Chris Chang, University of Portsmouth, UK
Chris Chang is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement and Student Life) at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. He spoke to The PIE about his three decades in international education, how Portsmouth has continued to enrol students through Covid-19 and how student recruitment is changing.
The PIE: How has Covid-19 impacted your work at the University of Portsmouth?
Chris Chang: I moved to Portsmouth as PVC Global Engagement and Education Partnerships in 2016, and this year went up to DVC Global Engagement. My brief covers student life matters, not only international. But for the last 15 months, life has been interesting.
I’ve been dealing with Covid and vaccinations, and driving the Covid response for the university, working with senior colleagues to make sure that we have a process of protecting our students and staff. And we have done well.
We started asymptomatic testing in October for staff and students even before the government rolled it out. We took an early decision to repatriate all our students from abroad early on last year [before the UK went into full lockdown in March] and it was the right decision. And we supported students by providing flights. For international students here, we protected them. We provided food parcels.
The PIE: How has your recruitment been impacted?
CC: We foresaw early on that we needed more people in country. We have staff based in six different locations across the world: Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Lagos, Delhi, Lahore, Dhaka. And we are now going to expand that to another three destinations: Hong Kong; Kenya; and one in the Middle East.
“There is still value in face to face events and counselling”
Our in-country staff have helped us in the last year – everybody was predicting doom and gloom in international, but we have actually exceeded our targets for September and February intake this year by having that local presence.
The PIE: Has your approach to recruitment changed?
CC: We really were seeing [demand for face to face fall] before the pandemic – footfall in some offices was not there as everybody was communicating online and virtually. But there is still value in face to face events and counselling.
People still want to talk to a person. I think recruitment 4.0, whilst we will use a lot of automation, we will use a lot of virtual, I don’t think personally that we will move totally away from some of the face to face element.
Local presence gives us that local knowledge, the local understanding of the culture and local contact. The ability for the staff to speak the language as well, it just helps parents to be reassured.
We work closely with our pathway provider ICP [run by Navitas] to have a joint member of staff, particularly in regions like Hong Kong, in Kenya. Working with them helps us to harness that local presence as well.
Our model is flexible depending on the country – some countries we’re totally virtual, other countries, we have a physical office.
In India, we used to have an office based in Delhi, but [commuting] and actually having staff in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and then flying out from one city to another was not actually the most environmentally friendly and probably not the best use of time. Letting them work from home, making sure communication and touch base is good, helps us.
Whereas in Pakistan, we are now opening up an office because our numbers have grown and we need an office to do so. It’s what works for that country. Every country is different.
The PIE: Have you seen any success with those agent aggregator or study portal platforms? As an institution, how do you decide which digital disruptors to work with?
CC: They are dealing with volume, and I think there’s a place for it. It’s a bit like buying a car. You search online, you get a good price, but there’s no personalisation. If you are investing quite a lot of money, you still want a personal service and a person to talk to.
“If you are investing quite a lot of money, you still want a personal service”
The jury’s still out as to how efficient and effective it is, I think. But the risk for universities is, [can they afford] not to go in? They need multi-channel recruitment.
A small country, like Brunei, with a really small population, everybody knows everybody, would they go to an aggregator or to the agent that they know? Of course, they use the agents. In India where there is volume, then aggregators will work [but you still] need local presence.
The feed into universities is not just through agents – in some countries, like China, it is through partnerships, you still need to build up relationships. One thing that has been the constant [in my 30-year career] is parents still want to talk to individuals. At the end of the day, they are purchasing a very expensive commodity. They want to be reassured of the investment.
The PIE: Can you speak a little bit about your work with Navitas?
CC: My personal work with Navitas spans 14-15 years at three different universities. They’re a global company. None of the other pathway providers have as extensive a partnership as Navitas.
One thing I’m continuing to work with Navitas on is to develop a global network… to encourage multi-country mobility for students. I would love to see a day when students from Navitas could spend a year in Australia, a year in the UK, a year in Canada, and go back with either multiple or dual awards.
So we are just about to launch our dual degree programs in September in collaboration with Edith Cowan University in Australia, which is also a Navitas partner. In three and a half years, a student can spend two and a half years here, one year in Australia, then get two degrees. The combination gives students the best of both worlds.
“We are just about to launch our dual degree programs in collaboration with Edith Cowan University in Australia”
Turing has just come in at the right time for UK students to be able to get funding to spend a year abroad. For us things have aligned together to make this actually quite an attractive program.
Programs [cover] counter-terrorism, cyber crime, sport, health and exercise science, environmental science and management, and global communications media – all very topical, exciting programs, which plays on the strengths of both partners differently.
Before Covid hit, we were planning to look at a partner in Canada for these dual degrees. Our mission is to have it in other countries, particularly English speaking countries.
The PIE: Along with Covid, Brexit has also been a disruptor for the sector, how has that impacted your European students?
CC: Like every other university, we’ve seen a drop of applications and we are factoring in a drop in numbers. Because our numbers from Europe weren’t as large as some other universities, we can weather that through the recruitment of international, postgraduate taught, postgraduate research. Half of our European students came from UK residents, who now have pre-settled or settled status.
It will be challenging [to recruit those in Europe] because it’s about affordability. They can’t afford to come over to study for that duration or price without funding. Those that can afford to come will come.
For once, the UK is looking very, very attractive due to the two-year graduate immigration route, how we’ve dealt with Covid later on in the cycle.
International students coming here to study still can, subject to self isolation and quarantine. And they can also get the vaccination.
The PIE: And in terms of the quarantine and the UK’s red list, what does your planning look like around that?
CC: We looked at [quarantine costs for international students] and we are still looking at that. We will look sympathetically at each application, but to give blanket [payment] for everyone in quarantine is expensive.
The other problem that we have is that there’s limited quarantine facilities. If all the Indian students come during September, October, you’re talking about 60,000-80,000 students and there is no capacity. We are lobbying the government to say, look, universities have accommodation we can [use] as quarantine facilities. Practically it would make sense rather than clumping everyone together in that three or four week window.
“The question I have for the government is can they cope with the volume of quarantining and what happens if they can’t?”
The PIE: And how responsive is the government? I know boarding schools are permitted to manage quarantine.
CC: We are still lobbying. They need to look at projections of numbers and projections of how busy it is during that time in September or October. The question I have for the government is can they cope with the volume of quarantining and what happens if they can’t? My concern is that they’ll put them in places that are totally not suitable – that’s the last thing I want for students.
We need to ensure that international students are kept safe, feel welcome and have a good experience. [Not doing that] would be the worst that we can do for Education UK PLC.
Universities have managed the risks very well of the Covid pandemic, they are very experienced with testing and vaccinations. Trust us to do this, trust us to manage this.