher education systems. 

As the world begins to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, higher education institutions worldwide are renewing and re-evaluating their internationalisation strategies. 

In order to effectively respond to the chaos and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, universities have had to design new methods of digitally engaging with international students. 

The new, post-COVID world is one where international students’ expectations of higher education will be guided, at least in part, by the quality of their digital experience throughout their consideration and decision-making process. 

This new generation of digital-savvy and aspirational international students will increasingly emerge from the international school system. Indeed we estimate that students graduating from international high schools in 2026 could comprise up to two thirds of all candidates for international undergraduate admissions globally. 

This presents universities worldwide with both a challenge and an opportunity. 

The challenge is balancing a student recruitment market that is becoming more competitive, with an international schools ecosystem that is becoming more complex. 

The opportunity lies in universities’ ability to design a strategy that focuses on international and globally-minded secondary schools as a unique and growing segment of the marketplace. 

It’s therefore essential for universities to engage this growing student audience by creating a clear and deliberate international school strategy.

What is an international schools strategy and why does your admissions team need one?

We actually touched upon the definition of an international school strategy in the previous section. 

 A strategy that focuses on international and globally-minded secondary schools as a unique and growing segment of the marketplace

It’s worth paying close attention to the wording of this definition. Contained within this sentence are three key principles that should underpin both your international school strategy, and indeed your wider enrolment management strategy.

Principle 1: Engage with international & globally-minded secondary schools

As we’ll explain in more detail in the next chapter, your international school strategy needs to operate from the principle that there is no longer a ‘one size fits all’ definition of an international school. 

It’s important that your strategy also encompasses globally-minded secondary schools. For example, as we’ll see in later chapters, some country’s state schools may have an international stream or cohort of students taking an international curriculum. 

Your international school strategy needs to equip your admissions team with the tools to engage with these schools too. 

Principle 2: Engage with international schools as a unique segment of the market

It’s essential that you treat international schools as a unique segment within your wider recruitment efforts. 

To cite one example, international schools are arguably your most promising source of direct, high-intent undergraduate admissions candidates.

So it’s worth pointing out that your international school strategy probably isn’t going to have much bearing on your post-graduate international student recruitment. Likewise, your international schools strategy probably won’t encompass your institution’s dealings with agents. 

Principle 3: Engage with international schools as a growing segment of your market

Your international school strategy needs to operate under the assumption that the international schools market is growing - and this growth is not expected to slow down any time soon. 

That’s why we’d argue that, having established a clear international school strategy, it will be necessary for your university to invest in its long-term growth and resource this strategy appropriately. This may involve: 

  • Investing in third-party partnerships or software systems that give your team a better overview of the international schools market, and the unique aspirations of international students. 
  • Equipping the members of your international admissions team with the training and development to ensure they stay abreast of changes within the international schools market.

Why an international school strategy is essential to your wider enrolment managment efforts

Put simply, a growing international schools market requires universities to make these schools a key component of their wider international enrolment efforts. 

Whilst it’s true that international schools won’t become the only source of international undergraduate talent, we would argue they will become an increasingly important source of high quality, best-fit undergraduate talent for admissions teams looking to meet their enrolment goals. 

There are a number of reasons why your university should invest, or continue to invest, in a dedicated and well-resourced international schools strategy.

International schools’ unique ability to prepare students for higher education

There’s a reason why we refer to international schools as a source of high-intent undergraduate candidates. 

It’s often been acknowledged that an international secondary school education is uniquely placed to prepare students for higher education. 

It’s not just the fact that many international schools provide academic rigour and promote high academic achievement. The international curricula adopted by many schools take a holistic approach to a students’ overall development. 

This means that an international education equips students with valuable soft skills such as creativity, collaboration, independence, critical thinking and a sense of global citizenship. All of these are qualities that help international students to thrive in higher education. 

Universities can engage with international school students much earlier

While provision varies from school to school, international school students are much more likely to benefit from a rigorous careers and university guidance process. 

An international schools strategy gives you the ability to introduce your institution to students at a much earlier stage in their decision making journey. At its best, it allows you to become an active participant in an international school students’ guidance provision and to connect with students, and those advisors and parents supporting them, at a very early stage in their overall decision-making journey. 

This means that an international education equips students with valuable soft skills such as creativity, collaboration, independence, critical thinking and a sense of global citizenship. All of these are qualities that help international students to thrive in higher education. 

The importance of collaborating with the school counsellor

In order to meaningfully engage with your prospective international school students, it’s essential to forge a meaningful relationship with the international school counsellor (or the member of staff responsible for university and careers guidance) in your target school. 

Counsellors are often integral to the success of a guidance curriculum within an international school. A student’s application outcome is often tied to the quality and quantity of the guidance provision they receive. And the perceived quality of this guidance provision is often critical for a school’s ability to attract new students and parents.

We'll share more insights on this in subsequent articles. 

If you'd like more insights on how to create an international school strategy that will help your admission team to optimise its wider international student enrolment management efforts, sign up to get access to our forthcoming ultimate guide. 

Click on the link below and, when the guide is published, we'll send your free copy. 

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