DB: We currently have 300 university partnerships in the UK, US and Canada primarily. A few in the Middle East and a few in mainland Europe.
The PIE: You mentioned you wanted to take away any bias that agents may have, either consciously or subconsciously when they are counselling students. Can you tell me a little bit about your mission behind creating SchoolApply?
DB: I think fundamentally the problem is that international students go to agents for advice and agents will always have an incentive to point them to the universities that they are partnered with. Therefore students in general don’t get the advice they deserve and we want to remove that and put the decision in the hands of the students.
“We list all relevant institutions – it doesn’t matter if they are partnered with us or not”
The PIE: There are many course search sites out there. How is SchoolApply different?
DB: As a search site we give students full transparency, we list all relevant institutions – it doesn’t matter if they are partnered with us or not – and we give the students the ability to choose from anyone. We also help students to apply to universities we haven’t partnered with, where we don’t have a business model because we think that in the long run universities who get good students from us will want to work with us.
The PIE: How do you help them apply? Do you have people sitting there onsite, like a call centre to help them fill out their application?
DB: Yes, exactly. It is pretty much a semi-manual approach. A lot of the discovery phase happens on our site. Students input all their data, upload their documents, etc. but we have humans on the other side reviewing documents, guiding students who need it and passing on applications to universities. To a large extent the applications that we pass on go through our portal and the universities log on and use our system to review students.
The PIE: How many students have you converted?
DB: I think in the last six months we have sent something like 1,800 applications but it is growing. It is still small numbers.
The PIE: You also mentioned wanting to get the student who is searching, just poking around, not really sure what they are looking for exactly. How are you helping them?
DB: I think that when we launched SchoolApply, we launched it very much as a searchable listing site where you need to know a few things about what you are looking for, you can’t just browse around randomly.
But, we also want to cater to those who have very little clue about where they are going and guide them through the process. So we are now testing a new tech platform where we let students tell us a little bit more about themselves and do questions and answers. We find their profile before we match them with relevant universities. So that is something that kind of replaces the manual agent approach, and we do that using the whole database of all relevant universities.
The PIE: What kind of questions do you ask them?
DB: It is anything from of course the basic ones of how old they are and what field that they are interested in to psychometric questions– if they prefer to be in a crowd or isolated –those types of things.
The PIE: Are digital student placement platforms the way of the future? Will traditional education agents be phased out?
DB: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe that yes they will, of course. But I also think there needs to be some human element to it because it is such a big decision that you are making that you won’t do it solely online. But you can make the boring parts more interesting and more frictionless than they are today and spend more time on the interesting part. So for instance, we always interview students, it doesn’t matter how much of the information they provide themselves, we always interview them to ensure that they are making the right choice.
“We want to cater to those who have very little clue about where they are going and guide them through the process”
The PIE: So someone picks up the phone and calls the student?
DB: Usually over video.
The PIE: You are based in Dubai, why did you decide to work in that part of the world?
DB: Dubai is like a hotspot for expats from the whole world essentially. We are there because it is close to our core markets in the Gulf region, in India, in Nigeria, Ghana, the west African countries and we find great talent.
So many of our employees, the people that man the call centres, are also international students and they studied abroad at great universities. They are the kind of person that our customer wants to become one day. So from that sense, it is really good to be in a place where we can find this talent.
The PIE: Is that where most of your student activity is coming from?
DB: Definitely, that is where we are focusing most of our activities. India is obviously big for us, so is Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi.
The PIE: Any plans to move into China?
DB: China is definitely on the road map. We don’t know when yet, but yes, I think so in a couple of years and so is Latin America.
The PIE: Are most of the courses you promote undergraduate? Postgraduate?
DB: 70-80% are undergraduate.
“When we partner with a university we assess if they are a viable partner for us.”
The PIE: You’ve got an interesting funding model as well. Can you tell me more about it?
DB: Universities can cut a lot of admin costs by working with us and we have sort of a shared revenue model where either a university works with us solely on a commission basis where they pay us commission based on students we place with them or they proactively list their marketing where we will go out and promote them exclusively online. Then usually there is commission on the back end as well but what we do then we co-fund that marketing together with the university
The PIE: And is it a quota system on the number of leads you promise?
DB: Not really, that wouldn’t work. What we do is when we partner with a university we assess if they are a viable partner for us. Is this a partner that our students will be interested in and if not, we need to look at if this is a university we can find a new audience for. If these are two no’s then it is probably not the right university for us. If there is match we try to look at how many students we potentially can provide them with.
Usually the universities will invest in the next intake, that is typically what they have budgets for, but there are cases where we have a multiple year agreement.
The PIE: And until you deliver that number, you don’t deliver that contract?
DB: Yes and it is not like we have a committed number where we are liable for sending them students. We don’t have them in our back pockets, but if we believe we are placing 10 students with the university it is risk on our side and the university side.
The PIE: What is the risk on your side?
DB: It’s staff, it is marketing spend. It costs a lot of money to generate leads.
The PIE: Whenever you do those marketing campaigns how specific are they? Some people may be looking for chemical engineering students in this city in India, can you get that specific?
DB: Yes, we have this, not that often, it would be hard, but definitely at some points we are finding engineering students from India, for example. Or medical students from India and focus on a specific program, that is very much doable.
“We have seen an uptake of US-bound students from the Gulf region. They seem to be more than ever interested in the States”
The PIE: What else does SchoolApply have planned?
DB: The tech side is where really exciting things are going to happen. Right now we have a good engine for finding and applying to the right university. We have the infrastructure for the university to review those applicants. It is really an end to end platform. What we are introducing now is a lot of that around matching and pushing learning to make our engine smarter when it comes to suggesting things. We are learning from other industries, like taxis or dating even.
The PIE: How many potential matches would a student see on your site?
DB: Usually it is between five to 10, but it can be a little bit more.
The PIE: If you’re handling the application administration for universities, how do you combat fraud?
DB: Document verification is an important part of it. At the end of the day though it is up to the universities to assess the documents. When it comes to the full acceptance, universities really do need to scrutinise the documentation. We take pride in providing proper applications, we interview students to ensure that it is the right person, but still fraud can happen. So obviously at the end of the day it is the universities’ job to make sure that happens.
The PIE: What trends you are seeing in international student recruitment right now?
DB: There has been a lot of talk about US versus Canada during the last year, but we have a pretty big student audience from the Gulf countries and we have seen an uptake of US-bound students from the Gulf region. They seem to be more than ever interested in the States.
The PIE: Why do you think that is?
DB: I don’t know but maybe Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia helped.