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Review of student recruitment throughout 2021

From acquisitions and mergers, innovation in data-led recruitment and renewed calls for frameworks and regulation in the agent sphere, 2021 has been a busy year for international recruitment. We look back on the news over the past year.
December 30 2021
14 Min Read

From acquisitions and mergers, innovation in data-led recruitment and renewed calls for frameworks and regulation in the agent sphere, 2021 has been a busy year for international student recruitment.


Big players such as TC Global and student recruitment fair organiser FPP EDU Media both detailed that they would be moving tech first. And QS’s acquisition of StudentApply in November saw it step into the end-to-end enrolment space.

Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of QS, explained in a PIE Chat how StudentApply’s counsellors in Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Vietnam and in the US – not in traditional source markets like China or India – would benefit from QS data and insights.

“[How can we] use our technology and our machine learning to better match students to institutions?” he asked. The acquisition of StudentApply, on top of QS Enrolment Solutions launched in 2017, will support education achievement and international mobility “at scale”, he contended.

Acquisitions and deepening pockets

Other acquisitions over 2021 included Keystone Academic Solutions acquisition of postgrad experts FindAUniversity in February, as well as its merger with EMG and its UniQuest acquisition in October, and Kaplan’s acquisition of BridgeU. upGrad’s also took over Global Study Partners in Australia for a AUD$22.5m price tag in November.

And investment in tech-recruitment seems to be continuing on a steepening upward trajectory, led by ApplyBoard which raised US$300m in fresh funding in June bringing its valuation to a whopping $3.2bn. Other big money raisers include Leap bringing its total capital to $75m with an additional $55m raise, and CollegeDekho with its full Series B round to $35m with two announcements, the first when it raised $26.5m in November in addition to another $8.5m in December.

Cialfo also announced an additional $15 million in February, followed by LeverageEdu raising $6.5m and‘s $8.5m announcement in April. Later in the year, Educatly announced $1m in investment, with backing from the governments of Ireland and Egypt.

The use of technology in international student recruitment continued with a plethora of new platforms designed to “match” students with their ideal universities via unique algorithms.

“There is now this incredible ocean of data that can be mined and distilled”

Student search platforms laid their hats in the ring in a PIE mega-webinar in September, while former deputy vice chancellor international at Coventry University David Pilsbury noted that there is now more power to recruit digitally or through aggregators “in a systematic way”.

“What everybody here has said is that there is now this incredible ocean of data that can be mined and distilled and used to support decision making and institutional thinking,” he said in June.

Platforms could ensure sustainability beyond the pandemic by building more forms of engagement and services to help guide universities through a difficult period, co-founder of China-based platform Udentity Chi-Linh Jeremy Nguyen-Phuong hinted in April.

“[If we were] to make more relatable content for instance, it can be useful beyond the pandemic when the borders open, to be able to use data, analytics to build better engagement going forward,” he suggested.

A survey early in 2021 suggested that 60% of agents reported online recruitment success despite Covid-19 challenges. People are trying new things, Tarun Aggarwal from CollegeDekho told The PIE in October.

“Covid has challenged all of us to relook at the way we do things,” he said, predicting that clear directions and models will evolve in the coming years.

“This is a traditional business, it will take some amount of flux or transition for new ways to come out and become more prevalent…. A lot of people are trying to do things, but that itself is a validation of the fact that innovation is required in this space.”

New platforms

Along with the well-heeled platforms, alternative options for students and recruiters were launched.

Application management solution DreamApply partnered with two institutions in Africa in January to automate and digitalise the student recruitment and admissions process, while the team behind Nigeria’s Imperial Educational Services revealed the myStudyPath platform in February.

US-based Catalyst GEM also vied for a recruitment “evolution” when it announced its secure platform in May, after the Enrollment Management Association had launched its PROSPECT platform for K12 students to connect with higher education providers in April.

AdmitKard is seeking to become the one-stop shop for students to find ‘best fit’ courses, access loans and accommodation, its co-founder Piyush Bhartiya proposed, through the use of peer mentors.

UK-based education consultancy William Clarence Education also launched a platform especially for schools to present their facilities to prospective students and staff members in January, in addition to specialist providers launching, such as Mozaik Play and Keystone’s US sports placement agency.

Other new-comers include Educonnect’s comparison platform launched in March in Australia, GradRight’s course-matching tool announced in September as well as AECC course search platformStarwordzz launched in August with the aim of boosting agents’ global reach.

KC Overseas Education has invested almost $2m over three years, and proposed to invest another $3-5m over the next two years, in its edtech wing, its CEO Pankaj Agrawal, explained.

Recruitment behemoth IDP also launched IDP Live to offer students a “fast-track” service through the application process.

Stakeholders urged non-US educators to begin engaging with student counsellors at schools around the world during The PIE Live, with BridgeU and Concourse Global leading the way in calling for counsellors to be placed at the heart of the process.

Data-led products

Along with QS, other traditional international education companies are also increasingly looking to use technology and data to inform recruitment and mobility decisions.

UniQuest’s visa refusal data dashboard is designed to provide daily intelligence and help make enrolment forecasting clearer, according to the company, while IDP Connect’s IQ tool taps into its annual 109 million site visits dataset. Recruitment software provider Enroly also raised £1.5m as it seeks to expand to New Zealand and Australia., too, launched a real-time data platform which it said would allow institutions to “influence a captive audience at the end of the funnel” for the first time.

This year also saw student recruitment software provider Edvisor launch ‘next-gen’ products designed to streamline the recruitment of students directly or through education agents.

Education provider Oxford International Education Group also announced the extension of it outsourced recruitment service via its 60-person Education Services team.

Growth, expansions and partnerships

Along with acquisition and big-money funding round announcements, collaboration between institutions and recruitment partners seem to be growing.

survey early in 2021 by the American International Recruitment Council and the National Association for College Admission Counseling suggested that US institutional partnerships with agencies are growing. However, concerns around the per-student commission model was still highlighted by 47% of the 294 responding institutions.

While 49% of the US institutions in that survey said they currently partner with agents to recruit undergraduate international students, the ratio of institutions in other countries working with agents appears much higher.

report, released in March, estimated that around 50% of the 203,000 new international students from beyond the EU that UK institutions welcomed in 2018/19 used education agent services.

SI-UK, which partnered with QS to provide a counselling service free to prospective international students, highlighted in a PIE Chat that only Oxbridge, Imperial and LSE in the UK are not working with any agency representative. It revealed a contract with University College London to recruit at a postgraduate level, becoming its first agency partner.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary, SI-UK is “back in expansion mode”, directors Dwayne Gallagher and Orion Judge told The PIE, looking to double the number of global offices by 2023. It will increase offices in India to 25+ by the end of 2022, and further locations in Taiwan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Poland and Spain, and South America.

ApplyBoard detailed its growth is expected to hit 60,000 students in 2022.

This year also saw India-based Global Reach celebrate its 30th anniversary, while UKEAS rebranded as Intake Education and is planning a greater footing in India. also rebranded as Dfavo in November, itself contending to become an “all-in-one technology platform that democratises access to international education”, according to its Norway-based co-founders.

Other players announcing expansions included AECC Global with new offices in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, StudyFree expanding to five developing markets before announcing $3m in investment in December, and Leverage Edu adding an office in the UK. Mumbai-based Yocket said it would aim to triple the size of its team in India in 2021.

“Having a good digital presence absolutely determines our success”

Expansion does not always mean more locations, as exhibited by CI Brazil’s owner Victor Hugo Baseggio who detailed that its local offices are now half of what they were with colleagues working from home.

“Having a good digital presence absolutely determines our success,” he stated.

IDP reported a “solid” year, with total revenue for 2021 of AUD$528.7 million, although growth fell by some 10%.

Other partnerships included Agency Management System and TurkishUniversities signing an agreement to streamline applications to 65+ Turkish universities, ApplyBoard’s document verification wing Applyproof partnered with Pearson and ETS and INTO University Partnerships announced a collaboration with Cialfo to support US and UK university partners.

Blockchain student recruitment platform Libereka (now known as MasterAS) announced partnerships with both Virtual Internships and Unibuddy – which in turn revealed an agreement with Studyportals to allow prospective students to ask current students questions.

“In the post-Covid world of international student recruitment, the challenges of engaging candidates digitally through a credible and easily consumable framework is critical,” Libereka CEO Soumik Ganguly said.

Despite the expansions of agents over the year, a report from BONARD found that only 18% of agencies in Chinese New Tier 1 cities are in operation.

What did recruiters say?

Online recruitment events allowed institutions in countries where Covid-19 travel restrictions limited in-person events to continue recruiting. Australian universities hosted a three-week virtual recruitment drive targeted at East African students in March, while Education New Zealand reached Asian partners in a virtual fair in June.

“Technology has given us a gateway to reach corners of the world that we may not have been able to physically travel to,” Isaac Garcia-Sitton from Canada’s Ryerson University highlighted.

Despite this, in-person events went ahead with BMI leading the pack in October with an event in the United Arab Emirates, followed by ICEF’s hybrid event in Berlin during November.

Julio Ronchetti of FPP Edu Media in Brazil, told The PIE that throughout the pandemic, the company has focused on improving its technology.

“What we see is that students are so comfortable using technology and not only FPP, but other companies are going to start doing more of this, other platforms are going to come,” he predicted.

Surveys of agents added insight throughout the year, such as separate research from both Navitas and AECC indicting that students were turning to study opportunities in the UK and Canada.

Intake found in May that Asian applicants were expressing greater degrees of concern about studying the UK than their African counterparts, while in December a survey carried out by INTO indicated that 80% of agents believe the factors influencing clients’ decision-making in study abroad have changed during Covid-19.

ApplyBoard predicted Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Indonesia as potential high growth markets in the next decade.

Frameworks and problems

However, recruitment of international students is not all rosy. SchoolApply, which was acquired by INTO in 2020, has ceased trading. And there are concerns around agent aggregators.

“We are waiting to see how many of these new aggregators perform”

A survey of 100 UK universities suggested around half (53.4%) are working with aggregator platforms – with 28.2% who say they do not – with some warning that they are perceived as too commercially driven.

“We are waiting to see how many of these new aggregators perform within the sector and can show that they understand the sector,” one HE professional told The PIE.

Others suggested that widespread use of agent aggregators could lead to a deterioration in the quality of advice provided.

A PIE investigation found that rogue agencies have been recruiting for universities, and some have raised concerns that without attention, platforms engaging sub-agents may allow disreputable recruiters to keep recruiting.

In Australia, ITECA has called for a framework for onshore agents, while a consultant regulator has opened in Canada. Language education association ALTO has set out a set of industry integrity guidelines.

An on-going saga in the US has threatened the use of commission-based agents for some institutions, with the sector campaigning for a “legislative fix”. In December, the “fix” passed through to the Senate.

Looking to the future

“Whilst we will use a lot of automation, we will use a lot of virtual, I don’t think personally that we will move totally away from some of the face to face element,” Chris Chang from the University of Portsmouth in the UK told The PIE in June.

And besides the in-person recruitment events that are returning as restrictions have eased, he also pointed to the importance of local presence.

“Boots on the ground are the future of international student recruitment”

MSM Higher Ed Pathways will look to prepare students for international studies at centres closer to home, its president, Donna Hooker, highlighted, while Manisha Zaveri of Market Entry in India declared that “boots on the ground are the future of international student recruitment”.

“We’ve moved from mom and pop store agents to supermarkets, then probably to hypermarkets, and now we’ve moved to the Amazon marketplaces,” Wendy Alexander vice-principal (International) at the University of Dundee said during The PIE Live.

“What I think we’re seeing is a revolution in recruitment, driven both by changes on the supply side and students trying to own their own journeys.”

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