The PIE: Can you tell me how you got into the international education sector?
Kim Morrison: I started Grok in 2005, to advise governments and the investment community on how China was changing and the emerging high technology sector within China.
“One of the things that Covid-19 has taught us is that ‘normal’ is vulnerable”
One of the governments with whom I was working was the Canadian government. They said to me, “this is great, but what we are really struggling with right now are the many Canadian institutions who are engaging in China and there’s no supports for them out there”.
At that point in time, the contribution of global education to national GDP wasn’t even being measured – no one was even thinking of this as an industry, and so there were none of the traditional supports there to help universities to engage in global markets, beyond education agencies.
The Canadian government said that they’d be pleased to introduce Grok to institutions looking for help. And so we really began with Canada and then expanded from there.
The PIE: What has Grok’s mission evolved into today?
KM: We believe that institutions should be able to manage their global presence and directly undertake their activities around the world, but in doing that, they face challenges related to things like language, time zones, differences in culture, regulatory frameworks and national boundaries.
Our mission is to provide the bottom-up support needed to enable a university to be successful in managing their affairs globally.
This can include advisory services, or social media services or creating local digital assets, or staffing services where we enable institutions to deploy really well supported, well-trained local representatives, or support for academic partnerships where we help institutions to identify prospective partners and negotiate that process.
The PIE: Who are your competitors?
KM: Our competitors are paradigm competitors – alternative approaches for how an institution should achieve their goals globally, whether that is outsourcing global engagement to a third party or the idea that an institution should establish their own corporations around the world and do it all on their own.
Those two options are two ends of a spectrum of control – in the first, the institution cedes control, in the second they want total control. Grok sits in the middle, where we give the institution the supports so that they can directly manage their activities without them needing to take on the liabilities and distractions of corporate entities around the world.
“We work hard to be neutral in the market”
The PIE: How does your business model work? Do you take per student fees?
KM: Agencies are an important part of the ecosystem, but we don’t compete with agencies. We work hard to be neutral in the market, and part of that is that we don’t dip into the pool of funds that are allocated within an institution for commission. Institutions pay us for the services that we provide on a professional services basis. A lot of the services that we provide are cost-plus, and we’re transparent about what goes into our costs.
So, for example, program office (the deployment of a local representative): we show the institution what their share is of the costs of our office space, all of the administrative infrastructure that goes into operating and employing the program officer, and the management time that’s going into supporting that engagement.
Then we just charge a profit margin, which we’re very open about, and which varies based upon the duration of the institution’s commitment.
The PIE: What markets does Grok focus on?
KM: We have historically worked with universities, colleges and to some extent K-12 institutions from Canada, the United States, the UK / Europe, and Australia / New Zealand. One-quarter of our business comes from each of those geographies. So that’s our destination markets.
Then there’s our delivery markets – the places where we help our institutions to engage. We have some global services: global access (which is a virtual recruitment and digital marketing solution for new market development) and global marketing.
But we have physical presences in China, in Malaysia, in India and in Vietnam. It is in these markets where we have a unique depth of expertise and in-country resources, and most of our services are focused on Asia as a result.
“Agencies are an important part of the ecosystem, but we don’t compete with agencies”
Funnily, one of the things that have been happening in the last couple of years is that our delivery markets are becoming destination markets and our destination markets are becoming delivery markets.
We have requests to serve Asian institutions. And we have requests from institutions to help them manage their activities in North America or Europe. It’s become a multipolar world.
The PIE: What new trends have you been noticing in terms of engagement?
KM: One of the things that Covid-19 has taught us is that “normal” is vulnerable – that survival can depend on resilience, and that resilience is tied to diversity.
If you approach your global engagement, very notably recruitment, with an eye towards balancing your volume of results with the overall health of diversity, that you are a more resilient institution than an institution who devotes all of their resources to building volume in one or two markets, targeting a single student profile, working with a single type of recruitment partner.
Diversity means recruiting students of many national origins, for many programs. But it also means a diversity of channels. For that reason, even though they know that agencies will continue to be key for them, universities are increasingly keen to build relationships with high schools and form academic partnerships.
The PIE: Without agents being involved?
KM: There are some agents who are involved in some high schools, but it’s not a dominant paradigm for agencies at this point. That means that there’s a lot of high schools out there that universities can’t access via their agency partner.
So in recent years, institutions have begun to work with these high schools; they would go and visit them once or twice a year. And high schools, especially in tier one cities, those near airports or well-known high schools, are getting a lot of visits, as many as 300 or more university visits a year…In other words, they are swamped.
The PIE: …That is a lot of time and effort on behalf of all parties involved.
KM: Yes, all in – time and travel – a visit costs the institution thousands of dollars, often with diminishing efficacy.
Look at it this way: the student and family are making a once-in-a-lifetime decision. The guidance counsellor is there to help. How do you influence that decision-making process?
Some things are very unlikely – on their own – to be effective. Handing out a brochure in the cafeteria for example. And the university representative might be at the totally wrong high school talking to students who would never attend their institution, while a much better high school might be only ten kilometres away.
By the way, the high schools also hate the disruption and inefficiency of having unproductive university visits. And students also complain that listening to three hours of undifferentiated, introductory university presentations is boring and useless.
The PIE: How is Grok helping to change that?
KM: What we’re looking to do is bringing the community of universities together with all of the high schools that Grok has relationships with (and that’s in the hundreds now in our delivery markets) and using a community model of engagement that is more virtuous.
It’s not showing up to do a presentation once a year – that’s event driven, and influencing such a big decision must be process-driven.
We are developing a curriculum that supports the guidance counselling and student decision-making process, and we will then involve our community of universities in those curricular supports in a way that is beneficial and fundamentally interesting to the student, AND that’s supportive of the high school.
For example, a short video that explores student life featuring two city-campus based universities and two traditional campus universities, designed to help students explore what is right for them.
“Some things are very unlikely – on their own – to be effective. Handing out a brochure in the cafeteria for example”
We’ll also weave in better-targeted fairs and webinars, parent meetings, and one-on-one interaction opportunities for students whose interests match the university offering.
And finally, we’ll encourage the use of Concourse Global Enrollment, as a way to directly deliver offers of admission to the students in those high schools, closing that final loop.
That thinking of how do we take our community of clients, and use that bloc to create opportunities and results for our clients that wouldn’t be there otherwise: that’s something that we uniquely do.
I have had the pleasure of working with Kim and the Grok Team for over a decade. Our collaboration has been a critical component of our strategy at King’s University College at Western University. The “middle” is a “win win” for all parties.
Dear Marilyn, I want to thank you and the great folks at King’s University College at Western University for their ongoing support for over a decade. It’s been a wonderful journey together.
I’ve known Kim from her early journeys in 2005 and commend her on the collaborative work that Grok Global does to find the touch points that connect across the oceans. Most impressive is watching Grok move with the changing tides, especially evident now during Covid times; yet staying true to the original ethos and vision that Kim started with.
Kim, I look forward to chatting with you soon about a new concept I’m embarking upon!
Hi Karen, thank you so much for the note of support. I have always admired your leadership in the larger international education community in Canada as well. Drop me a line and we’ll speak about your new concept.
Grok provided a standout service to the University of Adelaide while I was Director International there. They offer a very different service to what we think of in Australia as ‘agencies’, offering a visible but neutral presence in key markets where a representative office is needed, without having to ‘go it alone’.
Dear Joanne, You were a visionary at Adelaide, taking a real chance to work with Grok in Malaysia when we were brand new there. Like Marilyn Mason at King’s, you were one of our pioneering clients, and I so thank you for your support and faith. I do hope we can collaborate again some day. I’ve missed you. – Kim