All recruitment agent aggregators are not created equal

A flood of private money into the education sector is not necessarily a bad thing. Providing students with choice and value is positive and doing so with maximum effectiveness and efficiency makes sense. When a single ship in the Suez Canal can disrupt international trade and a pandemic makes global movement risky or near impossible, there is even more reason to use technology to bring people together.

That is the siren call of the ‘aggregators’ in higher education, but there have been recent challenges questioning their transparency, efficacy and level of genuine concern for students.

The possibility of consolidation to create an ‘Amazon of aggregators’ or a ‘Weibo of wannastudy’ leaves the prospect of market manipulation that is far from the interests of applicants. Regulation, compliance, oversight and the personal link between a university and its potential students are all good questions in this brave new world.

A rapidly evolving network

A clarification about different types of aggregator in the context of this article is needed: ‘Agent aggregators’ provide a platform that allows universities and agents to interact while ‘university aggregators’ provide a means for students to search and apply for universities directly.

The two types are a simplification of a complex and rapidly developing network where the lines are already blurring as different models prove more, or less, successful.

It’s partly a recognition that in some markets and at some levels of study, agents are dominant, while in others many students feel comfortable enough to proceed without a friendly hand guiding them through the process.

Agents themselves have also been ‘aggregators’ for many years, with sub-agency networks feeding into the main players or middlemen establishing themselves and coordinating dozens of geographically separated ‘mom and pop shops’. Pathway operators and universities have become particularly familiar with this environment as the only way to extend their reach without the overhead of an army of travelling salespeople.

The need for a quality framework

The reality is that an education institution often has no idea who first advised a student on their application or whether it was done in good faith.

The recently published BUILA (British Universities’ International Liaison Association) and UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs) report, A Partnership for Quality: A route to a UK quality framework with education agents, produced by education consultancy Edified was commissioned prior to the meteoric rise of the aggregators, but provides a strong foundation for thinking about this development in the global higher education landscape.

Given the current pace of change, it’s troubling that a ‘route’ to a quality framework is only emerging when agents have been increasingly influential for three decades.

That is really the point that emerges from consideration of the risks and challenges of a rapidly developing new approach to recruiting students. Universities are ill-prepared to engage effectively to ensure that they are not being misrepresented or that students are not being misled.

The report’s timing is a little like the United Kingdom publishing a treatise on how to do better with horse drawn artillery in the 1914-18 war just as planes are fighting out the Battle of Britain in the skies above London in 1940.

Nothing new

Having established that aggregation is not really new, it’s important to note that neither is the notion of universities allowing commercial third parties to use their brands in the hope and expectation of lucrative recruitment from international markets.

Deals signed directly with agents have been common for decades and commercial pathway operators have made significant gains in the UK, Australia and the United States, while Canada is catching up. An example on the ‘student aggregator’ side is Studyportals which has been running since 2007, has over 3,700 participating universities and has branched out from ‘Mastersportal’ to have eight portal brands.

The real question is how universities should approach the new world of ‘agent aggregators’. It is possible to build upon the framework provided by the BUILA-UKCISA report to provide some direction.

The report identifies ‘Education Giants’ – Kaplan and Navitas – who have an international network of agents as well as other education business interests, ‘Multi-Nationals’ such as UKEAS and IDP which account for 10% of agents, and ‘Market Specialists’ which account for 5% of agents, for example, TC Global, which focuses on India, and Golden Arrow, which focuses on China.

Agent aggregators might be thought of as an ‘Exchange’, a ‘One Stop’ and a ‘Pathway’.

In the Exchange approach, taken by Adventus, the aggregator behaves like the ‘’ for international higher education where agents receive 100% commission, students get more choice and institutions more applications.

In the One Stop approach, taken by ApplyBoard, the aggregator brings an agent network together with their university partners to offer students breadth of choice, but also takes a slice of the agency commission. They have additional services like English language testing, visa applications and advice to create a ‘one stop shop’.

In the Pathway approach, aggregators have a network of agents feeding their pathway programmes into universities. This is where the best known and longest standing commercial names sit – Study Group, INTO University Partnerships and Cambridge Education Group as well as parts of the Kaplan and Navitas operations.

The Outsourcers, such as MSM Media and Sannam S4, operate offices overseas for university partners to engage more effectively by using technology and streamlining services and agent engagement.

There is, unfortunately, one more group that could be called the Pretenders, who do not have the global office infrastructure, investment in training, technology platform, network of agents or university partners that they claim. A slick website purporting to have high levels of student traffic, a comprehensive network of agents spanning the globe and a multitude of university partners does not mean this is the reality. Strong marketing ‘does not an agent aggregator make’.

The need for oversight

The next and most urgent steps for the sector are to embrace the new world, but to act cautiously and coherently to ensure that both students and financially challenged institutions are not disadvantaged.

It is self-evident that they should steer clear of organisations copying others’ marketing campaigns and dressing up to look like legitimate outfits. But a degree of oversight by the Office for Students (in the UK) and similar bodies in other countries might be helpful in creating a level, legal and equally lucrative playing field.

It may even be a good step for aggregators to be obliged to capture and publish the views of students who are placed through their services.

Technology has provided a wonderful opportunity for students to have greater transparency, accessibility and support with finding the right university than ever before.

The biggest agents have long argued that they rely on reputation and repeat business to grow their organisation and that they invest heavily in supporting applicants. It is something that aggregators should be obliged to formalise and standardise.

Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge and Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.