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Share of UK enquiries falling as world opens up

A perfect storm of macro-level factors including the launch of the graduate route post-study work visa, a global pandemic and a digital revolution, have conspired to boost UK international student numbers to record levels 10 years ahead of target.

The sector audience was keen to understand the impact of rising application volumes and the associated risks for UK universities. Photo: Roger Harris

“A small number of universities are resistant to change, on the other end of the spectrum there are universities engaging with edtech and [want to] inform the future of it”

But now the UK sector audience attending The PIE Live conference 2022 was keen to understand the impact of rising application volumes and the associated risks. 

“How busy is busy?” was the opening question from Amy Baker, CEO of The PIE and chair of the Agents, Integrity and Application Overload panel session at the event.

“We’re really busy in terms of high volume growth,” explained Francis Glover, deputy director International at De Montfort University. “Over the pandemic years we didn’t know how university finances were behaving, we had to get as many international students as we could in, we had to make sure the university was financially viable.

“Now we can take a step back, decide where we are going over the next three, four, five years and what solutions we have in the sector to match individual problems.”

“Everyone’s worried about what comes next”

This picture of peak demand was echoed by Bobby Mehta, associate pro-vice chancellor (Global) at the University of Portsmouth, pointing to “unprecedented demand” over the last 18 months.

“It’s busier than it’s been for a long time,” he said.

However, he added with caution, while we take a moment to celebrate this period of growth, there is understandable concern in the sector about what it means longer term, stating “everyone’s worried about what comes next”.

This is the crossroads that universities are facing. The choice of whether to invest in admissions capabilities and plan for continued growth, or to explore new recruitment partnerships in response to other global markets returning to normality and competition increasing. Indecision could prove costly. 

Digvijay Gagneja, COO and UK director at Leverage Edu, highlighted that while demand for the UK remains high and rising, other countries – Canada, Australia and US – are seeing increased interest as the lifting of Covid restrictions allows the world to open up. The Leverage Edu website receives over 7 million visitors a month with 75% sourced from India and 25% from the rest of the world.

He estimated that 50% of students applying through Leverage Edu do not have a country of preference. “[The students] say, ‘I want to study abroad, tell me what are my options?’”

It is a stark reminder of the global competition. Gone are the days of single destination agents and total loyalty to the UK. In a world with Covid, agents need to cater for multiple destinations in order both to cover their own risk and continue to scale.

Then add the disruptors. The new digital application tools that are using AI to automate large volumes of application flows, known as aggregators, a term that is quickly drawing negative connotations of application overload and low conversion. “I often feel with these types of sessions I have to start with a confession. My name is Patrick – I am an agent aggregator,” quipped Patrick Whitfield, chief commercial officer at Adventus.io.

“We tend to describe ourselves as a marketplace,” he went on to explain. “The one thing we all have in common is more applications going to more UK universities. We want to support that process, not exasperate it.

“What people don’t realise is that when you join Adventus you are actually getting an admissions capability. We see about 30% of applications are actually filtered out by our team before they reach a university.”

So is the negative image justified for digital recruitment? With hyper-growth comes greater risk and questions about fraud and integrity are being asked by the sector – how well can you know your customers online?

“You’ll probably be surprised just how well we do know our customers,” explained Whitfield. “We just approach it in a way a sophisticated technology company approaches customer success; that allows us to scale in a way that perhaps the more traditional sub-agency models work.”

“Back in the old days, when you visited an agent who uses sub-agents you could see they knew who that sub-agent was”

Leverage Edu is also taking best practice from other industries that are liable to digital fraud. “I always go back to the banking industry as an example,” explained Digvijay Gagneja, “we do a KYC – a know your customer check – on every student who comes in. We only push those submissions if we know they have a good chance of getting an unconditional offer. On average we see 3.5 applications submitted per student.”

Whitfield from Adventus.io also made a similar claim despite its sub-agent aggregation model. “We try to control the number of applications an agent can submit but actually we see on average it is only about two applications per student. We [all] need to get under the hood [to see what is really happening] – the devil is in the detail. Business as usual has changed.”

If that is the case and things have changed, the next question to the panel was telling. Are universities willing to embrace it? Mehta explained his institutional stance in clear terms.

“At Portsmouth we are not working with aggregators and our application numbers are through the roof – so why do we need to work with aggregators?” The volume model is clearly less appealing when admissions teams are struggling to cope with existing demand.

“Universities have been working with B2B agents for 20 years. Back in the old days, when you visited an agent who uses sub-agents you could see they knew who that sub-agent was, the owner knew who that person was, how many kids they had, where they lived, where their office was, they’d trained them, the relationship was different. What the edtech platforms are allowing is access to individual organisations they’ve never met, they don’t know who they are.”

The speed of change and perceived loss of control is clearly an issue for universities and it is true to say higher education marketing doesn’t have a history of early adoption of digital technology or third party solutions from the private sector.

“We saw similar caution about foundation providers when they were new. The hesitation is natural,” Glover from De Montfort University reminded the audience. The marrying of public-private sector solutions could take some time, however, some movement was offered by Whitfield from Adventus. While “a small number of universities are resistant to change, on the other end of the spectrum there are universities engaging with edtech and [want to] inform the future of it”.

Amy Baker, prompted by an audience question “does speed of offer influence conversion?”, was determined to finish with some hard metrics. Gagneja from Leverage Edu was able to offer some insight from their application database.

“We looked at the data and we find the conversion rates for universities that give out offers in less than a week are 70% higher than universities that take more than a week. The other interesting fact that we found is that universities who take three weeks, four weeks, five weeks to produce an offer, their conversion rates are good until about five months before the intake but then it all starts going down.”

Whitfield also explained that this problem is also exacerbated by late application markets, such as the postgraduate West African market which has never before found it necessary to apply early in the UK cycle.

“So if speed is critical, how quick is the offer-making at your universities?” Baker put to the university panellists.

“We are looking to increase [admissions] capacity”

Glover suggested that in De Montfort University’s priority markets, an initial offer can be issued in 48 hours – a tactic that many universities have used frequently in the past including spot-offers or automated offers in principle. 

Mehta offered a very different answer for the University of Portsmouth, one that is more representative of the deep frustrations that students, agents and indeed aggregators are experiencing with response times from popular UK universities at the moment. “We are nowhere near that unfortunately,” was his answer, “we are looking at four to six weeks for postgraduate taught courses. We are looking to increase [admissions] capacity and hopefully soon we will be able to match what DMU offers.”

Delegates will have noted that this panel represented the disconnect between the old and new approaches to international recruitment, where personal experience and expertise are being challenged by automation and scale. The danger is that while the UK navigates its way through this transition, it could once again fall behind to more coordinated competition abroad. 

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