How to get the most out of a pathway provider

It's sometimes difficult to recall that the pathway sector – which offers alternative forms of entry into university courses such as study and language preparation programmes – is a relative newcomer in the higher education sector.

But a phenomenon that started in Australia in the mid-1990s didn't get to the United Kingdom until 2000 and there were only [five] United States pathway programmes as late as 2008. With the Navitas board recommending a takeover bid and rumours that INTO and Study Group are in conversation about merger activity, it looks like an industry entering maturity.

Estimates suggest that more than 15,000 students are already entering US higher education through pathway ventures. Some 57% of admissions directors in the US think they might provide a solution to international student enrolment shortfalls. Along with a 50% increase in US pathways in the past three years, this context suggests a concept that has swept all before it and is due for exponential growth.

Evolving trends

However, there are already signs that the going is pretty tough for some operators and that some are considering shuttering their North American operations. US-focused sales teams have been cut back at two of the smaller players in the past year. And new partnerships are becoming tougher to find.

In the four years between 2014 and 2017 there were 31 new pathway programmes announced. However, only four new programmes have been announced since. A major player that predicted 35 centres by 2020 in March 2012 is, stating their best case, less than 75% of the way to target.

Like Longfellow's rhyme about the little girl with the little curl, there is plenty of evidence that pathways can be ‘very, very good’ but they can also be ‘horrid’.

There is little doubt that INTO added the booster power to Oregon State University's ambitions. Since its pathway opening in 2008 the university has moved from 992 international students to more than 3,500. But tales of disappointing returns and underperforming business plans are commonplace.

Nevertheless, the number of partnerships that have broken up is very small. Even five-year contract terms are almost always renewed and the track record suggests that private providers are more likely to terminate arrangements than university partners. Big partnerships rarely change hands – the University of Sheffield in the UK going from Kaplan to Study Group is an exception.

And there is plenty of evidence that providers are already preparing themselves for a point when pathways are no longer a key source of their growth. Contracts have increasingly had a provision for providers to recruit students directly to the university (rather than through the pathway), with some seeing this as the basis for long-term stable financial returns.

At their business partners conference in 2018, Navitas urged those present to consider the provider as a resource for managed campuses, transnational education and direct recruitment (both national and international). Like the sector, the concept of a ‘pathway’ company has begun to mature as well.

Ed tech is another area where some providers have already made their intentions clear. CEG provides online delivery of degrees for a number of partners and Navitas Ventures invested AU$2.5 million (US$1.8 million) in 2017.

In the UK, Kaplan has seen its successful online degree with the University of Essex open doors to the University of Exeter, while in the US its partnership with Purdue on Purdue Global has broken new ground.

Risks and reward

All this means that universities looking at potential pathway relationships should understand that this is not necessarily a business where traditional pathway providers see their future in terms of profitability. It almost certainly won't be the only slice of action that the provider is looking to take.

This means that the university has to be clear and decisive in pursuing the partnership it wants and has to accept that the provider's involvement is about the hard commercial consideration of risk and reward.

There are moving parts to any partnership and with a relationship of this magnitude there are many points to consider in evaluating a partnership, with the more salient points being those that impact its commercial viability.

How will your university competitively fare against others in the portfolio? If you are a small university wanting limited international recruitment volumes and are unwilling to embrace innovation, pace and pragmatism, you may find it very difficult to find a fully committed pathway partner. It may be worthwhile to considering direct engagement with a focused group of agencies or using popular course or programme search platforms.

Price and brand play a key role in recruitment and minding those details will allow you to compete.

What type of students are you looking to attract? Most pathway firms have a recruiting machine that is geared primarily to recruiting pathway students, but they have also demonstrated that they can recruit directly to university programmes.

Diversity also plays a role. The commercial facts of risk and reward have a strong bearing on where large firms focus their operations. Asking for referrals or to see results should help clear things up.

How much attention will your university receive as part of a portfolio? Selling a portfolio of universities is different from the individual and tailored manner in which a university international office does the job. Field teams (in any industry) will always focus on what is easiest to sell.

In order to win, the partner’s field team must be focused on you and they must convince the agencies to focus on you as well. The moving parts add up quickly and as portfolios grow larger, it is more challenging to remain the focus.

Are you going to want an all-inclusive partner or to be able to select best of breed? Many options exist, with universities having different partners for different campuses; online or campus; direct recruitment or pathway; transnational or home etc. Everything is possible but in principle and from experience it's always easier to manage a single partner if they are able to deliver across all requirements.

Do you thoroughly understand the recruitment strategy of the partner? Strategy is important and the ability to invest in and operationalise big ideas will become increasingly important. Several traditionally arms’ length providers have shown their willingness to invest in big capital projects on university campuses in recent years.

More importantly, do you want to select and work with a partner that has the intellectual ability and desire to contribute to discussions about the university’s future?

Would you be willing to put the provider in charge of all of your systems and processes as they relate to student recruitment and admissions? There is no good reason that the pace and professionalism of pathways can't be applied to direct admission. It's a good test of trust if you can engage your partner on core university activities and the results can be eye-opening.

Jared Brueckner is senior vice president of iDesign, which helps colleges and universities harness the potential of emerging technologies to design courses and degrees. Alan Preece is a former chief operating officer from INTO, a leading pathway programme organisation.