Rise of one-stop recruitment shops aided by shift online

In 2006, when Edwin van Rest stepped off the plane at Schiphol (Amsterdam) after studying in Osaka, Japan, for two years he expected that his new masters in industrial engineering would be the ticket to his career.

Within a year, however, driven by his friends’ reactions – typified by, “Wow, I wish I had known about those opportunities to study abroad”– to his stories of being immersed in a different culture, he and two friends founded Mastersportal.

Two years later, they folded this on-line one-stop-information and application platform into the umbrella organisation Studyportals, which includes Bachelors Portal and PhD Portal.

Van Rest’s search for a foreign university to study at took two years and was the same as my search two decades earlier that saw me spend my junior (third) year abroad at McGill University in Montreal (from Bard College in New York). Both of us had to write away for brochures and submit applications and transcripts by mail.

“That’s the frustration that Studyportals was born out of,” says Van Rest. “If you want to book a hotel, you go to If you want to buy a house, you go to a real estate platform. If you want to buy a book, you go to Amazon. But if you want to do something even more important for your life, about your education, the information is scattered,” he says.

“Some information is in brochures, some scattered on websites, and in some cases, agents play a large role and they sometimes don’t have the right options, information and incentive to help students,” he says.

Van Rest and his partners set themselves “a Big Hairy Audacious Goal” that seems quintessentially Dutch. “We wanted to send more students abroad [from their home countries] than there are soldiers serving abroad. And we are proud to say that we have done so.

“According to the UN, there are 110,000 soldiers, military police and peacekeepers serving on missions around the world. Since 2009, we’ve helped 485,000 students study abroad. Today, despite the setbacks caused by COVID, we have more than 150,000 students studying abroad,” he says.

For its part, one of the new kids on the block, ApplyBoard, founded by Martin Basiri and his two brothers, Meti and Massi, all of whom had immigrated to Canada from Iran, has helped 160,000 students study in countries other than their own since its founding in 2015.

The company is affiliated with the Times Higher Education as well as the Educational Testing Service or ETS, which runs the TOEFL and SAT (US college application) tests, and ApplyBoard has raised CA$170 million (US$135 million) in 2020, which earned the company 14th place on the Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 ranking.

In addition, ApplyBoard has attracted big names from British education to serve on its board, including Sir Steve Smith, the United Kingdom’s ‘international education champion’, and former UK minister for universities Jo Johnson, who is the brother of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

According to SimilarWeb, an analytics company that compares traffic on similar websites, Studyportals is the corporate leader with more than 3.3 million visits compared to ApplyBoard’s 461,000 in the past six months.

Varying business models

While each company has partnered with hundreds of colleges and universities (some higher education institutions are affiliated with both companies) in Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States, their business models cater to different parts of the international student market.

Studyportals focuses on the 70% of the international student market that is made up of students who do not interact with agents. While students can research and apply directly to colleges and universities through ApplyBoard’s portal, the Canadian company has a roster of some 500 recruiting agents around the world.

Both companies have developed algorithms based on the parameters set by their scholastic partners. “We are (or want to be) the best in the world at what a machine can do based on data or facts. So, we do not do in-person interactions with students,” says Van Rest of Studyportals.

Instead, a student answers a number of questions about him or herself, what they want to study, where, what their financial and academic situation is – and Studyportals’ computer provides them with a list of appropriate colleges and universities. Once a student has decided on a university, they can apply through Studyportals.

According to Basiri, ApplyBoard takes the information that colleges and universities supply about their programmes, what students can expect to experience in the institution and the country, as well as financial information and develops a questionnaire that the student fills out.

“There are about 200 parameters that define the student. The parameters are weighted. Our website then shows the student various options, similar to a Google search,” he says.

In addition to its online algorithms that help direct students, ApplyBoard’s recruiters are available to answer questions about the student’s eligibility and what college or university is the best fit for that student.

According to Jo Johnson, chair of ApplyBoard’s global advisory board (and formerly the UK’s minister of state for universities), ApplyBoard’s recruiters in key markets such as India are a boon to the universities. “Managing networks of agents is a complex task. Further, many universities in the UK are flooded with applicants. ApplyBoard plays an important role in lifting this administrative burden.”

Recruitment simplified

Gary Hallam, vice-president international of Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario (where ApplyBoard is based), agrees. “Most of Ontario’s colleges work with recruitment agents. ApplyBoard has simplified this process for us while at the same time diversified our recruitment area.”

Once a student has chosen Conestoga, for example, he or she uploads all the requisite documents to ApplyBoard – and if something is missing or there are problems with the documents, ApplyBoard works with the student to correct the problem. Once ApplyBoard has the completed application, it is loaded into the Ontario College Application System, which then forwards it to Conestoga for review, he says.

In the UK, undergraduate applications are loaded into the University and Colleges Admissions Service, which then sends the application to the appropriate college or university. A similar system is used in Ontario.

Colleges and universities pay for the service. Those that accept a student through ApplyBoard pay the company after the census (withdrawal date) in the first semester.

Differing payment models

Studyportals has three payment models. One is when the student passes census. Another is based on advertising, “typically pay-per-click or per lead”, explains Van Rest. The third is retention or graduation based. Instead of getting compensated for enrolment, these colleges and universities pay for student retention, graduation and in some cases achieving an above-average grade point average or ascension to a PhD.

As it has for so much else in higher education, the COVID pandemic of the past year disrupted the portal application industry.

“It was a roller coaster for the industry, our clients, schools and us,” says Van Rest, who watched as demand dropped 35% almost overnight and 45% for on-campus applications.

Basiri at ApplyBoard remembers the sense of confusion that gripped students, who wanted to know if their courses would go online and were their universities not prepared to do so.

Equally important was how the world-wide shutdown affected applications. “Students couldn’t complete their applications because standardised test centres were closed. So they couldn’t get their transcripts to apply to prospective universities.”

The problem eased as centres opened up and universities waived or delayed these requirements.

After six weeks, Studyportals’ business began recovering. “Enrolment was affected less than we had anticipated,” says Van Rest. On the whole, the industry saw a global enrolment decline of 24%, while Studyportals grew 16%, or 40% against the trend.

Online dropouts

However, the number of dropouts, who expected to be on-campus but were forced to take courses online from their home country, has increased.

“There’s good persistent retention rates for those who managed to make it past the first month online,” Van Rest says.

Though the companies in the industry are not responsible for students once they are enrolled in a college or university, the industry is affected by different nations’ foreign student policies.

In what many believed was a pressure tactic designed to force universities and colleges to remain open, the US government of Donald Trump ordered that if a foreign student’s school went fully online, that student’s visa was to be cancelled and he or she could be deported.

According to Van Rest, Canada was more accommodating and flexible. Online courses counted towards visa points in the same way in-person learning did. “Students felt valued and understood in a period when they were having a hard time.”

Van Rest is, however, less laudatory about the process of getting visas for new students who planned to come to Canada for both this academic year and the next.

“The process has been slow. A lot of students have been unable to get visas even though they are interested in coming to Canada,” he says, adding that he hopes there will be a clear pathway to come to Canada for the academic year beginning this September.

Foreign students subsidise research

To the question, ‘Why should the average Brit (or Canadian or American) be concerned with maintaining and even growing the number of foreign students?’, Jo Johnson went beyond the usual bromide about how classroom diversity benefits students. The tangible benefit, he says, is that the average foreign student represents an infusion of £100,000 (US$138,000) into the local and national economy.

Further, “foreign students subsidise activities that are loss-making that otherwise would not be offered or would be offered on a much smaller scale. Research is an activity that is loss-making. Obviously, it is critical to the success of all of us in a knowledge economy. But we wouldn’t be able to undertake as much research without international students’ tuition [fees] to support it,” says Johnson.

The potential international student market is huge. Currently around four million students are studying abroad globally, according to pre-pandemic figures. But, says Van Rest, there are 260 million undergraduate and graduate students studying worldwide today – and as many as one billion people want to either take advanced degrees or begin their university education.

Since many of these students’ home countries do not “have the educational infrastructure” needed to support undergraduate and, especially, graduate studies, studying at colleges and universities abroad, either in-person or online, is the only option, says Basiri.

It is this size, according to Johnson, that keeps international student enrolment from being a zero-sum game. “One country does not win and another lose,” he says. “The projections for growth of the sector are extraordinary, largely because of the way technology – online learning – is changing the sociological aspects of access to education.”

Johnson is referring to the fact that the COVID crisis has speeded up a shift to online learning that was already underway. While some students had complained about it to the administrators that Van Rest spoke to, others were quite satisfied with learning online.

Online learning will extend reach

“Studying on campus is not going to go away,” Basiri says. “But online learning is going to help the industry reach more students globally because now colleges and universities know they have the capacity to teach online.”

“Online learning,” added Johnson, “has brought higher education within reach of income groups for whom it was previously unattainable.”

Having recognised this, Studyportals worked with Harvard University to bring its BA largely online. Students must attend two 16-week summer semesters at the school’s Cambridge, Massachusetts campus. The cost, Van Rest noted with pride, is “US$45,000 as opposed to US$230,000”. Of the University of London’s 220,000 students, more than 60,000 from 196 countries are studying online, Van Rest added.

Online creates a new market

According to Van Rest, there is no evidence to support the fear that expanding a university’s online programme offerings leads to the depopulation of its campus, nor is it expected to post-COVID. Rather, studies and Studyportals’ own data show that online foreign students and on-campus foreign students come from different demographics.

The typical international student who comes to a campus, Studyportals’ data shows, is single, 20-years-old and comes for education, life experience and access to the job market in the country in which they study. (One of Johnson’s proudest achievements as universities minister was recognising this and increasing the period a graduate looking for a job can stay in Britain under the Skilled Worker visa from four months to two years.)

But the average online student is 33 years old and often already has a degree and a family and is planning on changing careers.

“Someone trained in econometrics, for example, might want to change to computer science,” says Van Rest.

One student who stands out for Van Rest is an African student who went to study in Australia. “She studied public relations because she wants to advocate for women’s rights and [to fight] sexually transmitted diseases in her home country.”