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Sasha Olenina, StudyQA, Russia

After being unable to pay for overseas study herself, Sasha Olenina has started a website to connect students in Russia and CIS countries with scholarships and affordable university programmes. And she’s using big data to do it.

The PIE: So tell me what exactly StudyQA is. 

"I’m happy when I see people who are happy with where they study without having to spend a lot of money"

SO: We help universities with smaller marketing budgets, who are targeting Russian speaking countries, including all post-Soviet republics and some of the Baltic countries, to recruit international, talented students without necessarily having to spend a lot of money on global education fairs or expensive business trips. We can do it faster and do it more efficiently, helping universities to save their resources in reaching out to applicants in our region.

“Study abroad is a family decision in Kazakhstan so we have to engage parents as well, because they influence the student’s decision”

The PIE: How are you achieving that?

SO: We are building a smart search platform for universities and colleges around the world where Russian students can browse different programmes and then upload their resume and academic transcripts and the relevant information that they want the university to see.  They can share their profiles with schools of their interest.

This is cheaper and more efficient because universities already see the quality lead, they see what kind of student is trying to reach out to them and if their credentials are satisfying requirements. If everything is ok they can start chatting and discussing the application.  A basic profile and chatting with students is free of charge for the university, but then we offer packages where they can have a guaranteed number of leads per month for a fee.

The PIE: How do you guarantee a number of leads?

SO: We promote the schools that we partner with, we also do some sneaky stuff like report the profiles of our partner universities that are close to the profiles of the different schools that the student is looking for. For example if you are looking for a school which is offering a degree in mass marketing and communications we would show our partner schools with the same profile to say ‘look at this program it is cheaper or more popular to students like you’. We also promote in other social networks, we have over 180,000 followers on social networks. We’re one of the largest social media resources in Russia.

The PIE: What social networks are useful for marketing to international students in Russia?

SO: WE use, the second is (which stands for is more complicated because our services target an older generation, like 35 years and over.

“We’re one of the largest social media resources in Russia”

We use it more for Kazakhstan because they tend to relate to the parents more than, for example, students from Moscow or St Petersburg in Russia. Study abroad is a family decision in Kazakhstan so we have to engage parents as well, because they influence the student’s decision.

In other developing countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan the families also have a much greater influence on study abroad decisions.

The PIE: Is StudyQA entirely in Russian?

SO: It’s in six languages, we started with the English language and we started developing the Russian version in October.

The PIE: How many university partners do you have?

SO: 22 at the moment. Most of them are from Europe and the UK. We don’t get much interest from the US at the moment but this is our next stage.

The PIE: How are you measuring success?

SO: In student applications and enrolments to our partner schools. This is our first season and we’ve already had 25 students who have applied and successfully enrolled for grants in the UK, Germany, in Spain and in Ireland. And five of those are full scholarships.

The PIE: What inspired you to start a project like this?

SO: It’s really daunting when students have to look through all different programmes so what we do is we help them to see what kind of schools they would be good for or help them to look for some cheaper or easier to get into schools. For example, if the student has a really high GPA score, but has a low GRE or TOEFL score and he wants a full scholarship to the US, we would tell him that he could definitely give the US a try but to also focus on the easier to get into schools in Europe which are also ranked high enough, but they’re cheaper and he could get a scholarship from the local government which might be a bit easier to get than US funding.

“Having so much information on your users enables you to fit students’ interests in a better and more personal way”

The PIE: So you give a personal service to all the students who sign up to the website?

SO: Initially we gave a one to one service to all the students who signed up to the site but now it’s becoming more and more automated. We’ve got more and more big data. And we know the success rate of the schools and the system already shows which schools would probably fit the student. So we don’t have many mentors who would go in and monitor individual student success so we try to educate the system so that we can do it automatically.

The PIE: You mention big data, that’s becoming more of a buzzword in international student recruitment. Do you think it’s really being used effectively? 

SO: I would not say it is the secret sauce to make all students and admissions happy. But having so much information on your users enables you to fit students’ interests in a better and more personal way, predict their behaviour to some extent and be more flexible to meet their needs. Trends and patterns which arise from the data are also a good thing to keep an eye on.

The PIE: How many students have set up profiles?

SO: Over 42,000 but obviously not all of them are 100% complete. So the next step is to engage students more and to entice them to fill in the applications and provide as much detail as possible so the universities can evaluate their profiles.

The PIE: Let’s talk about the typical student from Russia and Central Europe. What are they looking for?

SO: I’d say most of them are looking for a degree in economics or business and finance, all those jobs which are popular in Russia and which the students understand will enable them to come back and earn more money. For the destinations, Europe is the most popular, the UK mostly, then some cheaper countries like Germany and France. Then the US would be number four. Over 60% of physics, chemistry and math students are going for master’s degrees, not bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor’s will have parents who will pay for their education and they will go to the UK, for example, to study business for two years and then go to a US school. But if they’re doing master’s or PhDs they would have resources, mostly from the Russian government or the local government where they want to go to school.

The PIE: A lot of the scholarships offered by governments in the region require students to return home to work. Are most students happy to do that?

“The majority come back firstly because they’re getting paid 30% more than if they had a local degree”

SO: Most of them are. There will always be people who see study abroad as a way to emigrate, but the majority come back firstly because they’re getting paid 30% more than if they had a local degree. It’s also prestigious to have a degree from abroad.

The PIE: Why do you think it’s important to help smaller, unranked schools recruit students?

SO: When we work with students we see that most of them are definitely interested in going to a good school and a school that has a brand name, but it’s not always that the school wants those students or that the student would be happy in the culture at the university.

We see that 20-25% of international students who go and study abroad are not happy with the school that they got into. So we think there is a need to explain the opportunities that the new schools can be a smarter decision than just going to a larger school or a school that is promoted by agents. It is just something Russian and CIS students tend not to take into account at all.

The PIE: What’s your background?

SO: I graduated from St Petersburg State University for my bachelor’s and then did a master’s in international relations. I always wanted to study abroad, but my family couldn’t afford it so I won a scholarship from the British Council to work in the UK for a year, then I got a scholarship to go to the States to intern for the United Nations in New York. My university friends would come up to me and ask how I did it because they wanted to do it as well. So I saw that it was something students are interested in. So I started StudyQA with my co-founders Vlad Popov and Nikita Tratorov. I’m 27 now and I’ve been in education for the last eight years.

I’m happy when I see people who are happy with where they study without having to spend a lot of money.

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