New Zealand Alumni Survey: Experiences, Attitudes and Engagement
This publication is an independent survey to advise how international alumni can help New Zealand tertiary institutions develop and raise their profiles internationally. It identifies the overall attitudes, preferences and expectations of New Zealand alumni residing overseas and levels of support necessary for future activities.
Author(s): The Illuminate Consulting Group
Date Published: October 2009
About the Survey
Alumni play an increasingly important role in the overall efforts of higher education institutions developing and raising profiles internationally. The functions that alumni often assist with range between traditional marketing and outreach support, various financial support schemes, talent acquisition, and, more recently, the gathering of competitive intelligence and commercialisation efforts for their alma maters.
Indeed, alumni are turning into a core institutional development pillar for New Zealand universities. Alumni outside New Zealand are arguably at the forefront of this change dynamic, given their international exposure. The survey thus specifically focused on alumni residing outside New Zealand, including both New Zealand citizens as well as former international students.
This dynamic is taking many universities into unchartered territory. It is thus hoped that this survey, which appears to be the first alumni survey ever conducted that includes every university in a country, will contribute to the better understanding and management of the emerging alumni network and support landscape in New Zealand.
The Ministry of Education
The Ministry of Education, as part of its mission to support New Zealand higher education providers with their international positioning efforts, commissioned the New Zealand Alumni Survey in early 2009. The Ministry’s role was centred on providing support and guidance throughout the project, and to disseminate the final report. ICG was contracted by the Ministry to draw up, coordinate, and evaluate the results of the survey.
The survey was supported by all eight universities in New Zealand. Their Alumni Offices contributed to the survey design, helped shape the direction and focus of the survey, provided data on their alumni networks, and conducted the survey invitations through their respective database and e-mail applications.
New Zealand’s universities differ in many ways and alumni networks mirror these differences. Collectively, New Zealand’s universities are home to more than 640,000 known alumni, with individual institutional networks ranging from less than 30,000 to more than 130,000 alumni.
Overall, nearly 62,000 alumni reside outside New Zealand (labelled “international alumni”), with universities being able to call on as little as 2,000 and as much as 14,000 alumni overseas. The share of international alumni in each university’s overall alumni network also varies widely, ranging from just over five percent to more than 23 percent. New Zealand universities retain e-mail addresses for about 27,000 of international alumni; this pool was therefore the primary targeted audience for this survey.
As the sections on data discussion and recommendations demonstrate, it is not just alumni network size and composition which differ between institutions. There are notable differences between various universities’ alumni offices’ level of resourcing, staffing, experience, and ability to support their institution. Such variance is also the case with the alumni networks these offices are tasked with fostering and administering.
The survey was conceived as a relationship survey, and was thus structured so as to learn about: Alumni’s student experiences; their connections to New Zealand and their respective alma maters; their communication preferences; and the level and kind of support and engagement they are willing to offer to their alma maters, fellow alumni, and New Zealand.
Owing to its global nature and resource constraints the survey was conducted online. Each university was provided with its own, customised survey to be sent out to its alumni. Invitations to the survey were sent out in e-mails, newsletters, and announcements on university websites. Each survey was accessible for three weeks, with the vast majority of responses typically arriving within the first week.
The total number of invitations sent out ran at just above 17,500. About 1,200 invitations bounced back; this is very likely a significant undercount owing to the occasional lack of tracking ability of some universities. The survey attracted 3,417 responses, of which 217 were disqualified for a number of reasons (mostly the respondents’ residence in New Zealand). The overall response rate stood at 19.5%, which in international comparison is relatively high; individual institutional response rates varied from as low as 4.0% to as high as 27.8%.
For analytical purposes, New Zealand citizens (expatriates) and former international students (as identified by citizenship) are evaluated separately in this report. To make sure both groups are properly identified, former international students are referred to as international alumni, while New Zealand citizens (expatriates) are referred to as New Zealand alumni. The survey itself was designed without betraying any focus or specific verbiage which would have indicated to either that they were potentially considered separately.
Overall results from this survey are highly positive, and there is also an absence of critical responses in a volume typical for such a survey. This artefact is partially a function of multi-level, positive self-selection bias on behalf of alumni responding to the survey. It is also a function of data capture and update policies of universities which induce their own biases.
Both aspects induce a positive skew in results. Without control groups, the effects of the two biases on the survey results cannot be definitively evaluated or statistically adjusted. Therefore readers are asked to exercise caution and keep this context in mind when interpreting the overall highly positive scores and feedback given in this survey.
Information collected on alumni demographics is largely relevant in the context of specific behaviour, needs, and support offerings — these are covered in subsequent analysis. Therefore only some brief demographic highlights are summarised:
- Nearly two-thirds of all respondents reside in just five countries: Australia, the UK, the US, China, and Malaysia. New Zealand alumni are much more likely to reside in Australia and the UK than international alumni.
- Respondent numbers were equally split between New Zealand alumni and international alumni, the latter were led by alumni from Malaysia, China, and Australia.
- Three-quarters of respondents were less than 50 years old. International alumni show a notable skew towards young alumni (less than 40 years old).
- The male-to-female split amongst respondents ran equally at 3-to-2 amongst New Zealand and international alumni.
- International alumni showed higher numbers of Master’s Degree level degree attainment than New Zealand alumni, who in turn displayed a higher share of Bachelor Degrees.
- The most notable difference between international and New Zealand alumni with regards to faculty (or school/department) attended can be found in the preference of international alumni for business (management) studies, whereas New Zealand alumni favoured arts and humanities studies.
Students’ social and educational experiences are highly formative for subsequent alumni affinity levels. The survey reveals a highly positive impression landscape:
- More than 90 percent of respondents stated that their educational experiences were “very positive” or “positive”. Differences between New Zealand and international alumni proved negligible. Younger alumni and alumni residing in China and Hong Kong were less positive about their educational experiences than respective counterparts.
- About three-quarters of respondents indicated “very positive” or “positive” service experiences. International alumni rated their service experiences somewhat more positively than New Zealand alumni, with German alumni being the most appreciative.
- Contributors to the respondents’ social lives as students varied widely, with fellow students accounting for more than half of all responses. Not surprisingly, New Zealand students at the time related more closely to domestic students and residents, and international alumni to international students (with strong variation by nationality).
- Two-thirds of international alumni felt “definitely” welcome in New Zealand as a student, with German alumni feeling most and Chinese alumni feeling least welcome amongst large alumni pool countries.
Alumni in general have developed distinct expectations with regards to the ways they wish to connect to their alma mater. Alumni relations programming need to take these wishes into account while proactively building new connection opportunities:
- Overall, the level of connection between alumni and their alma mater through traditional alumni programming tools is somewhat disappointing. Effectively less than 10 percent of all alumni connect “regularly” by attending a New Zealand-themed or general alumni event, joining an alumni chapter, or by socially meeting other alumni.
- Differences between alumni, when correlated with nationality or faculty/ school/department, proved relatively minor. This applies to connection activities such as reading the university magazine, visiting websites, or attending an event.
- The most important differentiation factor is alumni age. This factor matters especially when dealing with issues such as online communities, event attendance, or reading the university magazine. Younger alumni are far less well connected to their alma mater than older alumni.
- Interestingly, the low level of actual connection behaviour is belied by the emotional connection of many alumni to their alma mater which, especially in the case of international alumni, rated notably higher than expressed behaviour.
Connection (New Zealand)
Alumni do not only connect to their alma maters, but also to New Zealand at large. Understanding the level and depth of connection is relevant in the context of New Zealand-themed programming or shared university events:
- Alumni connections to New Zealand ran at a much more positive rate than connections to universities. Thirty-seven percent of international alumni and 56 percent of New Zealand alumni reported that they feel “very much” connected to New Zealand. Only very small minorities reported not feeling connected.
- Strong differences exist by nationality, with alumni from Anglo-Saxon countries typically feeling a lot more connected than Asian alumni. One notable alumni group were the German alumni who overall reported feeling as much connected to New Zealand as New Zealand alumni themselves.
Universities and their alumni networks share multiple, sometimes well-established, sometimes only-now-emerging, communication channels. These channels carry specific economics, timeliness, customisation ability, and interactivity levels which drive usage patterns by both alumni and universities:
- A clear shift towards electronic communication channels is evident. More than 70 percent of alumni “like” e-mail communication whereas less than 50 percent “like” postal mail.
- Alumni prefer to have information pushed to them via e-mail and electronic newsletters rather than having to search information out on websites.
- Communication patterns differences between alumni by faculty/school/ department attended are relatively small.
- A very significant difference emerges regarding online communities, which found a strong following amongst younger alumni with around 30 percent of under 40 years old alumni expressing a positive perspective.
In its last set of questions, the survey inquired into four forward-looking alumni engagement areas. First, alumni’s readiness to support their respective alma mater. Second, alumni interest levels in participating in New Zealand-themed events. Third, the expectations alumni hold with regards to benefits and information to be gained from participating in New Zealand-themed events. Fourth, the activities and information which alumni expect from regional alumni events:
- The potential for much enlarged alumni networking activities outside of New Zealand is high – alumni consistently expressed their readiness to support their alma mater. Most popular were event attendance and recruiting activities which garnered affirmative interest from the mid-thirties to mid-fifties share of alumni. More than one-third of alumni under the age of 50 years old reported being willing to render marketing support as well, and nearly half of alumni under the age of 30 years old said they would join a university-run Facebook group.
- Potential support levels for New Zealand-themed events also run high. Attending an embassy-event was found the most interest, closely followed by attending a Kiwi Expatriates Abroad and sports event. Embassy events were especially popular in Germany, the US, and China – and least popular with Australian nationals, who also preferred not to attend New Zealand sports team events. Sports team events in general drew a differentiated response with some alumni in, for example, Singapore, showing little interest.
- Benefits and information expected from New Zealand-themed events straddle a broad spectrum. Socialising, social and cultural updates, and business opportunity information were most popular areas chosen by respondents. International alumni displayed distinct patterns when compared to New Zealand alumni, especially with regards to visiting and immigration information. Older alumni preferred socialising by a wide margin.
- A great degree of commonality exists regarding regional alumni events. Differences in expectations between New Zealand and international alumni were small. The same held for age and faculty/school/department attended. In general, the most popular activities were connecting with and making new friends, professional networking, and attending a dinner or reception. Meeting university leadership was the least popular activity.
Implications of Findings
The survey produced more than 300,000 data points reflecting on more than 3,400 alumni from around the world. This is a very substantial set of data which represents nearly 5.5 percent of all known alumni residing outside of New Zealand.
Survey results offer a granular picture of alumni likes and dislikes, of communication habits, the willingness to support a respective alma mater, connection levels to New Zealand, and so on. This is information relevant not only for Alumni Offices, but also International Offices and other university units, as well as the New Zealand Government.
Yet interpreting results needs to be undertaken with care, not only because of the aforementioned granularity, but also because of the referenced self-selection bias amongst survey respondents as well as data capture and capabilities issues within universities.
Alumni Relations in New Zealand
The survey has highlighted that alumni relations as an institutional function in New Zealand universities, with a few exceptions, remain under-staffed, under-resourced, technologically not sufficiently equipped, and politically not integrated at a level necessary to take systematic advantage of the opportunities this report points to.
This is by no means a unique situation; similar situations can be found in Australia, France, or Germany. However, a number of the data quality and availability issues as well as technical and transactional capabilities the survey encountered require a solution. Detailed suggestions are contained in the reports issues to each university.
New Zealand Networking
One, if not the most, promising finding from this report is the amount of affinity alumni hold towards New Zealand across a wide spectrum of alumni. This speaks to the attractiveness of New Zealand as a nation, and as a destination for non-New Zealand nationals.
A number of preferences expressed by alumni allow for taking advantage of this sentiment in structured ways, such as embassy events with multiple universities participating, or events with New Zealand governmental agencies and businesses informing attendees about job opportunities in New Zealand.
This is not meant to suggest that a New Zealand alumni network currently exists. Alumni affinity is a multi-tiered phenomenon which continues to centre on interpersonal experiences. These are immutably tied to alumni’s specific experiences, which do not translate to a national level. Rather, New Zealand is in the fortuitous position of overlaying positive institutional affinity patterns with even more positive country-wide patterns.
University Alumni Networking
Following up on the above statement, much of the tangible alumni network development will have to be undertaken by the universities. Similarly, development roadmaps will have to differ substantially given the disparate current development stages and proficiency levels of Alumni Offices.
General development areas valid for all universities include:
- The systematic creation and/or expansion of alumni clubs in close alignment with alumni volunteers.
- Events which closely mirror the preferences and priorities of potential attendees (which would result in highly segmented programming).
- The adoption of online communities such as Facebook or LinkedIn, as these hold significant appeal to younger alumni.
- Early alumni programming into the student body in order to take advantage of the formative affinity building period of future alumni.
- Structures enabling alumni to relate more and better to each other. This is a leverage-based approach which reflects on the prevailing resourcing levels in most Alumni Offices.
New Zealand and its universities hold what many other countries desire: A high amount of goodwill in alumni residing outside the country. Yet as a country, and on an institutional level, this opportunity has not been systematically utilised. This report offers direct feedback on the needs and support offers from alumni, as well as its own analysis, to pave the way for strategic improvements.