2018 in Review: What’s New for Higher Ed?

9 min read

G. John Cole

2018 was a busy year for the higher education sector.  And, as the year draws to a close, a review of some of the most pressing issues of the past twelve months can be the best way to predict and prepare for the trends of 2019.  Here’s a brief look back at the challenging and exciting aspects of international higher education marketing that defined 2018.  Use this – and the creative solutions you employed this year – to build a successful marketing and communication plan for 2019 and beyond!


The rise of Destination Marketing was an emerging topic of 2018. Schools are now evolving their marketing efforts, focusing on common student desires, such as the thirst for travel. Whether offering the chance to live in an exciting new destination or experience new ways of life, these marketers have definitely been taking notes from the tourism industry’s playbook in 2018.

Storytelling has also been a trending topic this year in marketing. Smart, informal multimedia news stories that add flesh to an institution’s core identity are engaging students looking for a full-flavored idea of the student experience.  

Marketers today have more multimedia tools than ever before! This allows them to create compelling ongoing narrative around brands, way past standard communication. Storytelling is not just effective communication, but an exciting way to breathe new life into the way an institution sees itself.

The Rise of “Martech” =  Marketing  + Technology

It should come as no surprise that ‘martech’ (marketing + technology) is on the rise. No marketing department is complete without a solid data strategy or expert on board to crunch the numbers – and make them make sense.

Data empowers schools to create personalized, responsive marketing solutions which aim to identify, inform, and correspond with students during every stage of recruitment journey.

If you are not already using influencer marketing, it’s time to get on board. The concept itself has worked its way through other industries and has now arrived in higher education in a meaningful way. Personal experiences have always been a big part of higher ed, making this a natural fit.

From enthusiastic freshers to successful graduates, local businesses to corporate partners, a trusted institution has any number of ambassadors willing to step up and wield their ‘influence’ by contributing to that same school narrative mentioned above. Amplify the voices of your greatest asset – satisfied, successful students - and be strategic about relationships with industry influencers, word of mouth will do the rest.

Improving Rural Access to Higher Education

Meanwhile, industrious marketers are now looking to rural areas for both recruitment opportunities and as an important component in campus diversity.

Rural access to higher education is a challenge throughout the world. In China, only 5 percent of rural students attend a Chinese university, and in sub-Saharan Africa, literacy and education attainment rates are lower for rural women than for their urban counterparts, confounding efforts to decrease the continent’s gender gap. Even in Australia, where significant funding is dedicated to providing higher education opportunities to students in rural areas, access for rural students is still limited by the lack of available housing.

In the US, recent political events have highlighted the economic and cultural divide between rural and urban American. Forward-thinking higher education institutions will recognize that they are poised to be an essential mediator between the two, especially given that rural students are just as prepared, if not more so, as those from urban and suburban America. Surveys indicate that in the US, where rural students score higher than their urban counterparts on standardized tests (an oft-cited marker of academic preparedness), only 59 percent of high school grads from rural areas enroll in college or university, compared to 62 and 67 percent of urban and suburban grads, respectively.

And, while higher ed marketing strategies might approach rural recruitment from a minority stance, in many countries and regions rural students are anything but. In African and Asia, rural populations represent majority, rather than minority populations. China’s rural population hovers around 40 percent, while rural India accounts for nearly 70 percent of the country’s entire population, exceeded only by sub-Saharan Africa where a full 71 percent of the population is rural, and expected to remain in the majority for at least another decade.

Hot region for 2019: Africa

Speaking of Africa, the continent is a big talking point for recruiters, with enrollment on the rise. Higher education is now seen as a crucial element of social and economic prosperity, even if capacity deficits and investment shortfalls mean that privatized educators are forging much of the development that takes place – with all the regulatory and public interest issues that come with privatization.

However, what this represents is a fantastic opportunity for African and international schools to develop smarter, stronger methods of collaboration and exchange driving into 2019 and the next decade. And it’s notable that eLearning is seriously on the rise across the continent, and while Africa is still catching up to the West in terms of internet access, Africa’s Generation Z are twice as connected as the rest of the population. As access grows, so will the demand for online learning, and marketing and communication specialists are already developing the solutions that will give you full access to all the developing – and developed – student markets.

Online education may the key to true success with younger students from African countries, but they’re not exclusively digital. Europe remains a reliable destination for students from Africa. With so many cultures and education styles to explore, applicants will take into account the cost of tuition and living expenses while narrowing down their options. Countries like Germany and Belgium have average tuition costs of not much over €1000/year, making them attractive destinations for not only African students, but those from other countries like the US and China who look for good value for money.

Similarly, Northern Europe destinations including Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark remain appealing for their affordable fees (if living expenses are a bit prohibitive), progressive education style, and emphasis on engineering and tech subjects.

Meanwhile, China has become the most popular destination for African students, while also filling up with scholars from Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Oceania. The former is mostly the result of China's Forum on China-Africa Cooperation which is aimed at developing financial and political support for Africa – for example, with a pledge to provide 30,000 scholarships.

Melbourne, Australia is a diverse city, popular with African students. The University of Melbourne boasts almost one in three students are international, living expenses are reasonably low. In South East Asia, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur are cities with a vibrant and affordable student life. Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur even hosts cheaper international branch campuses of top universities from Australia and elsewhere.

Earlier this year, the Indian government announced intentions to more than quadruple its international student intake by 2023. A significant new study program and recruitment strategy have been developed to help make it happen. With a growing economy and an affordable way of life, India is set to become a major study destination.

Hot Fields of Study

In a fast-changing world, topics that were unheard of – or undervalued – just a few years ago have become hot topics for today's technologically-driven, ethically-minded students.

Arctic research and climate change are becoming increasingly central to our way of living. Climatology - the scientific study of climates – is an attractive proposition for students who want to become part of a growing sector while doing work of genuine value for our health and environment.

Fintech has exploded over the past twelve months, most notably with the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of cryptocurrency. ‘Financial Technology’ is also about payment services (hot tip: Facebook is about to get seriously involved in this area) and using artificial intelligence to solve financial and economic challenges.

Behavioral psychology - the “scientific approach that limits the study of psychology to measurable or observable behavior” is both a fascinating science, and a lucrative one. The subject already rewards graduates with an average salary of around $70,000. And job prospects could get even rosier, as corporate businesses begin to put a greater emphasis on employee welfare and the use of psychology to find a competitive advantage.

And if you remember the great GDPR inbox flood of May ’18, you’ll be aware that privacy law and data protection have become a very big deal. Developments in the news later in the year underlined the need for more – or just smarter – regulation in the digital age. Many of today’s students will make careers in these areas

Don’t bury the “traditional fields of studies”

In all the enthusiasm to move forward, let's not forget that more traditional subjects still have a huge appeal and use for tomorrow’s applicants. Business, health-related programs, and the social sciences remain firmly at the top of the chart, accounting for around 40% of American college degrees altogether.

And the humanities remain both a timeless and essential pursuit for those with the passion. For those concerned about the return on investment in humanities subjects, bachelors degrees in topics such as art, English, French, history, and political science, all “produce expected lifetime earning increments far in excess of the cost of college tuition, even at expensive private colleges,” according to Jeffrey Dorfman, economist and professor at The University of Georgia. But ROI isn’t the only metric to champion if you’re looking to promote your liberal arts programs to the newest generation of students. Later Millennials and the incoming Generation Z are increasingly concerned with issues like work-life balance, mental health, and social welfare.

Research has shown that those who’ve studied the humanities are just as likely to be satisfied with their careers as engineering students. Even if they earn a little less than science grads, humanities grads still benefit from salaries that far outstrip what they could have expected without their degree. Curating these programs for the next generation of students means highlighting their value-added elements and showcasing the soft skills – and applications of those in the real world – that humanities and liberal arts degrees impart. In short, promoting your multidisciplinary and humanities programs should include storytelling, real-world applications, and a strong emphasis on how a particular field of study will benefit the prospective student – and the world.

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s useful to take a moment to reflect on what we’ve learned in the last twelve months. But it’s more exciting to imagine the possibilities of 2019 and beyond. So what will your student marketing and communication strategy become in the next twelve months? How will you capitalize on the opportunities outlined here or tackle the challenges that will define the next generation in higher education? Start by finding the right solution.



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