At some point – hopefully soon – the COVID-19 crisis will end, or at least ease significantly. In the COVID recovery phase, the world will figure out the ‘new normal’, and life will go on.
The international education sector, which the pandemic has devastated, will also recover, although it may look quite different.
Education agents will retain their key role as facilitators of international student decision-making and global movement. Not only that, but our prediction is that the use of education agents will soar.
1. Market Potential
The significance of education agents as key players in the international education market is often unappreciated. Prior to COVID, education agents were responsible for recruiting a significant proportion of international students in the key English-speaking destination markets.
In the chart above the data for Australia (75% of international student recruited by education agents) is based on government data. The data for New Zealand (around 50% of international students recruited by education agents) is based on a recent study. Reliable data for the US, UK and Canada is elusive. For the purposes of this post it’s sufficient to say that, in those markets, agents have less market share in terms of international student recruitment.
The point here is that in most markets – except Australia – there is huge market potential for education agents to play a greater role in the recruitment of international students.
2. Necessity is the mother of invention
Most educational institutions that, before COVID, had significant international student enrollments are desperate to get those students back as soon as possible, and to replenish their pipeline of enrollments for future academic years.
The challenge in doing that is that many of the international student marketing and recruitment methods they used previously won’t be viable in the COVID recovery phase.
- International travel is likely to be difficult for some time making visits to destination markets impractical or impossible.
- Ongoing social distancing measures are likely to mean that large face-to-face student fairs are not possible.
In this environment many institutions that have not previously used agents may consider developing an agent recruitment channel. Those institutions that are already using education agents may seek to double down on their strategy.
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3. Super agents on the rise
In the world of international student recruitment “master agents”, “super agents”, or “aggregators” as they are sometimes called, are usually well established education agencies who build and work with a network of sub-agents to source international students for their university, college and school clients around the world.
These businesses focus on building a large portfolio of client educational institutions, and an army of sub-agents to generate international student referrals and placements.
The model is not new, but is on the rise. For example, in Canada ApplyBoard has gone from start-up to a billion dollar company in just a few years. On the other side of the world, well funded Australian start-up, Adventus.io, has been busy during the COVID crisis building a big list of institution clients on one side, and sub-agents on the other.
These businesses, and others like them, will market aggressively in the COVID recovery phase. The result is likely to be more educational institutions using agents, and a higher proportion of international students recruited by agents.
With agents comes risk
The use of education agents carries risk. When agents behave unprofessionally, unethically, or dishonestly, students suffer. Our education agent alerts report on incidents of this kind.
If unprofessional or dishonest misconduct by education agents occurs at scale – for example when it becomes entrenched in the culture of a very large agency, or endemic in a given source market – it can undermine entire international education markets.
How will institutions manage their new education networks? What risk control and quality assurance measures will be applied? Institutions that have not previously used agents probably won’t have strong systems or processes in place. In markets that lack a regulatory regime there is a real risk that some institutions will focus on the number of students their agents send at the expense of quality control and monitoring of agent professional standards.
This agent risk should be given serious consideration by all who have an interest in the recovery of international education markets because it has the potential to disrupt or derail that process.