Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a senior lecturer at the School of Business at EIT in New Zealand. Most of her research focuses on education agents and professional and ethical behaviour within the international education sector.

COVID-19 has been a major disruption to most education providers and, in particular, to those actively engaged in international student recruitment. Understandably, most education providers have been predominantly focussed on the direct impact of COVID-19 on their own operational practices and bottom-lines. However, this should not come at the cost of support provided to education agents. 

Instead, providers should invest in their agents as strong relationships are essential now and after COVID-19. For instance, in the post-COVID-19 future, international student recruitment related travel is likely to remain less attractive to providers, at least in the short term. This emphasises the importance of trusted and knowledgeable local partners with a strong track record. 

In addition, if the situation prolongs, it is likely that we see less agents in the market place through mergers and closures. At the same time, in the post-COVID-19 environment, education providers will be actively competing for international students to compensate for the drop in 2020 numbers. This means that the bargaining power of education agents is going to increase in the short term. Hence, agents will pay attention to the financial and other support demonstrated by their client institutions.

Providers should acknowledge that many of their agents are currently facing multiple issues. The decision of multiple destination countries to close their borders combined with prospective students’ reluctance to enrol in online delivery modes puts education agents in a difficult position. Many agents have to deal with short-term cash flow issues and, if the situation prolongs, there will be a growing number of agents with major financial problems. Depending on the country – a number of related issues exist, such as limited availability of standardised tests, blocked student visa applications and limited travel options. 

Concurrently, agents have to deal with extra work addressing both existing and prospective students’ questions and needs. Providers should acknowledge the difficulty of acquiring up-to-date information on the status quo in multiple destination countries and institutions. Countries and individual providers can assist by actively communicating with agents using clear and consistent terminology to mitigate issues related to language differences. This helps agents to provide accurate and up-to-date information to prospective student. 

Providers should also attempt to educate themselves about the situation and challenges in their key target markets. This includes student preferences (such as attitudes towards online study and willingness to defer), but also the type of challenges different agents are facing. More flexibility and support should be considered and provided when possible. 

In addition, the COVID-19 crisis does not remove the need for effective monitoring. Providers should ensure that agents have digested the information provided and are interpreting and communicating it correctly. Providers must also prepare an action plan and keep an eye on their agents in case of potential closures so that they can communicate with prospective students and the agent/s in question immediately. 

A provider-agent relationship should be more than a mere transactional relationship. At its best, it can be a long-term strategic partnership. From this perspective, providers would be wise to be highly attentive to the needs of their agent partners during the COVID-19 crisis.