Private providers in student recruitment: Time to reassess?

While more public universities in the United Kingdom are turning to the private sector for help in recruiting international students, suspicion and lack of confidence in forming and managing such partnerships remains a hurdle, according to a new report.

Pathway providers, together with local representation and offshore academic delivery, got the most favourable reviews in a survey on the use of private providers to support international student recruitment efforts by British universities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In contrast, aggregators received the least positive responses “because of a perceived lack of transparency and lack of oversight”, according to the research produced by the Nous Group, an international management consultancy, for Oxford International Education Group, a private provider of educational services, and Universities UK International, which represents UK higher education institutions globally.

The report Public Meets Private: The growth of educational services in international student recruitment was published on Tuesday 11 October 2022 and is based on responses to a detailed questionnaire from 61 respondents, followed up by in-depth interviews, using the Universities UK International pro vice-chancellors network.

Institutions that responded account for about half of all international enrolments in the UK in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the report.

It found 47% of respondents increased the use of private providers for their international student recruitment efforts during the pandemic.

The role of the private sector

Nous Principal Matt Durnin, the main author of the report, was global head of insights and consultancy for the British Council in Beijing before moving to Toronto, Canada, to take up his new role in November 2021.

He said increased dependency on international student tuition fees together with heightened competition for students is pushing many UK universities to look for support from the private sector.

“International recruitment teams are increasingly pressed to deliver bigger results without corresponding investments in resources, which forces innovative thinking about the role the private sector can play.

“This trend was in motion before 2020, but the pandemic and a surge of venture capital into educational services in recent years have accelerated the development of private provider services.

“While most universities recognise the value in engaging private providers, satisfaction with different provider types is mixed and trust can be a hurdle,” said Durnin.

Dr David Pilsbury, who moved to the private education sector at the back end of 2021 after over 13 years as deputy vice-chancellor (international) with Coventry University in the UK, told University World News there are a lot of similarities between working in public higher education and working with the best private providers.

Now chief development officer at Oxford International Education Group, Pilsbury said: “We have lots of people who have worked in public higher education who share the values and the belief in higher education as a transformative experience and the focus on quality and putting the student at the centre of things.

“The big differences are that engagement with colleagues within private providers is less formal and we don’t have a mass of committees. Reporting lines are clear and shorter, we are very big on data and insight and there is massive willingness to invest resources to build capacity and capability.

“Even in Coventry during its heyday we didn’t move at the speed and with the level of resourcing that we benefit from in Oxford International, which helps our partners.”

Sea change during the pandemic

Pilsbury said he accepted that “there have historically been some private providers who justified the suspicions about them”, but he told University World News there had been a “sea change” in quality and professionalism in the consultancy sphere, which was speeded up during the COVID-19 pandemic, with private-public partnerships helping to overcome many of the obstacles caused by the sudden switch to online teaching and working, and other measures imposed by the health emergency.

This was backed up by Dr Janet Ilieva, director and founder of her own international higher education consultancy, Education Insight, who said: “The pandemic accelerated the partnerships with private providers in the student recruitment space as continued lockdowns and travel restrictions made it difficult for many to run student fairs, exhibitions and other large-scale student recruitment events. Working with trusted partners in the students’ countries became essential for international recruiters.”

Pilsbury told University World News there was still room for improvement, including “establishing the language that allows us to talk effectively to one another and recognise that we are different but complementary”.

The report showed that satisfaction with different private provider types was mixed, with 94% of respondents either satisfied or very satisfied with local representation and 82% happy with offshore academic delivery and 74% satisfied or very satisfied with pathway providers.

“Notably, all three of these types of services have long histories in the international education sector and tend to involve deep, embedded partnerships,” the report notes.

Criticism of aggregators

Aggregators are the most controversial among the types of private providers that institutions engage with most.

The majority of respondents (63%) described their satisfaction with aggregators as “neutral”, while only 37% were satisfied or very satisfied. In interviews, several detractors questioned the value that aggregators deliver, as they can “impose additional burdens as extra checks are required to process a large volume of low-quality applications”.

“Interviewees who gave the most positive assessments of aggregators tended to use them for highly specific purposes,” said the report.

“One university told us they use aggregators to decrease overall application processing burdens by feeding their small and underperforming agents through them.

“Any agent who fails to meet the university’s target conversion rate, for example by submitting low-quality applications, loses the privilege of directly submitting applicants to the university and must instead put them through the aggregator. This serves as an incentive for agents to maintain focus on quality applicants and requires aggregators to establish the individual academic and other credentials of students coming via them.

“The other criticism frequently levelled at aggregators is that there is a lack of transparency in the sub-agent networks from which they draw their applicants. Universities fear weak oversight and the possibility that sub-agents may mislead both the aggregator company and the students in their desire to see students secure a place.”

Interestingly, despite the ambivalence that many survey respondents showed in their satisfaction with aggregators, this was the area in which the most respondents said they were considering expanding or adding partnerships.

“This suggests that, while there are some issues to iron out in terms of operating model and trust-building, agent aggregators will become a more important feature in student recruitment,” said the report.

Other areas where universities want private sector support but see few satisfactory options available include school engagement, course search and placement, alumni engagement and graduate employability, said the report.

Hesitancy from larger universities

The findings also show that larger, higher-ranking UK universities are more hesitant about engaging with private providers and are instead happy to trade on their brand until the private sector has proved its value.

Meanwhile, lower-ranked universities are reluctant to engage private providers because they lack sufficient resources to evaluate and navigate relations with the sector.

This has led to mid-tariff universities making the most use of private provision to boost their international student recruitment efforts, particularly where they either face declining domestic recruitment or are worried about decreasing income from home students, said Pilsbury.

He told University World News he was surprised that the research showed continued anxiety about using private providers among some institutions where admissions are in worrying decline internationally and where “diversity is taking a hammering” as dependence on China for international recruitment is being replaced by over-dependence on postgraduate Indian business students.

“We know that the old model of travelling international teams has to change because of climate concerns – let alone efficiency – and yet there is a desire for a return to ‘business as usual’. COVID forced people to innovate, but now we see people wanting to put the genie back in the bottle.

“That’s why bringing in insight and objectivity from an external party should help to ensure everyone makes better decisions.

“Record numbers are applying to UK universities at the moment, but this is causing a burning platform in application processing and the quality of service to students and let’s not forget that global competition is taking off again and we are about to begin a new unstoppable period of change.

“That’s why UK universities need to think strategically and be open to working with private providers who can help in clarifying their objectives and how to get there,” said Pilsbury.

Charley Robinson, head of global mobility at Universities UK International, agreed and said: “Public-private partnerships can work to increase UK sector capability in the face of global competition – and rather than a bolt-on or extension to existing recruitment models, such partnerships may enable a wider appraisal of the implications for future strategy and operating models.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.