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Q&A: George Hunt, Director of International Development at Teesside University

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As one of our first higher education partners here in the UK, we’ve always loved working with Teesside University and have achieved some fantastic things together over the years. Since we kicked off our partnership back in 2014, we’ve been helping boost their international student numbers, working with them on pre-applicant management through to offer conversion.

The scale of our partnership has continued to grow over the years as we’ve both strived to deliver bigger and better things. In the two years between 2019 and 2021, for example, we delivered over 800% more international student enrolments!

Having just extended our partnership for another five years, we caught up with George Hunt, Director of International Development at Teesside University, to reflect on some of the highlights.

George, can you tell us a bit about Teesside’s international student profile?

About one in three students at Teesside are international students. Like most UK universities at the moment, India and Nigeria are currently our biggest markets, and the majority of our international applicants are at postgraduate level.

We do a lot of work with international agents and partners, and the majority of our students are recruited through our five regional offices in China, India, Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Teesside has a rich industrial history, and that, coupled with the breadth of industrial, engineering and business courses we offer, appeals to a lot of international students. We’ve also benefited from being more proactive and innovative than other universities. For example, we were already offering a two-year masters programme, including the opportunity for students to undertake a work placement, prior to the UK government introducing the graduate route. Because of this we were able to gain early momentum as a go-to university for students looking to enhance their employability.

Regardless of this, we’re very aware that it is very competitive out there and we’re not always guaranteed a strong international student intake because there are so many other places students can go. That desire to remain proactive and to stand out in a crowded market is one of the reasons why we’re continuing to work with UniQuest.

Why did you first embark on the partnership with UniQuest?

Even with the best intentions, there is always an upper ceiling on what universities are able to do themselves, and sometimes through working with a partner you are able to deliver a service that would be difficult to replicate through working alone. Ultimately, we were looking for a partner that could help us with conversion, and UniQuest understood perfectly where the gaps in our existing offer were and where we wanted to get to. It would have been a huge undertaking to deliver the same programme of work ourselves, involving significant amounts of staffing and investment that may not have been scalable as things picked up. Crucially, we got the reassurance from UniQuest that they could deliver an engaging and personable service to prospective students and it was this element that really appealed to us. I always say that international development work is a people business first and foremost, and UniQuest has always understood why this is so important.

What do you really value about the partnership?

Even as the organisation has grown, for me, there’s still a boutique feel to UniQuest. We’re still dealing with the same people we’ve dealt with since the start, and although delivered through a partner, the service has always felt just about as in-house as an outsourced provider could possibly be.

UniQuest has helped us to streamline a lot of our services while adding an additional layer of sophistication – whether that be through developing new channels to engage with prospective students, such as webinars, or using data-led insights to inform decision making.

In the current climate, it’s really difficult for universities to go it alone, and UniQuest’s insights into student behaviours and preferences ensure that we aren’t making decisions blindly. As an extension of this, UniQuest’s wider partner network is also incredibly valuable to us. Through UniQuest’s partner forums, we get access to other universities who are also trying to think innovatively about the way in which they operate. Many of these institutions operate in completely different parts of the country so we’re not necessarily fishing in each other’s pools, but it’s still incredibly useful being able to tap into a forum where we can share best practice and learn from one another.

UniQuest’s services are also invaluable in helping us get key messages out to certain markets and study levels. For example, if we’re trying to increase the number of undergraduate applicants, they know what the priorities are for that cohort and how they want to be communicated with, and can engage with them at scale.

What have some of the major achievements of the partnership been?

Navigating the Covid-19 pandemic was something that couldn’t have been done without UniQuest’s support. Covid presented a totally new challenge, and it seemed that each day there were new, pressing questions for us to address. How are we managing CAS for these students? How are we managing the quarantine rules?

For this new challenge, where it’s fair to say there was some nervousness about the best way to respond, UniQuest was able to advise based on the data they were seeing – for example, on issues such as student appetite for online study vs on-campus. Having that insight to reinforce and back-up decisions was incredibly reassuring. UniQuest also helped us meet demand for a shift in the way students wanted to engage during the pandemic. We were getting a huge rise in enquiries via live chat, so UniQuest expanded the team to help meet this demand and increased conversion from this channel by 64% from the previous year.

UniQuest has also helped us to introduce webinars effectively as we aimed to start taking pre-departure activities online. Last year, we hosted more than 6,000 international students in our webinar series. Whilst we could have done that on our own, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective, and we wouldn’t have access to all of the wraparound benefits including insights, follow up and broader data sets from partners.

What’s next for the Teesside/UniQuest partnership?

More of the same! We’re currently receiving record numbers of applications, so we’ll be looking for UniQuest’s support in helping us with lead scoring to ensure the best possible students enrol. We also want to make sure Teesside maintains pace with the rest of the world. The UK is quite a buoyant study destination now, but that will change as other markets have now re-opened post-Covid. We want to make sure our functions are as smooth and user-friendly as possible so we can remain competitive in an ever-changing external world.