Marc McHugo is the founder and CEO of Study Experience, a Paris based consultancy firm supporting students to study abroad.
The uncertainty that currently clouds the international education sector is unprecedented. The Covid-19 crisis has derailed both the delivery of education and student recruitment.
Just in case things were not spicy enough already, two of the world’s higher education powerhouses appear to be focusing their energy and policy on how to best deter future international students from joining their ranks (stricter immigration laws in the US and the never ending Brexit saga in the UK). The result is a dramatic whirlwind of consequences, which has the potential to cripple universities and their surrounding ecosystem of professionals (educators, suppliers, agents etc.).
It was when reading one such article about the possible demise of education agents, who are responsible for a large proportion of global student recruitment, that I felt perhaps a bit of positivity was needed. More specifically I would like to look at ways in which agencies and institutions can better collaborate to aid their common cause and protect each other.
After all, as Cindy P. once said on her Instagram account : “The couples that are meant to be, are the ones who go through everything that is meant to tear them apart, and come out even stronger“. Wise words indeed.
Perhaps also inspired by Cindy P’s wise words, The London Statement (introduced in 2012 to provide a framework for institution-agency relationships) stated that “agents and consultants work with destination countries and providers to raise ethical standards and best practice“.
How can agencies help universities?
The following may be common knowledge for most readers, but it never hurts to revise the basics.
Education agencies play a crucial role when it comes to student recruitment. If we look at the Australian higher education industry, for example, we know that 71% of all international students were recruited by education agents in 2017, up from 61.2% in 2013.
A specialised recruitment agency can provide a cost-effective local service. Their local expertise means that they will know how to best address their market, with culturally sensitive communication. They are easily able to liaise with students and have the in-depth understanding of their local education system, which is necessary to filter qualitative prospective applicants. Their presence in-country also enables providers to save a significant amount on travel costs.
Often underestimated is the key role that agencies play in terms of student satisfaction and, ultimately, university rankings.
Quality advice from a third party means better informed students, which in turn leads to increased application conversion and student satisfaction, while also lowering student drop-out rates. After all, a well-informed student is more likely to apply to the right programme at the first time of asking. As we all know, application conversion, student satisfaction and retention are all key metrics for the major international university rankings.
If agencies are struggling then, would it not make sense to pull out all the stops to help keep them in business? Would this not be a cost-effective way to guarantee sustained international student numbers in years to come?
How can universities help agents?
So, now that we have established how agents can help safeguard the interests of universities, how can institutions return the favour in a constructive and mutually beneficial way?
Despite having used it repeatedly thus far, I have a problem with the word “agent”. It is connotated with dark, money-driven, undertones that can be misleading when it comes to understanding the motivation and ethos of your typical education agent. I will therefore make a point of referring to agents as “local representatives” for the remainder of this short article.
The term “local representative” is key, in my mind, and perhaps a first step towards improving universities’ global engagement. Having a local representative, whom you consider as an extension of your university (local office or branch) helps demonstrate the trust you place in them. In return, it is fair and appropriate to expect a more engaged partner, who feels fully valued in their role. Sometimes symbolic changes make the world of difference!
Providing your local representatives with training will help guarantee the quality of their services. Updates on your institution and courses are one thing (always useful, of course), but providing general training is another way to engage with your partners.
If there is one thing that universities do not lack, it’s a pool of academic experts. Perhaps top ranked business schools could offer representatives advice on how to tackle the current global climate. This approach, inspired by the current social selling trend, can benefit representatives, universities and the education industry as a whole.
In most cases, local representatives are small companies that lack the resources (human and financial) to invest in innovative marketing solutions. Why not “loan” out a few highly employable students from world renowned computing faculties? A future PR guru from a top-ranked communication faculty could do the world of good… As could a talented graphic designer from a prestigious art school.
The icing on the cake here is that students would benefit from concrete professional experience during their studies, which in turn will increase their employability post-graduation. In my experience, international students are usually keen to help more students access the same opportunities they had and this would be a fantastic opportunity to do so.
Finally, reinventing the way that universities measure the performance of their local representatives could be a game changer. I question the ethics behind opting to extend a contract on the sole basis of how many students a representative has recruited. While this strategy makes perfect sense in the shampoo industry, you do not want to be in a situation where students are pushed towards unsuitable institutions for the representative’s personal gain. The consequences can be dramatic… although my own capillary situation suggests that I have been the innocent victim of misdirection when choosing my hair products.
Having local representatives helps to promote universities effectively across entire regions, yet not all students they speak to will choose to solicit said representatives’ services. Looking at region-wide performance data is perhaps a fairer way to measure the performance of that representative.
Universities could also boost their partners by referring local enquiries to them (rather than encouraging more direct applications). The added incentive here being that a local representative is more likely to convert the enquiry by being in-country 24/7, 365 days per year. Everybody wins.
Working together towards a new paradigm?
Although an active provider-representative relationship can deliver fantastic rewards, its potential is often underexploited. I speak from personal experience when I say that most universities are happy to sign an agreement, only for the next conversation to occur a year later when it’s time to process commission invoices.
“Dear universities, you have an army of Ferraris by your side but, more often than not, you’re driving them like Fiat Pandas!“
The benefit of these difficult times is that everyone has been forced to reflect on how they operate. Institutions, and representatives alike, are being forced to reinvent themselves and it is only natural that their relationship be reinvented as well.
Perhaps now is the time to renew our vows. Let us take stock on what has worked and what can be improved. Let’s each commit to helping each other so that we can each be successful in our common goal: changing students’ lives for the better!