Identify the brand, find the right people
Developing their unique selling point, a strategic approach, and talented staff were the key to Waiuku College setting itself apart.
When Waiuku College principal Tom Vanderlaan arrived at the school five years ago there were just eight international students and he had no experience in international recruitment. But he recognised an opportunity for the school to earn additional income.
Now they host about 30 students a year, from Asia, and more recently Germany.
“I went to a conference where they said you need to hire a consultant to help. So I did. That was a really good investment,” says Tom.
The advisor developed a strategy for the school and pointed Tom in the right direction.
“She gave sound advice. She said you want the right people in the job and you need to resource the programme properly. You get a good product if the people are well-resourced. So I’ve never tried to do it on the cheap. You could try and save money by not employing people but this is a false economy.”
His approach has been very deliberate, focusing on planning and budgeting. A key factor was deliberately choosing to appoint a marketing person to the international role.
He was fortunate Alison Hollier had recently moved to the district, after a career that involved marketing international tertiary providers overseas. Recognising what she could offer the school, he snapped her up to manage the programme for, officially, 25 hours a week. She is supported by Ulrike who looks after the homestay families 20 hours a week, with the international marketing trips shared between Tom and Alison.
“There is a tendency for existing teachers to take on the role of international manager. I think this is a mistake,” says Tom. “We were lucky to find a person like Alison who could hit the ground running. And because she is employed in only this role she has no competing interests on her time.”
The principal can shake hands but you have to have a positive person with good communications skills to run the programme, who can listen and empathise with students, says Tom.
Alison says it should be recognised that a lot of country schools might face a problem sourcing the right staff. While she has a background in marketing tertiary education overseas, she says she has found this role much harder than she anticipated.
“I was used to working purely in marketing and student recruitment, not being involved in the day-to-day management of students. Even the marketing side is a challenge. We are competing with a huge number of high schools in New Zealand offering a very similar product and it’s crucial to find a point of difference.”
Finding a unique selling point
Waiuku College is part of the South Auckland Education cluster which reaches from Pukehohe into the lower suburbs of Auckland.
Waiuku’s challenge was to identify the school’s “brand” and what would set them apart from other schools, then what markets that brand would appeal to.
They started by focusing on the attractiveness of their small international programme and the quality of their homestays in a safe rural town that is only 45 minutes to a big city. The environment is a big part of the selling point – with the school set on the outskirts of Waiuku next to farm land and just minutes from a beautiful, typical New Zealand west coast beach.
“We looked at what we have here and what we could feasibly offer to attract students. The cost couldn’t be too expensive, and there is reluctance to pay too much extra on top of school fees,” says Alison.
They thought outside the square, developing three supplementary programmes: a surfing school, horse riding and adventure sport options to offer alongside their academic programme.
She says the majority of the German students sign up for the horse riding. Students go into “horse homestays” with families that have horses. “They are expected to muck out and look after the horses in return for riding and lessons,” she says.
The surfing option includes lessons with a local Waiuku surf coach. Both programmes started as term-long options, but have extended up to one year. The school has have focused on the German market to promote the outdoor programmes.
“The Germans want adventure. The agents told us that and that has been proven by the kids who have come here. It’s one big advantage we have over Auckland schools. Here we offer a high school education, plus adventure sport activities in our local area.”
Alison says they promote themselves as being a small town with great homestays and an old fashioned family-oriented community.
Tom says they are very clear with agents: “Don’t send students to us who want to live in a city; don’t send us kids who are going to be homesick for their culture.”
“We know from our exit interviews what students like about being here and what we don’t have. We don’t want people to go back to their agents and say that our school wasn’t what they wanted.”
While the outdoor activities are a drawcard for the German and European students, it is the lack of fellow Asians that attract the Asian students.
“We had our first Chinese students last term. They love it here because they can make friends easily and learn English quickly. It’s still a novelty to have international students in our school so the Kiwi kids are drawn to them.”
Looking to the future they are very optimistic about a relationship that has been formed with a school in northern China. It is been established with help from an agent who is related to a local family. Tom visited the school this year and the first students have already started arriving.
Waiuku has been told they are the first New Zealand high school to recruit students from this city of eight million people and Tom says it could result in quite a number of students a year coming to the region. Waiuku will cap its intake from this school at 10 students and feed extras into other schools in the district.
Alison says despite their recent success it will always be hard to attract a large number of mainland Chinese because they tend to want to be in a big city. They haven’t tried to recruit South American students yet because they are known for enjoying the high life that a city environment has to offer. But Japanese students love the rural community as their parents have concerns about safety and good pastoral care, she says.
They are never going to be able to compete on academic credentials alone, she says.
Waiuku focuses on pathways. “We try to help them work out what they want to do. We take them to careers fairs and show them different options relevant to them personally.”
They also have a work experience option. “We had a German student who wanted to be a vet so we got her work with the local vets in the school holidays. Another student wanted to be a fashion designer so we organised for him to spend time with a photographer at fashion week.”
Pathways to education and work are in demand internationally, says Alison, and the community is very supportive of these initiatives.
She says while it’s good to be able to help the students with their careers, its also advantageous to find ways to keep them busy in the school holidays, as that can be a problem in a relatively quiet rural town.
“The advantage of being small though, is that we can look after each student and focus on their individual needs.”
Their focus is on longer-term stays and they take only one short-term group a year as each group requires the same administration and effort as longer term enrolments, but for lower returns. However, the short-term stays can be good “tasters” for the students and Tom and Alison hope the students either return for a longer visit, or encourage others to come to New Zealand to study.
Tom says they do get pressure from agents to drop their fees, but they are committed to holding their prices. “If you think you have a quality product you don’t drop the price,” says Tom. “New agents ask us for scholarships but we only do that if we think we can get more business at our normal rate from them down the track.”
To grow or not to grow
Waiuku has an international roll of 30 students in a student body of 920.
Tom says they had a growth plan that targeted 50 students. But to add 15 to 20 students would mean adding a whole staff member – and that would not be profitable once the extra costs were taken into account.
They don’t have a dedicated international dean, with that role undertaken by Deputy Principal and Student Dean, Todd Malcolm.
He says they do their best to offer their international students a full range of class options to cater for a range of needs – including the non-academic – and offer three ESOL classes a day.
In their 24-subject programme, they leave a gap in the senior student curriculum so that extra ESOL classes or alternative classes can be slotted in.
Investing in building the market
Waiuku College spends about $40,000 a year on marketing, with Tom and Alison taking about three trips a year between them.
Most students come through agents, though Alison says their late entry to the international education market meant many experienced agents were already committed to other schools, and didn’t need any more on their books. “We had to find new ones, but these are often less experienced, have less knowledge about New Zealand and the high school sector and take longer to produce students.”
“I had many years’ experience working for the tertiary sector in NZ and overseas and had built up many good relationships with agents, but many of those agents don’t work in the high school sector so it was like starting all over again.”
She says they are still at the risky stage with newly developed markets and she will feel happier when they have more established relationships with their agents. While they don’t want too many more students, Alison is aware they can’t stop building up new markets as they can’t rely on any one country. They also don’t want to have any more than ten students of one nationality, to ensure the students have the opportunity to integrate fully.
Involving the community
Ulrike works 20 hours a week managing the homestay families. As a former homestay parent herself she knows the challenges and benefits. For her, hosting international students was a way of “bringing the world in”.
Unlike other schools, she is fortunate that families may approach her to participate because their own children want to have an international ‘brother or sister’. She has about 120 families on her books – and only 30 - 40 long-term students to place each year along with many short stays.
“The feedback from parents is that they like their children to have interaction with the rest of the world.”
The Waiuku staff have made a conscious effort to include the local community in the international initiative. At the annual homestay meeting, homestay families are invited to the school to get an insight into the cultures of the students coming to the school, with homestay advice given by agents or student counselors.
Tom recently gave a presentation to the local business association explaining how much money comes into the community from the international students via school fees, homestays and the money being spent in their shops.
“There are very few Pacific or Asian families in Waiuku, unlike in Auckland City, so we are bringing in some cultural variety and providing cultural experiences.”
A student’s perspective on living in a small town
Patrick Hahn first attended a well-known boys school in Auckland when he arrived in New Zealand from Korea. He says it wasn’t what he expected, with many other Korean boys enrolled. So after just one term he came to Waiuku. Now in Year 13 he says it was the best choice he ever made.
“I didn’t want to hang out with Koreans all the time. So I talked to my agent and she knew about this school. In the countryside it is easier to get along with Kiwis,” he says.
He says while there is a focus on getting into university, Waiuku has opened many doors for him. Including attending fashion week, which was an “awesome experience”. He knows that to follow his desired career in fashion photography or design he will have to leave Korea, but New Zealand has given him skills that will set him up for life, he says.
Bradley Hagan and Melanie Cave are two of the schools’ student ambassadors.
Bradley comes from a family of six children, and they have had a stream of international students stay with them over the years. “We tend to have Japanese students. They tend to be more family-oriented. Their families are usually quite small so it can be a shock when they stay with us – but they usually fit right in.”
He says he particularly likes the Japanese culture and says being a homestay family has enabled him to really learn about another country.
- Identify what will set your school apart and be confident about your ‘brand’.
- Don’t try to be all things to all markets – but try to adapt what you are to each specific market.
- Be confident about the stories you tell but don’t try to be something you’re not.
- Avoid the pitfalls of using available staff to fill international roles, if they don’t have the necessary skills.
- Invest in the right people – you can’t beat experience.
- Involve the principal in setting direction, selling and ongoing management to ensure buyin. Principals can make decisions and make things happen.
- Don’t forget the small things that make all the difference – welcomes, farewells, dinner parties.
- Good homestays are really important but may be fewer in number in smaller towns than in the city.
- Communicate with the community about what you are doing and involve them – show the benefits of hosting international students can bring to a town.
Waiuku, South of Auckland
Co-educational secondary school
30 international students
Tuition fee: $12,500 a year
Administration fee: $800 a year
Homestays: $240 a week
Principal: Tom Vanderlaan
Deputy Principal / Dean of International Students: Todd Malcolm
International Director: Alison Hollier
Homestay Coordinator: Ulrike Masina