Sustainable values and societal impact

UK universities and higher education institutions are re-examining their recruitment strategies and models, with a focus on long-term sustainability and the need to diversify international student recruitment.

This major blog series, ‘Strategies for sustainability: diversifying international student recruitment’, focuses on a range of factors that institutions need to consider as they reshape their strategies and recruitment programmes – sustainability in finance, environmental impact, progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and institutions’ values overall.

The series covers: what data tells us about the rising importance of South Asia and West Africa to UK admissions departments; insights into other emerging international markets; the value of engaging with a broader range of students’ prior learning experiences and pathways; sustainable values and societal impact; English language proficiency; environmental sustainability; sustainable presence and practice; and the bigger picture including how success can be measured.

In this, the fourth article of the series, we look at how the UN Sustainable Development Goals can help guide the integration of sustainable values in student recruitment, and the role of international partnerships in higher education.


For many institutions, the COVID-19 recovery presents an opportunity for change and a chance to re-evaluate priorities with a greater focus on sustainability.

Embedding sustainable values and positive societal impact encompasses a range of different considerations, including climate action; equality, diversity and inclusion; and social and economic justice. It requires a holistic approach across all departments and activities, including international student recruitment and partnerships.

Supporting the UN SDGs

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be a useful framework in which to consider how sustainable values can be integrated into international strategies.

There are 17 UN SDGs. SDG4 refers directly to education:

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

However, the SDGs are interlinked and unlikely to be achieved in isolation.

Through teaching, research, international partnerships and other activities, universities may also contribute to the other goals, such as those relating to climate action; sustainable cities and communities; industry, innovation and infrastructure; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; and reduced inequalities.

The role of international partnerships

A British Council and Association of Commonwealth Universities report [PDF] found that higher education partnerships made a significant contribution towards achieving the UN SDGs.

International partnerships that bring together different types of partners across different disciplines, sectors and countries are better equipped to address challenges than individual organisations. Universities play a key role in sharing knowledge and ideas, supporting research and innovation, and skills development, all of which can be strengthened by partnerships.

Equitable collaboration that benefits all partners is a priority, but this can present a challenge as some institutions in the Global South still lack capacity to manage international projects. For example, research has found that partnerships in Africa are more likely to involve public universities, which already have access to better resources than private institutions, and are generally attended by students from more privileged backgrounds.

Sustainable values in international student recruitment

Reducing carbon emissions is a key target of sustainability strategies, and this also affects approaches to international student recruitment activities.

A recent UUKi report [PDF] found that approaches had been adapted in response to climate change, with institutions making greater use of virtual recruitment events and digital campaigns as well as increasing numbers of in-country staff.

Moving away from a model in which operations are directed by staff at the home institution with frequent travel not only has environmental benefits, but also reflects a shift towards a decolonial, values-based approach.

Diversity in international student recruitment is often discussed in the context of spreading risk, but strategies may also consider how the student body can become more diverse in terms of social and economic background, as well as nationality. Online provision, transnational education and scholarships can all contribute to widening access for international students from non-traditional countries and backgrounds.

Support for sustainable recruitment strategies

Ecctis is developing new services to help our members devise and implement new, sustainable, diversified recruitment strategies.

Our partnership with SJRennie Consulting Ltd and AfaraEd enables UK institutions to work with us to develop solutions in the following areas with a specific focus on Sub-Saharan Africa:

•          Market entry solutions and strategy for market newcomers and institutions looking to scale up their operations

•          Developing the business plan for target countries to include: number of globally mobile students; country economic indicators; key industries and economic growth plans for the country; skills gap identification; academic qualifications, and English language levels.

•          Developing sustainable recruitment pathways that build in diversity and take account of risk including: local foundation and pathway providers; local and international K12 schools; agents; direct students; scholarship bodies; ministries; identifying, scoping and TNE opportunities; working with High Commissions and trade bodies; digital solutions, and exhibitions and trade events.

•          On-the-ground recruitment of key staff and providing an independent infrastructure for them to thrive

•          Logistical, on-the-ground support

•          Lead generation, application volumes, application quality, conversion, enrolment and retention

•          On-the-ground and virtual itineraries including all logistics

•          Ongoing consultancy, mentoring, networking, advice and support.

Read more:

You may be interested in reading the other articles in this blog series, and you can do so using these links:

What data tells us about the rising importance of South Asia and West Africa to UK admissions departments

What analysis of our data can tell UK higher education institutions about other emerging international markets

The value of engaging with a broader range of students’ prior learning experiences and pathways