How could ChatGPT disrupt global student recruitment?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere, but common sense tells you it is going to have a marked and lasting impact on education. Whether universities and schools demand students shun it, embrace it or ignore it is playing out in real time. Few seem to be looking at the international recruitment opportunities and who will be winners and losers.

ChatGPT makes the straitjacket of aggregator selection categories look as dated and restrictive as the days before streaming TV, mobile phones and the internet. It will revolutionise student search and selection for university choices because it is lightning quick and can be almost infinitely personalised. Above all, it removes the annoying propensity of current platforms to feature and favour universities that pay for the privilege of being on the top page.

For smart universities, the changes will allow them to focus on their unique selling points with high quality customer information about price, excellence and graduate employability. The onus will be on institutions to genuinely respond to student expectations rather than using rankings as a surrogate for quality. No need to pay middle men in the form of agents and aggregators because the students can do the searching for themselves.

It’s personal

A student sitting anywhere in the world is already able to search globally for courses offering the subjects they want, in cities or on campuses, at the grades they can offer and the price they want.
Forbes and others have already focused on the way that ChatGPT changes ‘the art of personalisation’ and higher education needs to catch up … fast. It’s a step closer to the possibility of consumers having perfect, contemporaneous knowledge about their opportunities.

Just an hour spent researching universities using ChatGPT demonstrates the possibilities and the threat to the established order of generic search. As an experiment the initial setting was as a student from India wanting to study Computer Science, particularly cyber security in London.

Fleshing out the details was an IELTs score of 6, a B grade for undergraduate Computer Science and a tuition budget of £7,000 (US$7,670). For a career, the dream role was working for Amazon Web Services.

At nearly the speed of light

Within seconds ChatGPT churned out its response and it is clear: course search is not a problem. Most universities have learnt the lesson that their website needs to have the most up-to-date course information and AI gobbles this data up. You could choose to refine the parameters further or loosen them, but you are not confined to clunky, broad categories.

The list was personal. It didn’t have at the top 90 or more universities that had paid the aggregator to be ‘featured’ on the website. There were no pathways posing as universities. No counsellor had intervened to highlight and promote an institution which was paying more in commission than the one that met my criteria.

Companies claiming to use AI have often been operating at a much less granular level. Some even have teams of checkers working away to keep data up to date, but they are always going to be behind the curve. ChatGPT delivers genuinely unique results in an instant without having to sign on to a company that is really intent on selling you consultancy, loans or visa advice.

ChatGPT is also good at establishing the levels of English required for various courses. Most universities put their English Language requirements for direct entry prominently on their websites. It’s another tick in the box for ChatGPT and institutions which have put in the effort to build good and searchable pages on course requirements.

On the topic of budget ChatGPT was pretty good and better than most aggregators and course search platforms. All universities recommended were within the budgeted amount. So, a big tick there.

Glitches to fix

There is an identifiable problem for pathway programmes in that they are rarely as integrated with university websites as they need to be. Without a seamless process and shared information they are likely to lose students who search solely for direct entry and, perhaps counter intuitively, the partners of higher ranked institutions who demand higher direct entry levels for English language are most vulnerable. There is the added dimension of the ways in which International Year One courses figure into this environment.

Entry grades were much more problematic, but this is also not that straightforward for aggregators and course-search platforms. They may give an indication of the ease or difficulty of gaining admission to a certain university, but it is far from an exact science, and we know that institutions may flex in any given year, depending on their pipeline of applicants. ChatGPT has a way to go when it comes to finding grade requirements for individual institutions, but it is reasonable to think that nimble universities will see this as an opportunity rather than a barrier.

Career opportunities and employability were, unfortunately, a big fail. It is symptomatic of the general malaise in higher education that institutions are poor at making and highlighting direct links between themselves, their international graduates and employers. The widespread failure of the sector to collect even the most basic employability data is likely to present an open goal for those who take steps to fill the gap.

As prospective students become far more outcomes-focused, universities should measure and evidence the return on investment from their degree programmes and provide accurate data as to where their graduates embark on their early careers. No institution, aggregator, and or platform publishes international graduate outcomes data by country as a tool for students to use when making their university choice. ChatGPT and its successors will expose those who fail to offer information and reward those who invest in collecting the data.

Move fast and fix things

Universities are going to have to get their course recruitment criteria in order to take advantage of AI recruitment, but the outcome will be that sales holy grail – a qualified lead. It’s not just about having the right and most persuasive information on the website, but also a major rethinking of the application process. Universities should streamline the opportunity for direct applications from ChatGPT and work out ways that students can forward their examination transcripts and English test scores directly.

Building a direct connection with the potential student is the dream of every institution and it cuts out private providers who are costing millions in commission payments and sometimes double dipping to take money from the student’s pocket as well. More challenging is that they should decide whether an AI-generated personal statement is part of the zeitgeist or a reason for rejection. Arguably, accepting that students will use the technology and adapting to that reality could mean more time to focus on fraudulent documentation.

International student recruitment should remain a people-focused business and AI offers the opportunity for universities to create links with potential students. The winners will find the right balance between allowing technology to ease the process and being available when the personal touch is needed. It’s a future that offers the best in self-service for potential students while allowing universities to express their personality and benefits.

Travelling halfway around the world for one’s education is a daunting prospect and students, and their families or funders, will always want the reassurance of someone on the ground to guide their child to a university that cares about them as an individual. Building in-country resources, agencies and locations that support the relationship will remain important but supplemented by genuine university participation. It’s a win for the student and the sector.

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.