There is more to student recruitment than edtechs offer

We probably all remember the big reveal in The Wizard of Oz (recently in the news again) when Oscar Zoroaster is revealed as a conman who had used clever props and magic tricks to maintain his place as Supreme Ruler of the Kingdom of Oz.

Universities might consider this when they hear industry pundits eulogising the power of the aggregators and the Emerald City of big data.

The smartest of them know that there is a place for brains, heart and courage in finding alternative solutions to meet challenging international student recruitment targets during a global pandemic.

It’s no surprise that, to date, due to lockdowns and border closures, universities have felt powerless to make an impact on international recruitment.

Stuck in their back bedrooms while working from home, aggregators must have seemed like the answer to their prayers for a quick technology fix to match their new-found obsession with Zoom.

This thinking was supported by the suggestion that they were low cost, simplified agent relationships and could improve student accessibility.

The glamour of eye-watering valuations and bold investments by venture capital and private equity cash looking to ride the latest edtech wave seems very persuasive.

There is slick marketing, even slicker websites and the ubiquitous use of the word algorithm to confirm that artificial intelligence and machine learning can solve all problems.

Anyone blinded by the hype could be easily persuaded to “follow the yellow brick road” and commit the lion’s share of next year’s recruitment budget to the Wizard.

Blinded by algorithms

But, before budgets are committed and valuable university brands handed over, it is worth taking a step back, looking behind the curtain and considering the future in a more measured way.

Dorothy trusted the Wizard and did battle with a Wicked Witch on his behalf before finding he wasn’t all he appeared to be. He wasn’t evil, but it turned out that her first impressions were wrong and her true friends were really the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion.

In the case of the aggregators, those that have joined early are likely to see the best returns on their initial investment because the aggregators’ client lists remain manageable and the choices for students limited.

As more universities pile in, convinced by the returns of those that have gone before them, those that have brands with limited reach or are less able to pay for placement and influence are likely to sink to the bottom.

As aggregators gain clients, their revenues will grow while returns for institutions are likely to diminish over time.

Relying on an algorithm to place you in front of a student is all well and good but, just as has become accepted with Google searches, it only works out if you are on page one and preferably between one and three on the list.

Showing how manipulated this can be can be seen in recent research on Studyportals where a search gave 839 courses on their ‘Our Picks’ list, with the first 10 being the University of Lincoln and the top 253 shown as ‘Featured’, indicating that they had paid to be near the top.

It is debatable whether this method works in the interests of the student or the paying university.

That’s why, despite all the hype around aggregators, 46% of universities polled in a recent UK Education Advisory Service survey have not taken the plunge. They will be looking at the options and ways in which they can manage their risk while optimising any benefits that the new technology can bring.

We return to Dorothy on her journey through Oz to suggest some valuable allies that might form part of a comprehensive strategy.

The Scarecrow is a model for having the brains to develop strategic thinking. Any university putting together their international recruitment strategy for next year should consider this checklist:

Aggregators. Negotiate hard for the best deal. It is all about market share and brand for them, so they want you more than you think.

Review direct recruitment. If you get it right, it can dramatically lower your cost of sale by building strategic relationships with international schools in target markets. Look beyond ‘Tier One’ schools which may have high numbers of expatriates who may want home fee status to ‘Tier Two’ schools to attract more international students.

Think aggressively about meaningful engagement. Nobody needs another talk on “filling out a UCAS form” or “writing a personal statement”. Involve academic colleagues, set challenges and remember to personalise ongoing contact with schools and individual students after a first presentation.

Get a handle on social media, networkers and influencers. Just one example is to join prospective international student groups in your target markets and search for your university name and respond to the various comments and requests for advice and guidance.

Look to your TNE partners. They can be a route for progression, but may also add value in other ways. Examples include careers advice supporting students returning to the region or using existing employer relationships to create new revenue streams for Continuing Professional Development and-or applied research.

Put international employability at the heart of your messaging. It is the reason students, and their parents, invest in international education. Ensure your institution has access to top graduate destinations by key international markets. Get robust, representative data to demonstrate graduate outcomes and be able to tell your ‘employability story’. Whether it’s through direct recruitment, pathways, aggregators or agents, a student’s decision will directly be influenced by their ability to get a good job and be able to progress in their career.

The Tin Man reminds us to have a heart. Do not be lured by the aggregators into abandoning pre-existing and new relationships with agents, institutions, schools and key overseas stakeholders. As the list of those on aggregator sites become longer, it is the personal touch that will end up paying dividends when it comes to recruitment.

Visiting agents’ offices, international schools and speaking to prospective students will never be a waste of time, and that personal touch is likely to be a far stronger incentive for a student to apply than their scrolling through a long list of possible study options.

Where the Lion comes in is in emphasising that universities need courage to make strategic decisions that they will stick with.

That means seeing past the possible short-term bump in recruitment that aggregators will claim and remaining focused on a game plan that both mitigates risk and builds flexible, scalable and meaningful engagement with students now and in the future.

Aggregators may be a part of that strategy, but they are unlikely to be the only option or always the best solution.

Some will survive and others will fall by the wayside like the Wicked Witches of the East and the West. They will not own the student recruitment ecosystem unless universities let them.

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