“We are waiting to see how many of these new aggregators perform within the sector”
In a series of interviews with HE professionals, The PIE was told that there is concern that some aggregators may be too commercially driven.
However, while some said they are on the fence about whether to use aggregator sites, a recent UKEAS survey has shown that many are already using the platforms.
These sites, such as ApplyBoard, StudentApply, Adventus and CatalystGEM, enable agent recruiters to funnel applications through a “master” site which has commercial relationships with many more university partners than a small independent business or adviser could expect to have.
Out of 100 responses from UK university partners, 53.4% said that they work with aggregator platforms, compared to 28.2% who say they do not, according to the UKEAS survey.
“There seems to be a little bit of a grey area between technology and education”
“We are waiting to see how many of these new aggregators perform within the sector and can show that they understand the sector,” one HE professional, who did not want to be named, told The PIE.
“For me, there seems to be a little bit of a grey area between technology and education. Some, not all, of the aggregators appear to be more focused on the technology, and there’s a sense that perhaps the education part is secondary to the technology.”
A potential barrier to the uptake of aggregator platforms by UK universities is the perception that they are too commercially driven.
“We had about half a dozen approaches and we sat through probably four or five pitches. We listened to what they felt they had to offer. And from that, we then made a decision about the company we felt might be a good fit for our institution,” the professional told The PIE.
“There’s no doubt there’s a commercial element to the sector and our existing agents are ultimately commercial organisations, however this feels like it is the next level up in terms of the sort of pitches that we have received.”
“There’s no doubt there’s a commercial element to the sector”
In other interviews, The PIE was told that there is a view within the UK’s HE sector that some aggregators are “very commercially driven”.
A recent survey by UKEAS provided a data-led insight into what UK institutions currently think of aggregators and their business models.
Between June 8 and June 16, UKEAS conducted an anonymous survey of UK university partners which received 100+ responses. Approximately one-third of these respondents were Heads of International, or Directors and above.
Some 53.4% said that they do work with aggregator platforms, though they may re-evaluate in the future. By contrast, 28.2% said that they are not working aggregator platforms, though they may re-evaluate in the future.
Another 15.5% of respondents said they are currently evaluating whether or not they will work with aggregators, and 2.9% of respondents said they are not working with aggregators and will not in the future.
The survey found that while just 18.9% of respondents were confident that universities would be able to maintain control over brand, 52.7% were confident that aggregator platforms would provide better access to data.
However, respondents to the survey provided a long list of concerns that they had with the use of aggregators. Some of these issues included UKVI risk, less control of brand and conflict with existing agent relationships.
Another concern cited was whether smaller institutions will see enough benefit if they engage with aggregators.
One of the HE professionals that The PIE spoke with said that one area of concern related to institutions not being clear about who the aggregators were working with.
“Some of the aggregators said absolutely, we can share the list of who we work with if that’s something that you want to see,” the professional said.
“Others were less keen to share that information with us. What they were all reasonably open on was if we had particular partners that we didn’t want to work with, or perhaps partners that we had previously worked with … that would be taken on board.
“But the fact that a number were not comfortable sharing the list of who they work with, set some alarm bells for us as well.”
I’m not sure what this newfound fear of commercial actors is or what too commercial might mean. Commercial doesn’t have to equal bad or unethical. Most universities in the UK and Australia have been commercial actors for a very long time working on a model to ideally run surpluses to invest in student experience, research and the longevity of their institution. And the international student recruitment agents most of them work with are commercially focused – in their case typically with a profit motive which benefits the owner(s). And personally, I wouldn’t want to work with an agent that wasn’t commercially focussed, that was wasting my time and other resource without the returns on investment I would want. A good commercially focussed business will need to think long-term and serve all of its client groups well enough to achieve that success. For an agent aggregator that means keeping lots of people satisfied from prospective students, their parents and schools, the sub agents, the universities and the other service providers they work with. If they fail to achieve this they won’t have long term success and their investors will soon abandon them. I think the real question is whether the aggregator model can meet the requirements of their various customers, but in particular the student and the university. My concern is that aggregator model has widened the distance between prospective student and the admissions tutor/ university, has increased information asymmetry between the various actors and further hides the work agents undertake for universities.