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Almost half of UK unis increased private partnerships

Some 47% of UK universities recently surveyed have increased private partnerships in their international student recruitment efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Only 37% of those surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their service from agent aggregators. Photo: Unsplash

Higher-ranked universities that can trade on brand saw private sector services as something that would change international recruitment at the margins

When asked for the reason for this, 72% of respondents cited “increased competition” for students as the key driver behind this approach, including challenges in recruiting from China, with this being particularly true for universities in the middle and lower bands of the major global rankings.

The findings come from new research conducted by Oxford International Education Group, Universities UK International and Nous Group.

Sustainability, capability and capacity challenges were found to be significant secondary drivers in increased reliance on private providers and the institutions that responded to the surveys included in the report accounted for about half of all international enrolments in the UK in the 2020/21 academic year.

David Pilsbury, chief development officer at Oxford International Education Group said, “We are hearing loud and clear the sector’s desire to deliver lower cost, higher quality services and more sustainable student recruitment.”

Source: Nous Group

The findings are from the Public meets private; The growth of education services in international student recruitment report, which aims to “build a more cohesive picture of how universities work with private providers” while exploring “the expanding frontier of the private sector services in international student recruitment”.

Charley Robinson, head of global mobility at, Universities UK International, said, “With the increase of education technology, private investment and innovation in the sphere of public-private partnerships, new opportunities are arising to address emerging challenges in recruiting internationally.”

“New opportunities are arising to address emerging challenges in recruiting internationally”

“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,” she continued.

The most cited private provider types which universities work with were agent aggregators, pathway providers, digital marketing and lead generation services, and local representation.

Pilsbury at OIEG, noted that long-standing private sector partners “have demonstrated that we can deliver sector-leading processes and outcomes, and this report highlights new and exciting opportunities for collaboration with partners that we are committed to embracing”.

Despite the increase, confidence in providers remains an issue in forming and managing these partnerships.

Robinson noted that “communication and co-ordination between senior management and international recruitment leads is key, and more transparency is needed from service providers to build trust and confidence”.

Matt Durnin, principal at Nous Group, and author of the report, described satisfaction with different provider types as “mixed” and said that “trust can be a hurdle”.

The report states that pathway providers, local representation and offshore academic delivery received the most favourable reviews with pathway providers earning the highest level of trust, “in part because of their long-term relationships and the senior university leaders with which they engage”.

Meanwhile, despite their popularity, agent aggregators reviews were more “controversial” due to a perceived lack of transparency and insufficient oversight. Only 37% of those surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their service. Those who gave positive reviews tended to use aggregator services for more targeted purposes, like managing small agents in their portfolio.

However, one anonymous source interviewed in the report felt that “there is always going to be a risk in working with a partner, but it’s nothing compared to recruiting and training 40 people”.

The report also highlighted “growing concerns” around the cost of acquiring students, costs of fees for students and rising operating costs as “inflation and economic headwinds increase”.

“Across all university types we heard that universities are finding it challenging to engage with a longer tail of smaller markets without dramatically raising the per-student cost of acquisition,” the report noted.

“Most thought private providers were at least part of the solution, with particular focus on what pathway providers and aggregators could deliver.”

“Most thought private providers were at least part of the solution”

As for what this shift means for the future of the sector, higher-ranked universities that can trade on brand saw private sector services as something that would change international recruitment at the margins but not revolutionise core functions.

Institutions outside of this group tended to see the potential for private partnerships to disrupt traditional recruitment models with many believing that their institution will rely significantly more on such partnerships for their overseas engagements and relationship management in the future.

Those surveyed were asked which markets they thought private providers will become most crucial in for meeting recruitment targets in the immediate future and respondents voted for China, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Source: Nous Group

According to Durnin, “the best outcome of greater cooperation with the private sector is that universities can exit some administrative functions and refocus resources and attention on their core mission”.

“But achieving this will require strategic vision and investments in the knowledge and governance structures to make these partnerships productive and sustainable,” he added.

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