SR: Uni-Pay is part of Collective Enterprises Limited which began in the 1980s and was started up by two ex-senior executives of the NUS to provide purchasing services and a new billing platform for student unions buying beer. In 1995 we launched our Clearing House service and started to deal with international payments for a range of customers including educators and agents. However, this is a strictly business to business service and many educators contacted us to ask if we could process fee payments from their international students directly.
Uni-Pay has grown out of this, and we really came to market about three years ago with a platform dedicated to educators collecting fees from students. It’s gone down very well. We have a lot of university and language schools as customers using it to collect payments from their students. Uni Pay is now the core of Collective Enterprises’ business and we have taken a strategic decision to be a niche player in the education sector.
“We have institutional clients all over the place, in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Spain, you name it”
The PIE: Do you only serve UK clients?
SR: No. We have institutional clients all over the place, in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Spain, you name it. These are mainly language schools while in the UK we also have an increasing number of HE providers as customers. Overall we have about 60-70 clients.
The PIE: There’s a lot of growth in the international payments space, with players like Western Union Business Solutions and PeerTransfer becoming more prominent. Are you noticing the growth?
SR: We are seeing growth. There are different kinds of providers in this space. Many smaller exchange providers have come and gone, because they weren’t successful and this is usually because they don’t understand the education sector, and are not prepared to invest enough on sector specific solutions. But we are seeing large investments being made by the operators you mention.
The PIE: What sort of things do you need to understand about the sector to be successful?
SR: It’s understanding the time frame under which educators have to collect payments from students and how important this is as part of the overall application process. If you take a university, it’s highly likely that the first time they ask for a payment it is for a deposit, which for most UK institutions must be taken before the institutions issue a CAS (needed for the application to obtain the students’ visa). The payment is therefore ingrained in the process, and any delay in reconciling the payment can lead to a delayed application or even a student deciding to go elsewhere. FX houses are sometimes not deft enough to adapt to this.
“Many smaller exchange providers have come and gone, because they weren’t successful and this is usually because they don’t understand the education sector”
The PIE: How does your system work then?
SR: Usually if a student was coming from Singapore to the University of East Anglia, say, they would go their bank which would charge them for an international transfer based on high street exchange rates. When UEA receives the funds it would probably have reconciliation issues, because it is likely to be received minus some element of fees and perhaps some of the referencing that universities require. This delays receipt of the payment and the issuing of the CAS.
If they go through Uni Pay, we convert to Singapore dollars for them, and ask them how they would like to pay — by bank transfer or credit card. If it’s the first, they make the payment through our local account in the country and avoid the international transfer fees. We then pay UEA in the UK along with other students’ payments in bulk, by BACS.
If they pay online by credit card, we will debit their account in Singapore dollars – and they would see exactly how much was coming off their account immediately. Usually you’d have to wait until the end of the month to find out. We manage bank accounts in various countries around the world, and do the same with credit cards. We also allow institutions to upload schedules of payments due. When they operate like this we actively chase the payments for them and effectively take on an element of credit control.
The PIE: Where do you take your commission?