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Tony Cullen, Navitas, Australia

Tony Cullen is Executive General Manager – Marketing and Sales, University Programs at Navitas, the originator of the pathway programme back in 1995. He spoke with The PIE at an annual Partners Conference held for agents and universities, sharing insight into the Navitas brand and student retention.

The PIE: Tell me about your Partners Conference.. I find them innovative and this one is focused around innovation and collaboration…

Photo: The PIE News

"Over time what we have learnt is the importance – particularly in the university division – that the students aren’t buying Navitas, they are actually buying the university partner"

TC: The first real global conference was 2007 and we actually used that as a vehicle to launch the Navitas brand, so that was moving away from the old IBT education and taking Navitas out to market, so that was really the rationale behind the first one. Before that we had been doing agent conferences, but more like agent workshops, the old death-by-PowerPoint; if you were on after lunch or last in the afternoon the audience had almost disappeared.

“It’s important to ensure that they understand where we sit in the value chain, that we’re not a competitor”

The philosophy behind this was to create something that really added value for agents as well as our university partners and not just to do the normal stuff. What we’ve tried to do is make it more interactive where we get people connected, so particularly from our point of view trying to get the credibility from an agent side of seeing our university partners come to our conference and that adds a lot of value to the perception that agents have of us.

The PIE: And do you feel that the whole Navitas team learn a lot as well?

TC: Yes, it is almost like a professional development exercise for them, we’ve had them facilitate and deliver sessions.

The PIE: How do you see the Navitas brand and organisation evolving?

TC: Interesting, because we are going through an internal refocus at the moment and partly there is a question about the Navitas brand and what it stands for. Back in 2007, there was probably a two-year exercise in rebranding what was IBT education and turning it into Navitas and there was a time where we had imagined it becoming like Virgin, that it was going to be the recognisable global brand, not just for business partners but also for students.

I guess over time what we have learnt is the importance – particularly in the university division – that the students aren’t buying Navitas, they are actually buying the university partner, and so we’ve taken MIBT and turned it into Deakin College, we’re doing the same with QIBT it is becoming Griffith College, so it is getting much closer aligned with the university and the university brand.

The PIE: I suppose it is agents and educators buying into your experience as Navitas?

TC: Yes, more than 20 years of delivering education for kids to get them from where they are in their own country into a university and the success of that. There is a lot of data that sits behind there that actually gives examples of how successful our students are when they end up in mainstream university.

“The real growth opportunity for us is definitely in the US”

We are trying to take that focus on quality and ensure that is part of the DNA of the other two divisions, our professional division and English and also SAE Institute.

The PIE: Is the growth opportunity in the US or Canada, or are there particular countries where people are seeking you out because they are keen to [explore] partnerships?

TC: I think if you went back 12 months we would have assumed that probably Australia was pretty saturated, that there was some organic growth there in terms of new programmes in the existing colleges, but we’ve had Canberra and Western Sydney come to us so that was a little bit out of left-field but the real growth opportunity for us is definitely in the US, and the UK is really stabilising and looking at potentially a couple of other partners that add value to the current portfolio.

The PIE: I was speaking to Florida Atlantic University and they are happy with the way it’s gone.

TC: They were a terrific partner from the outset, we got that relationship right from the outset, they are really really supportive and it has a really nice value proposition.

The PIE: So internally how much time does Navitas spend cultivating those partnerships, because from being [at the conference] it seems that is really integral to the organisation.

TC: Absolutely, I think if you were to unpack people’s position descriptions, the executive general managers of the regions, the college directors or heads of the programmes, a lot of their time, a lot of their focus is on the relationship with the university partner, making sure we get it right, making sure we are aligned in terms of where they want to go with their international strategy.

I think it’s important to ensure that they understand where we sit in the value chain, that we’re not a competitor, we are there to help improve the quality of the students that come into their programmes.

“There should also be some content which is digital, online, virtual- interesting, interesting times”

The PIE: The other thing that comes out of being here is that Navitas is keen to unpick what you can do at the coalface, at the student end – how much do you think you will be able to put into practice from what you get from this weekend?

TC: We talk about having three strategic pillars, which is, the student experience, the student outcome and strategic relationships & partnerships. The one thing that we know is we need to be more engaged with the student, not just relying on them when they turn up at the college and they are doing the programme, it is all the stuff that leads up before then, how do we take our message out to them in the first place? Is it in a vehicle that they are comfortable with?

The digital sort of stuff these days, blasting them with emails is not going to work, how do we actually get them engaged with current students, with alumni, so if they are sitting in a city in China, or India or Vietnam, that they can talk to somebody who has been through the experience themselves and demystify what’s it is all about. So that is absolutely one of our major strategic priorities around how do we enhance the student experience.

The PIE: In general, how do you see the next 5-10 years changing in terms of the pathway landscape in particular?

TC: I think what we’re going to find is there will always be that need for the pathway because of the education systems that a lot these kids come out of. I think what we will see is it will become very much multi-module. But I think the value of having an education from an English speaking country, certainly with the focus on employability and employment – and with the skills shortages in the labour markets across a whole lot of different markets  – means that appetite for international education is not going to diminish.

“Appetite for international education is not going to diminish”

I think it is just about how again we respond to the learning needs of our students: there may be some chalk and talk but there should also be some content which is digital, online, virtual- interesting, interesting times.

The PIE: You have been focusing some resources into understanding and improving retention, you were telling me…

TC: Yes, it was Deakin College, we were concerned about retention rates and we got Deloitte in to help us with the data analysis and the mining, looking at things like, where students were failing, where were they actually living?, Was it a distance thing?

Were they spending so much time of public transport getting there, that either they made decisions, like, I’m not going to go five days a week, I am going to go two or three, and that had an impact on the success rate, so there was whole lot of that. What that allowed us to do was to put in a whole lot of retention strategies to address those things.

The PIE: Did you find anything out which was surprising?

TC: Some of the most surprising stuff were the anomalies, so there was an example of a young ‘mature’ student who spent six hours a day travelling from a provincial town in Victoria into Melbourne. He was the profile of a student at risk and he ended up with high distinctions, so yes the data tells you one story but there are always going to be those exceptions.

The PIE: So is trying to identify students at risk, is that something you do across all your partners?

TC: Across all the colleges, yes.

The PIE: And is there more of a risk once they matriculate into your partner?

TC: Often we have students come back and say we really liked the more nurturing approach to learning that we had with the Navitas college but I think ultimately they need to be able to integrate into mainstream.

“Where students were failing, where were they actually living?”

We’ve got in some places, progammes where we’ve extended into an associate degree for students who are struggling, they can be kept in the Navitas programme for an additional year – but what we don’t want to do is be in competition with the university or be seen that we are trying to keep them longer and not actually migrate them across and progress them.

The PIE: Tell me about the fact you have domestic students at Navitas colleges, I think that is fascinating.

TC: It’s mainly in Australia at the moment but we are just getting into that in the UK. At the programme we run in Cambridge, in the October intake I think they’ve got about 16 domestic students and a couple of the other UK partners are looking into moving into that area as well.

[If] a kid who finishes high school can’t get direct entry, what are the options for parents? They can repeat, or they can look at other types of enabling programmes.

What we’ve been able to do is give them that same option, on campus, they are studying the curriculum, and it adds an enormous value into the college, not just for being able to address the needs of those learners but from an international student perspective, being able to say, when you come and study with us, a quarter of your class is going to be Australian students is a real value add because that is what they want, it is all about integrating with local students, making friends and that’s just been a real advantage.

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