Attracting and promulgating talent

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño. Dean. IE Business School

24 January 2013

The way to exit the crisis and achieve sustainable growth depends on the ability to develop talent, and that includes managing to attract the most gifted people from around the planet.

Despite the current difficult economic situation, Spain is still delivering a world-class performance in terms of intellectual production and generation of talent. Critics who say that Spanish universities lack international visibility often speak without considering all the facts, and do little justice to the quality of Spanish graduates and the recognition they enjoy in truly global fields like architecture, engineering, business management or medicine. Moreover, Spanish business schools hold leading positions in key international rankings, evidencing their capacity for competitive advantage, international orientation and the close relations they enjoy with the business world.

The only way Spain can exit the crisis and the only way any country can achieve sustainable growth is by developing talent.  I am going to talk here about specific initiatives in the fields of external communication and international projection aimed at fostering collective talent.

Erasmus of Rotterdam once said that “Hidden talent brings no reputation”. I believe that one of Spain’s key weaknesses is its incapacity to communicate its successes and good results. In a recent meeting I heard a member of the Spanish government boasting about the cutbacks made across the field of public relations, as if investment in communication were dispensable in times of crisis. I believe that it is a mistake. Today, it is crucial to communicate every measure taken along with the positive results it obtains - the recent increase in productivity, for example, or the record growth in exports – to change how people see Spain. Obviously it is not about spouting a constant stream of propaganda, but rather intelligent communication that is both selective and constant.

It is also important to be open to international talent. In the current global society, the borders that used to restrict the movement of talent no longer exist. Yet people are still very wary of the irreversible globalization of higher education, to the extent that they try to adopt measures to restrict competition, such as making the entry of foreign universities difficult, restricting the recognition of foreign university qualifications, and blocking access for international students. It could be said that generally speaking, protectionism in university education brings a drop in quality and competitiveness in the medium term in those institutions that adopt this approach, as occurs in so many other sectors. Given that the stakeholders of the world of education are increasingly international, countries that put protectionist measures in place, or which do not integrate into supranational models, will end up on the periphery of the world of knowledge, and will lose their best talent.

Higher education is becoming multipolar in terms of supply and demand, as its center of gravity shifts toward Asia, which has the fastest growing market and the greatest increase in the number of students and new centers. In fact it is estimated that the countries of Asia – basically China and India- will generate 70% of global demand for university studies by 2025. Moreover, there has been a rise in the number of American and European students applying for programs in Asian schools, mainly in order to enhance their international profile.

Nevertheless the country that receives the largest number of university students from around the world is still the US, followed by the UK and Canada.  In recent years, several European countries, like France and Spain, have positioned themselves among the top ten destinations worldwide for international students, partly due to the Erasmus program. In any case, the economic development of China and India is fuelling a marked growth in applications from students from other countries. According to a study undertaken by EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development), the factors that most influence the country an international student chooses are language, the preference being English, (37.5%), attractive culture (21.7%) and the country’s reputation (21.7%), while other aspects, such as a mild climate, or presence of friends and family, are seen as less important (6%). The same study also found that the key criteria on which students based their choice of school were, in order of importance, the school’s reputation, work opportunities on graduation, amount of information available on the school, location, and availability of funding schemes. Taking this information into account, it would appear that the language of instruction is a decisive factor when it comes to deciding where to study, along with the ease with which a work visa for the country in question can be acquired after graduation, along with the learning experience afforded by the program. These facts confirm the prevalence of English as the lingua franca of global education and further evidence for those universities that want to compete in the international arena that they should be running their programs in English. The study also found that work mobility and the possibility of working in the country where they had studied were basic for attracting international students.

Many countries are making an effort to become a favored destination for international students, but Australia’s experience in the last few decades is an exemplary case. In addition to its head start as an English-speaking country, and its proximity to the emerging markets of South East Asia, the intense promotion of Australia by its government and its educational establishments through marketing campaigns serves as an example for other countries that want to become a prime destination for foreign students. Australia has 39 universities, two of which are private, and some 70 business schools. It is estimated that its market share of the global university student population stands at 11%. Meanwhile, 20% of students enrolled in Australian universities are international, which is possibly the highest ratio of international students to nationals anywhere in the world. The university studies export market in Australia is estimated to total some 15.5 billion dollars.

Australia’s government has also been very proactive in ensuring that foreign students are able to stay on in Australia on completion of their program, which is one of the key factors considered by international students when selecting where they want to study. In accordance with current legislation, foreign students that graduate from Australian universities can remain for a further eighteen months, in direct contrast to the rigid system for granting work visas in Europe, or even in the US. International students who enroll in a program in Australia can obtain visas for internships during their study program, which in turn earn them credits which are recognized for study purposes. In 2007, a group of leading Australian universities created the “qualification passport”, a special certificate similar to the European supplement, which describes the studies undertaken by the student thereby facilitating the recognition of studies and international mobility. All these factors, coupled with a pleasant climate, interesting culture and Australia’s reputation for being a place that promotes a lifestyle based on freedom, have made it a favorite student destination in recent years. 

I have one recommendation that might seem somewhat paradoxical. The future of most developed countries, including Spain, many of which have an inverted demographic pyramid, lies in opening the door to immigration and attracting international talent, particularly entrepreneurial talent. The policies of countries like Australia, the US, or Canada, designed to recruit so-called highly skilled talent, helps to develop knowledge and economic value. It certainly makes very little sense to close the door of our country – and of our continent – to professionals seeking opportunities to generate wealth, set up new businesses, thereby creating employment in a foreign country with which they have an affinity and feel real affection for. Immigration could enable Europe, and Spain in particular, not only to fund its pensions system in the future, but also, perhaps even more importantly, to play a key role in increasing the number of quality workers in its production structure.


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