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Johan Asplund, DreamStudies, Sweden

Having started out as a high school teacher of English, history and computer science, Johan Asplund has been working in the study abroad industry since 2002. He started his business DreamStudies as a means of combining his knowledge of the industry with his understanding of the web and modern technology – and to provide information for students interested in study abroad. Asplund spoke to The PIE about trends in the Scandinavian market and the changes he’s witnessed in student recruitment.

 

Photo: The PIE News

"I didn't just want to do a blueprint of what I'd been doing for the past 15 years"

The PIE: Johan you’re an agent from Sweden. Tell me a bit more about what you do.

Johan Asplund: For 15 years I was with Blueberry Worldwide, a Swedish agency which I co-founded together with Stefan Engström back in 2002. I left in 2016. When I started DreamStudies, I didn’t just want to do a blueprint of what I’d been doing for the past 15 years.

“That’s one of the things that I like most – creating good content that helps students”

I don’t only recruit students from Sweden, but from all over the world. I actually had requests from 170 different nationalities last year. But of course, 50% of them are from Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries – Finland, Norway primarily– are also some of my bigger nationalities.

The PIE: In terms of the difference between recruiting Scandinavian students and the rest of the world: I understand that the rest of the world is recruited online, mainly. How have you been promoting that?

JA: I have eight or nine websites, but DreamStudies is my main website in English – Utlandstudier.se in Swedish. They rank quite well. I worked a lot with SEO for many years.

I also have a different approach to ordinary agencies. Most of them are really good at helping students with the limited number of schools that they offer, which could be, 50, 60, 70 schools. And I think at least on the Swedish market, many agencies promote the same schools. I turned that concept on its head a bit.

So instead of only helping students who ask for my particular schools, I start out by giving students a lot of free information online about studying abroad, regardless of where they want to study.

The PIE: So how does your face-to-face consulting work?

JA: That’s mostly through student fairs – all the big student fairs in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Then we go out to visit high schools primarily in Sweden. We also do information evenings; we have Study in Korea evenings coming up in Stockholm, for example, together with a Korean University. Otherwise, it’s mostly online.

“I have a different approach to ordinary agencies”

I don’t take student visits to my office as an ordinary agency would do. We hand over students to the schools at an earlier stage because I feel many schools are used to direct students. So they have people in place to help students. They are the best ones to answer questions like, “what’s included in this course? Do I have a refrigerator in my accommodation?” But it’s very hard for a school to know which fairs to attend in Scandinavia, or how to actually find the students here.

The PIE: Since you entered the business in 2002, how has the sector changed in terms of recruitment online?

JA: Everything has changed. SEO was basically being born about the time we started out. And that’s actually one of our early success factors with Blueberry. We were a small company but online, we could compete.

Since then, of course, it’s been much more mobile-focused and you had the big algorithm changes in Google back in 2012. Before it was more about links with people buying and selling links. It was easier to manipulate back then.

Now, for me, I like the current system. Of course, you can still do a lot of things to rank in Google. But it’s not about buying links anymore, it’s more content-focused. I like that because that’s one of the things that I like most – creating good content that helps students and at the same time, I also help myself rank. So it’s kind of a win-win.

I tell my schools that if students don’t find the prices, the start dates, where you can study etc on their website, then they’re gone. To really sell, you also need to capture their heart. But if you don’t do step one, then you’ve already lost.

What I find is a bit more troublesome as an agency these days is that Generation Z doesn’t commit to much. Say I have an info evening about Korea, and I get 40 people signing up and I think, “oh, great, I should get this big venue”. But then on the day, only 20 people actually show up.

That’s been a very big change because go back 10 years, if I had 40 people signed up, 35 people would come. And I can see even when students contact you these days, they can be reaching out to many schools and many agencies at the same time.

“The [language school market] has gone down a lot with the exception of Japan, Korea”

The PIE: In terms of Scandinavian students, can you tell me about trends?

JA: One very clear trend which makes many schools sad is that the language school market’s gone down longterm. In Norway, it’s never been big. But in Sweden, it used to be big. Now, there’s like 2,500 Swedish students per year going with government CSN funding on language courses abroad.

When I started in this industry, maybe three times that. Back then you could only get CSN for courses that were 13 weeks or longer. Now within the EU, you can get it from three weeks. So actually there should be more CSN-students now than before, and not the opposite. The [language school market] has gone down a lot with the exception of Japan, Korea – which are really hot markets.

One big trend in higher education is Scandinavian students studying medicine abroad. And other subjects that are hard to get in Sweden and Norway like design. Now it’s also quite common that universities and colleges take study abroad students for one or two semesters, which is a great thing.

You graduate from high school and think, “I want to get the American college experience. I don’t know what I want to do”. Just go take a dance course, a programming class, a marketing class and a psychology course, and see what you like. So many students do that instead of taking a language course. And then, of course, nowadays there’s also more – work and travel, volunteering, all these different options.

“One big trend in higher education is Scandinavian students studying medicine abroad”

Higher education is really the big thing in Scandinavia. And for Sweden, I would say it’s studying abroad, primarily short term 1-2 semester programs, not so much master’s or even undergrad.

The PIE: What are your biggest difficulties? 

JA: The market is very price sensitive. Education is free in Sweden and the Swedish CSN system is good. I get a lot of questions about scholarships and free education. And of course, I want to help students in different ways.

DreamStudies even has a small scholarship for students. But on the other hand, we also often live on commissions. Schools pay us to help them to get fee-paying students. So that’s a catch 22. The school really has to offer something attractive, location-wise and program wise; both preferably.

With my concept in DreamStudies, I want to help everyone. I have this FAQ section on my website where students can ask a question about almost everything. But I don’t take that kind of question by e-mail because then I would drown!

I don’t aim to become a big agency with a lot of employees. I prefer to keep it smaller, do smart solutions and work with outsourcing, even cooperate more with other agencies, schools, companies, and look at different opportunities.

If I and my partner schools don’t offer a requested program, then maybe another agency does, then I can partner with them and get some kickback, and we help the student. That’s the core of what we do, we still want to help the student.

“Education is free in Sweden and the Swedish CSN system is good”

The PIE: Do you think the way you have changed the way your company operates will become the norm in the future?

JA: You have to be open-minded to technology and to change in technology, but also changing people. Young people today are not like we were back then. I feel many agencies just put their old brochure online. They still kind of do what they have always been doing.

I’m trying to take the best of both traditional agencies and platforms. It’s definitely still an agency kind of service, but a newer, different, more modern one, but by no means perfect. It’s really been a lot of trial and error, and I keep improving and looking for better solutions all the time.

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