The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Communication in Higher Education Recruitment

2 min read

G. John Cole

Seville will play host to this year’s conference of the European Association for International Education – and locals and internationals alike will look forward to toasting the theme, ‘A mosaic of cultures.'

It is a theme of great pertinence to those education marketers who value international relations and recruitment, but who have noticed that putting the pieces of this mosaic together takes a level of understanding and insight which – by its literally foreign nature – is not always strictly intuitive.

Cross Cultural Communication

The challenges of cross-cultural communication in higher education go beyond typical sociological concepts of visual cues and body language. Likewise, there is a common misconception that cross-cultural differences mostly concern daily face-to-face communication or interpersonal interactions. In fact, researchers found that there are cultural disparities between the ways that international study programs are marketed – with the biggest differences manifesting between Western universities and those from elsewhere. Western schools, for example, are more likely to emphasize their institution, while the students themselves are more prominent in the marketing of schools in other regions.

Another study noted that ‘buildings, campus views, and university gates were the predominant visual elements on university websites in China, while single people and small groups were the most frequently used visuals on US sites.' The emphasis in the marketing of Chinese universities is on facilities while American institutions favor personalities. Yet these ‘national styles’ of marketing are targeted towards the same international audiences – so it’s no wonder that both of these studies recommend greater specialization of marketing techniques towards potential students from different backgrounds.

Understanding how different cultures react to and interact with marketing strategies is a straightforward way to tackle the challenges of communicating across cultures. Maximizing the potential of your marketing efforts can be as simple as combining a multi-lingual marketing approach with a targeted visual strategy or exploring the optimal distribution channels for your specified market.


But cross-cultural marketing on a macro scale is only the first hurdle.  Once you’ve established, for example, that students in one region respond more rapidly to direct email marketing, while banner advertising is more effective in another, you now need to reassess your micro approach to cross-cultural communication.  As with macro marketing, savvy marketing professionals will recognize the limits of a homogenous strategy for student inquiry management.  Developing strategies that utilize the strengths and interests of distinct regions and cultures and build relationships with sensitivity to the cultural nuances of each player will give your program or school an advantage over institutions that respond to prospective applicants with a one-size-fits-all method.

Finally, all successful higher education marketing professionals realize that their most effective marketing tools are successful, happy graduates and alumni.  Your cross-cultural marketing strategy is not complete without a comprehensive plan that follows students from enquiry to commencement, and beyond.  Build your strategies around the cultural tendencies that are already embodied on your campus in the thoughts, behaviors, and preferences of your international cohort. Listening to those culturally-diverse recruits who have already come to study at your institution can be the best way to develop solid foundations on which to build a progressive and productive international dialogue.

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