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UK: finance and international offices must “work together” after disconnect

University finance offices and international offices are at a turning point and representatives from both sides are only just getting over a disconnect, stakeholders have said.

Delegates gathered in London for WPM Flywire's inaugural joint summit on May 25. Photo: The PIE News

For the most part, international and finance office representatives simply do not communicate

A lack of communication between international and finance office representatives leads to issues such as student funds not going through, delays in refunds and in advancement to visa processing on applications, one delegate at the WPM Flywire International Student Agents Summit working in the finance office at a UK university has warned.

“We are all in our individual silos and don’t really talk until there’s a problem – and then, of course, there is a problem, so we’re back at square one – it’s a disconnect,” the rep told The PIE.

For the first time, representatives from both arms came together at the inaugural conference, confirming the ”feeling” that more people need to “be involved in the international student ecosystem”.

“This gathering almost confirmed some suspicions that more people need to be involved in this ecosystem of international student recruitment, enrolment progression and retention than just these current siloed working efforts,” Calum Porter, international recruitment manager for East Asia at the University of Hull told The PIE News.

“These are two very different worlds, with two very different roles, but both are fully reliant upon each other – one without the other simply won’t work,” he added.

As well as Porter, the PIE spoke to the other side of fence at the University of Hull in Anita McGarry, who was attending as finance representative in her role as student financial services manager.

“We are all in our individual silos and don’t really talk until there’s a problem”

“We’ve been working with the international office for only this year, really, based on our increase in Nigerian students,” she told The PIE.

“And we have to keep in mind that we need to go to the students and tell them what our expectations are before they come.

“While we’ve been working closely with people like Calum, this is the first time I’ve met him in person. It’s a step, and it’s important that everyone knows what the bottlenecks are for each other, so we can all work together to solve the problems on behalf of the students,” she added.

Sheona Griffiths, director of research and marketing and WPM, reiterated the issues at the conference that were raised in a recent PIE Chat Live with WPM’s director, Holger Bollmann, where an increase in applications is leading to a rise in direct to bank transfers and creating an overload for the finance office.

“Often the deposits are being paid directly to the bank and often that person is coming from a high-risk country – and then there are a lot of additional checks and compliance obligations, and so students start calling asking whether the money has been received,” Griffiths explained.

In research conducted by WPM, Griffiths said, 41% of India students are paying via direct to bank transfer, versus 18% of all nationalities – highlighting a significant problem, when India is such a massive emerging source market.

“WPM has been focused on our research and understanding it from the international payer’s perspective – but it’s joining the dots, with what international students were saying in terms of payment issues, and what conversations colleagues were having a presence on the ground in source markets like India,” Griffiths added.

Sharon Butler, EVP of global sales at Flywire, also echoed the idea of collaboration – specifically, between WPM and Flywire, after the acquisition in January.

“We have found that from a technology perspective, we can really help bring everybody together and solve these disconnects – that’s how we ended up here, working with the WPM team and how they want to go about digging into some of the findings regarding students’ finance payments,” Butler said to delegates.

Throughout the day, panels and keynotes discussed the fundamentals agent-institution relations, financial office pains, the changing student recruitment landscape and agent management by financial and international offices.

Mark Lucas of Lucas Education Consulting told delegates what it truly takes to be an agent, and how they “can help recruitment” and “wade through” course after course for international offices – and make that ever-difficult payment issue that little bit easier for financial offices.

Outgoing director of UUKi Vivienne Stern, who takes up her new role as director of UUK in September, reminded delegates of the UK’s pivotal role in the international education sector.

“Everybody wants to work together to do right by the students”

“The government’s attitude to international university activity has changed… it is a central plank in the way the UK exerts influence on the world,” she said.

Bobby Mehta, the chair of BUILA, also talked about the agent quality framework, which is launching “relatively soon” – so is a space to watch out for, as Jacqui Jenkins of the British Council said on the ensuing panel discussion that it is a “game changer” for the sector.

Reflecting on the conference, Griffiths told The PIE News that this was the start of something promising.

“We’ve started exchanging perspective, started to understand each other… everybody wants to work together to do right by the students,” she said.

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