More students from the Middle East, North America and Africa. That is what the Wageningen campus will look like in the future, believes Rien Bor. This week he is bidding farewell as international student recruiter.
When he retires on 17 June, Rien Bor will have clocked up over 40 years with Wageningen UR, the last 15 as a recruiter of foreign students. In that time he has seen the Wageningen student landscape change radically: from a handful of international students to more than 2000 in 2014. In total 107 different nationalities.
Wageningen’s popularity among foreign students from all over the world is due primarily to Rien Bor. He has developed his own recruiting system; in their home countries international alumni who feel affection for Wageningen act as representatives of Wageningen University and attend education fairs, visit embassies and hold presentations at universities. They receive payment for every student who comes to Wageningen without a Dutch scholarship. ‘I started with five Chinese alumni, four from India, one Indonesian alumnus and one from Taiwan. Today I work with some 20 to 25 representatives who together cover 50 to 60 countries. These are all alumni who I know personally and with whom I have regular contact.’ Every year they bring in hundreds of self-funding students.
Bor looks for suitable alumni himself. He recruits among students who are in the final year of their Master’s. ‘They need to be enthusiastic people, with a certain drive. And they need to be somewhat commercially minded because I want them to publicize Wageningen in an active way.’ As a rule, the alumni work for Bor for a number of years: ‘One who started as far back as 2002 is almost like family. I often know a representative’s parents, their brothers and sisters. I’ve even been invited to a wedding. These days I’ve got an awful lot of international contacts.’
The Bor system is unique in the Netherlands. Most universities work under the flag of Nuffic, the expertise centre for internationalization in education, or with commercial agents. ‘Other universities think I work with an amazing system but they can’t get it off the ground in their own institutions. They still attend education fairs with seven university employees because every faculty wants to do it their own way. Thanks to the representatives, I’ve been able to do everything single-handedly for years. When a representative does good work, I no longer need to go to that country and I can concentrate on new markets. To give you an example, I haven’t been back to South America for years because we have a very good representative there. The same is true of other areas in the world.’
Accordingly, his last trip was to Saudi Arabia. ‘The Middle East offers many new opportunities for intake, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Governments there are realizing that if they want to send their students abroad, their preparatory education needs to be of a certain quality. So they are now busy raising the level of their own education. Admittedly, there’s political unrest there, which could diminish the number of students.’
Bor is a great supporter of diversity in the lecture hall. And so he thinks it is a shame that the numbers of North American and African students are not as good as they could be. ‘American students don’t want to leave their own country while African students often can’t afford to. Certainly not now that the number of scholarships has declined. In any event, my successor will see whether the number of America students coming to Wageningen can be boosted. And I want to have a representative in South Africa.’
Does Wageningen have room for even more students? ‘We can certainly continue to grow,’ says Bor. ‘We have a spacious campus. And we will grow; we have a secure position towards the top of the rankings. But a close eye does need to be kept on the proportion of Dutch students to foreign students and you must make sure that no one population group starts to dominate. That would make Wageningen unappealing to other international students.’
For international recruitment the future lies in online marketing. ‘But at the end of the day it’s all about personal contact. Many universities, including Wageningen, are switching to online recruitment, and that’s undeniably an important marketing tool. In my view, though, there’s another step that needs to come first. But perhaps that’s an old-fashioned idea.’