The PIE: Your last five years have been spent as CFO at Study Group, when you said you worked under David Leigh’s five-year plan. Do you have your own plan to deliver over the next three to five years?
Emma Lancaster: Yes, I think we are really focused on being a leading provider in international education the things that drive that, and we’re doing much more to focus on things like student success.
“There is no question we are having way more conversations with universities than usual”
Our progression rates are in the high 90’s. That is as a key differentiator – we want to make sure that’s really the focus. A real focus on operational excellence [is another goal]. That’s making sure that we are being as efficient as we can be and providing the best experience for our students and our partners.
Some of what we do is not dramatic. It is just about really focusing on driving all the different things that you might not get if using different providers.
Additionally, we will be looking into new partners, particularly in the US, and also what we can deliver to our existing partners. One of the reasons for Rajay’s appointment is to start to think about how we can change as the needs of universities change.
The PIE: The relationship with agents is often quite testy in North America, and although Study Group isn’t an agent, are there any issues connecting with North American institutions?
EL: I think there has been a bit of confusion here, as the industry body said probably about five years ago that it’s okay to recruit via agents. The issue was never with us, they never regarded us as agents, but clearly, we use agents so there is some issue. But that’s gone.
I think the macro factors you see in Australia and the UK are only in play in the US insofar as universities are in need of international students in a way they never used to be. Suddenly there is a lot more appetite for international students and for pathway programs. We had four launches in the fall of 2018. There is energy around it. There is no question that demand is there, there’s no question that students will want to go, so the only challenge at the moment is the immigration environment.
But we have worked in environments where the immigration [rules] were not great and we still grew student numbers. And the pipeline into the US is really strong actually. So, I think that is where we’ll see growth but, it is a much longer-term play.
The PIE: Do you have offices in North America?
EL: We do have an office in Chicago, but we are quite dispersed. Without looking we have 13 partners in the US and one in Canada.
The PIE: And they’ve spread across, from both coasts to Texas…
EL: I have to say, whenever I go to the US I’ve always forgetten [how big it is]… I can do five centres in a week in the UK as I can easily get around, but you can’t do that [in the US] as it’s so big. So Chicago is a bit of a hub, and then we have people obviously based in different centres.
The PIE: You mentioned the immigration environment, and James Pitman has been quite vocal on the UK immigration and international students’ policy, as a voice for the sector. Does Study Group have the ambition to do something similar in all its markets?
EL: Clearly we will always have the ambition [to lobby government], but the pathway sector in North America is tiny. As much as we would like to have a voice, I think the reality is we won’t be heard. But in the UK and in Australia, absolutely.
We all have a passion around it. I think the UK could be so much more welcoming. However, it is still pretty welcoming right now.
“We opened an office in Sao Paulo, trying to drive diversity in our student body”
I think if the UK could deal with some regulatory issues it could become an Australia.
The PIE: On the topic of regulations, could you tell me about the conversations you’ve been having with universities lately? What are the concerns looking at 2019 and all that brings?
EL: I think they are all worried about the same thing which is ‘okay, [Brexit] is going to come in some shape or form, so how are we going to be able to deal with this?’
There is no question we are having way more conversations with universities than usual. We are reasonably discerning as to which [HEIs] we talk to, as we have a very strong position in the UK and need to be very careful with managing our portfolio.
They are coming to us and asking, ‘could we run a pathway?’ Equally, some of our existing partners are asking ‘what else can we do? You’re running this pathway but how can we stretch it and do it a different way? Could we get international students from different areas, or could we do something in the summer?’ There is much more push to be innovative around the area of international students.
The PIE: What does that innovation look like?
EL: If you rather just run a standard foundation program, then innovation might just be doing an international year one, at one end, for some conservative partners. For others it might be thinking about whether we can do one semester online.
We are doing some really interesting stuff, but I can’t tell you about it yet! We are working on new things that I do think will be seen to be innovative.
And we are looking at online a little bit. If you think about the US, and you think immigration is tough, then is there something you can do to do more of it at home? We try to think about it in that way.
The PIE: Changing the subject a bit, could you tell me a little bit about what brought you then into the education sector and what led up to this CEO role?
EL: I worked with David [Leigh] at a private equity-backed business. It wasn’t in education, it was in assessment, but the commonality is that it was a very diverse business spread across a number of countries.
In education, it sounds a bit clichéd, but you are doing good for the world. I started my first job out of practice with working [in] a fascinating industry but, not really feeling like I was giving a lot back. Whereas there’s nothing like meeting a student who’s just graduated, and you begin to realise that these 18-year-olds, wherever they come from, have these amazing stories about how hard they work and the rest of it.
The PIE: How often do you get to meet those students and tour those campuses?
“Suddenly there is an appetite for pathway programs in the US”
EL: We have 48 campuses, so I try and target 12 a year, one a month on average. I have just done a lot more since I’ve taken on this role partly because I have been trying to spend more time with our people. You learn so much.
It’s all very well sitting here in…not quite an ivory tower, but sitting here in central London. And when you go out and talk to teachers about what they are facing or what the issues are, I always come back having learned something new.
The PIE: You have mentioned the growth in North America and Australia. Are there other markets that you are looking into? Is there anywhere exciting this year?
EL: I referenced it a bit earlier, but I think Canada. There’s no question that Canada is somewhere that is really driving [growth].
Canada is also a place where they need lots of people to do lots of jobs, and as a consequence, they are running big campaigns, which is excellent.
New Zealand is another area. We signed a partnership with Waikato last year in Hamilton.
And potentially in Europe as well. We already have our Holland hub but, there’s an opportunity there.
We are looking to push those destination markets. I think compared to our competitors we are already more evenly spread across the UK, Australia, and North America, but having a couple more strings to our bow would be quite helpful.
Another exciting area for us is source markets. Traditionally, along with all of our competitors, a big chunk of our students come from China and they will continue to come from China, because there is no question its [economy] is growing and they have more students studying abroad than any other nation.
Having said that, what we are starting to really think about is how we can get growth from different places. We opened an office in Sao Paulo last July, trying to drive more diversity in our student body. It is what the university partners want, and it drives a better experience for our students.