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Alumni portals around the world: An international trend gathers momentum

Around the world, more and more countries are striving to stay in contact with international students that have attended their universities (alumni). But why?

Every year since 2014, the British Council presents an Alumni Award in honour of outstanding achievements by international alumni of UK universities. The Australian Government recently adopted a Global Alumni Engagement Strategy and launched a new “Global Alumni” web portal in April 2016. The US Foreign Ministry has been operating its International Exchange Alumni platform for several years already and now has more than 100,000 members all over the world. France came on board in 2014 with its “France Alumni”, the Netherlands in 2009 with “Holland Alumni” and, as of 2016, Danish alumni can now use the Danida Alumni Network.

Established back in 2008, the Alumniportal Deutschland is the longest standing, making it an international pioneer. However, with over 145,000 members, this portal is also the largest platform of its kind. “The Alumniportal Deutschland was an important source of inspiration and information for the development of the Holland Alumni network,” says Noor Groenendijk, Project Manager at EP Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education.  France also harnessed the German website as a Best Practice. “The German Alumniportal had a big influence on us, particularly with regard to the involvement of universities, institutions and companies,” says Mariana Lemos, Community Manager with France Alumni.

All platforms are publicly funded. But what do governments hope to gain from contacts with international alumni? According to Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, “The Australian Government is seeking to connect with, mobilise and celebrate this community to promote Australia and advance our national interests.” The Dutch Education Minister, Jet Bussemaker, is even more specific when she says that alumni “will remain valuable for the Netherlands as contacts and ambassadors that help Dutch higher education and businesses achieve their international ambitions.”

“Alumni can be drivers of change”

Germany’s Alumniportal is financed by the country’s Development Ministry, which means it also places special importance on the positive impacts generated in the alumni’s countries of origin. In 2010, Germany's Development Minister at the time stated that, “the portal is not only beneficial for building individual careers, but for building up knowledge communities and co-designing strategies for resolving global problems." Sabine Olthof, Manager of the Alumniportal Deutschland, adds: "In developing countries and fragile contexts, alumni can help create more open societies, bring knowledge and innovations to their home countries and drive Change.”

Many actors are interested in these national initiatives. Companies are increasingly recognising the importance of alumni portals for marketing and recruiting. This is because a growing number of German companies are now manufacturing or generating their income overseas where they require skilled professionals with first-hand experience of Germany. In the meantime, German companies not only have a “women's quota” but an 'internationalisation quota.' Globalisation is also intended to be put into practice at the managerial level, but it is not always possible to find suitable candidates. And of course the main portal users are the universities. With frequently only limited amounts of time, money and staff to cultivate their alumni relations, they benefit from being able to offer their alumni attractive events and services that extend beyond the individual university. With their portals, they are also expanding their international reputation and cooperation.

Exclusivity instead of socialising

Whereas before, alumni focused more on “drinks and networking” with their community members, they now mostly want to be well informed and advance their professional careers. This is something that Caitlin Byrne and Gretchen Dobson, experts for international education and alumni relations, stress in their blog post for the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA). “Alumni don't want to socialise like people do on Facebook. They want exclusive access to information, opportunities and events. They want to belong to an exclusive community that is proud of its connection with this country,” says Dobson.

With this in mind, the much sought-after users have to be offered plenty more than just social tools – like webinars, job offers or applications for scholarships, for example. Of decisive importance here is the way in which the portal manages to create a range of services that meets all of its alumni's needs. There are many different providers vying for users’ attention online and alumni portals have to compete with other media on the internet. “The portals constantly have to deliver new incentives,” says Dobson.

The wide range of target groups, countries and perspectives all make for a lot of things to talk about. Hence the international workshop scheduled take place in Bonn at the start of February 2017. This will be the first time operators of various country portals will have had an opportunity to come together to discuss the challenges they face and share their experience.

“It's important to get the online/offline combination right.”

The biggest challenge is keeping the alumni active. “That demands our ongoing attention and adequate resources,” says Noor Groenendijk. She also says it's important to get the combination of online events and offline services right. Mariana Lemos from France Alumni is keen to emphasise how important in-person meetings are. That's one of the main reasons why the French portal has country-specific pages. The reasoning is that a local page fosters greater networking on site, which in turn strengthens online exchanges.

The Alumniportal Deutschland, on the other hand, operates in around 20 countries. It works with freelancers who look after the members on site. Says Sabine Osthof: “Alumni relations means so much more than just cultivating contacts and maintaining a database. It's about building up a real partnership with the alumni. And to do that we repeatedly have to ask ourselves whether we are doing everything we can to make it work?”

Author: Karin Weber

International workshop in Bonn

If you are interested in our extensive documentation on the international alumni workshop scheduled for February 2017, please contact us.

Contact: partner(at)alumniportal-deutschland.org

The Alumniportal is currently producing a wiki on the topic of international alumni relations, which is open to collaborative inputs by representatives of pertinent organisations.

January 2017

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