Return to normality: Is it crunch time for aggregators?

If anyone doubts the determination of the international recruitment specialists to get back to business as usual, they are not paying much attention to their LinkedIn feed.

Every day brings a new outpouring of gratitude to be in an airport, in a hotel and in an agent’s office. All the things that had been workaday and vaguely dull are suddenly born anew as if a winter of cold comfort has given way to a recruitment spring of enormous promise.

With the first in-person NAFSA (Association of International Educators) annual conference of the new era starting this week, the international community will be out in force and willing to share stories about the value of personal engagement and the important role it plays in differentiating one institution from another.

They will reflect that a parent about to send a sheltered 18-year-old across oceans, thousands of miles away, is likely to need a little personal reassurance as to their offspring’s well-being. Talk will turn to whether the aggregators are really adding enough value to lead the way in the post-pandemic world.

For the aggregators, the return of in-person activity has been a little like Count Dracula encountering the sunrise. In Bram Stoker’s original novel, the Count was not destroyed by the light but it significantly reduced his powers to shapeshift, to appear to defy gravity and to convert others into his helpless vampire followers with a single bite.

It may be that the sunlight of personal contact, renewed travel and a good working knowledge of the limitations of technology has made the aggregators look less like the best game in town.

Second best?

Aggregators, virtual study portals, algorithms, artificial intelligence, blockchain and machine learning are also suffering the same fate as masks and social distancing: they were essential and sometimes mandated during the early part of the pandemic, but are now in many cases matters of choice and in some countries have become very much second best to personal contact.

The other problem is that some of the promises made about streamlining, reach and volume enrolments are looking increasingly like strategies to lure venture capitalists into investments under the edtech buzzword.

Universities, admissions experts and experienced recruiters are well aware that applications overload has become a significant problem despite aggregator efforts to sift initial interest.

They realise that agents and students are increasingly encouraged to play the field because aggregators make it easy to load multiple applications to dozens of universities. They have even worked out that the search function on the portal is of no use to an institution if they end up on page 15, as one of hundreds of similar options thrown up by broad search terms.

The thing is that technology can always be purchased, improved and-or replicated, and a glance through the aggregator and study portals does little to suggest that any of them have created a product that offers a sustainable differentiation or competitive edge.

On the other hand, personal relationships have been the bedrock of international recruitment for several decades and it is easier to bolt on technology than recreate a road warrior with a well-earned reputation for delivering, for students. Larger agents have also invested for years in building a presence that is physically close to and trusted by generations of entire families.

The competition

The future will necessitate investment in ‘high touch’ as much as ‘high tech’ and we have already seen aggregators trumpeting their moves into new countries with associated offices to try to reinforce their local credibility and accountability.

But infrastructure and good people are expensive, not to mention hard to find and they are coming from behind compared to the many long-term players who have already built their organisations around the globe.

One example is the way INTO launched three University Access Centres before the pandemic and is planning up to 25 by the end of 2023 to supplement its 25 regional offices around the globe.

There is nothing to suggest that INTO and other pathway operators can’t ramp up their ‘common apps’, partner portals and automated admissions processes to a point where they have the technology to complement their long term in-market strength.

The pathways also have the proven ability to engage with universities, negotiate terms and have been through familiarisation visits that give them real credibility when talking to parents, students and agents.

Over the past couple of years there has been a rush to supplement pathway recruitment with direct recruitment and it may be that the post-pandemic era sees this maturing as a full-service offer.

Employability support

A significant differentiator for the aggregators and the wider edtech ecosystem could be international employability.

We have already seen the pathway operators taking the first steps in responding to the demonstrable international student demand with some offering paid for ‘employability support’ in addition to the fees they charge for the pathway programmes. Plus, the big players in commercial education as far back as 2018 were referring to employability as the next frontier.

Andrew Barkla, CEO of international higher education consultants IDP, was interviewed by The PIE and said: “From a counselling and guidance point of view, we are already having career conversations with students at the very beginning of their journey.”

The smartest are already looking at ways of demonstrating the efficacy of their operation and the way their university partners are considering successful graduate outcomes, as much as the initial recruitment of bums on seats.

Where technology can really add value is in collecting international employability data in ways that are vastly superior and more cost-effective than the tired old questionnaire approaches that have fallen into disrepute.

High quality graduate outcomes data will also allow career opportunities to be developed in source countries, help place students with internships and study experiences and ultimately get them connections to pursue a career when they go home.

No-one has yet seized the nettle and invested significantly to deliver the golden triad of a great recruitment experience, a great education and a great job, but there are signs that many of the major players realise that this is the moment to act.

This all takes place against the backdrop of some commentators, including The Sunday Times, recently suggesting that “the great tech revaluation has only just begun”.

It quoted Airbnb chief Brian Chesky tweeting that the moment “feels similar to late 2008”, and Uber boss, Dara Khosrowshahi, saying: “We will absolutely have to do more with less.”

The article concludes that there could be “two years yet to run of falling values, imploding companies and desperation mergers”.

An uncertain future

This comes at a time when the momentum of face-to-face engagement is developing and everyone has had the opportunity to size up whether the excitement around aggregators was a symptom of the pandemic rather than a long-term cure for recruitment.

If the flow of money to continue investing in technology businesses slows and investors find more attractive options elsewhere, some may find themselves near the end of their runway.

There are a lot of questions to consider.

Will the aggregators be able to use their financial muscle and existing platforms as a ticket to more funding that allows them to compete, or will bricks and mortar businesses that have been around for years steal their thunder?

Will the underlying strength of businesses based on personal contact enable them to accelerate their use of technology in a way that takes away the aggregator point of differentiation and advantage? Or will the answer be a flurry of acquisitions and mergers that attempt to deliver real synergy to the advantage of students and universities?

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