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The rise of edtech 4.0 – is a recruitment revolution coming?

Tech-led recruiting developments will truly transform recruitment – not just the process, but the flows – in the same way that Amazon has redefined our purchase of goods, write three commentators on international education:

Photo: Kammeran Gonzalez-Keola / Pexels

For the new data-rich intermediaries, there are huge financial returns to those players who can capture and channel students

A recent report by Cairneagle estimates that the global edtech market is worth around $180bn and – with the impetus provided by Covid –  is likely to grow at around 15% per annum to a total value of £400bn by 2025.

This is much faster than the predicted Education & Training spend overall growth, estimated to rise from 3.1% in 2019 to 5-6% in 2025.

Clearly there are some intrinsic differences between educational sectors, but these don’t explain an almost three- fold difference.

However, before we lunge for the cheque book in these challenging times we need to think hard about where we put our money because much of this current spend will be in long term, stable or maturing areas of HE and we need to be investing to drive real innovation.

The graphic below from Cairneagle takes a look at potential areas of maturity, stability and growth where edtech will play a greater role in future.

Extract of a Cairneagle report into edtech

Universities are currently rightly concerned with their core educational offer, and the lessons from moving learning and teaching online.

However, that does not justify what some might call an unhealthy obsession with ever more granular or sometimes grandiose efforts to drive innovation in the online learning experience.

Sector professionals are not craving the creation of yet another Learning Management System, or another assessment tool, especially if this happens at the expense of other areas important in the student journey.

Sector professionals are not craving the creation of yet another Learning Management System

Whilst useful, the Cairneagle analysis is very light on documenting the revolution underway in student recruitment systems and the move online of the pre-matriculation student journey.  This is where we are seeing some of the most interesting global technology driven developments – and here we still in the foothills of the mountain that we have to climb.

The attractiveness of applying technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning to the student recruitment process is clear – this is an intensely data-rich environment with a relatively small number of key variables defining students.

However it is an arena which holds the fate of many institutions’ future as they seek to grow out of their financial challenges. And for the new data-rich intermediaries, there are huge financial returns to those players who can capture and channel students and chip a bit of commission of the circa £100k paid by an overseas student at a major university.

Apply this maths to the 6m globally mobile students each year and the sums at stake are eye-watering.

ApplyBoard is one of the most often quoted examples of this new movement, and it aggressively embraces its tech-titan unicorn status.  It recently completed its third round of funding that tipped an additional CAN$75m into its coffers, bringing total capital raised to well over CAN$100 million and we will see how successfully they can extend the business model from the core India-Canada pipeline.

Whilst QS might be the dark horse that seeks to come up on the inside, IDP is a proven performer

But there are a mass of other companies brewing up and bubbling under in the recruitment sea and that wave is about to break –

Wells Advisory has been busily documenting this space – as part of a wider advisory focus on public-private partnerships – in respect of which it is sponsoring this category at The PIEoneer Awards later this year.

They see EduCo, with its new offering, Accelerate, as “one to watch”, because it combines a tech-savvy, AI- driven approach using predictive and descriptive algorithms, with a history of effective relationship management and a particular focus on HE.

When this is combined with an established global support function from staff across key markets including East, South East and South Asia, they see a hybrid infrastructure that potentially allows the best of both worlds. is another one to watch.  Adventus had recently raised $12m in Series A funding, small beer compared to the funding raised by ApplyBoard, but it will clearly make a difference.

Edvoy and StudentApply are also ones to watch, along with the more strategic Chinese agents with a yearning to do big things and access to capital such as LiuCheng. Other runners and riders include MSM Unify, TC Global, MSM, Studyme and BridgeU. Note from our lawyers – other recruitment platforms are available!

Times Higher Education has perhaps the most developed vision for a recruitment ecosystem with what is likely to become a feature of this sector, a series of strategic tie-ups with companies that are also trying to develop a position as a principal in the market.

Its partners include Applyboard and StudyPortals, along with agents with ambition and the means to develop their own tech-driven proposition, like AECC and SI-UK.

SI-UK has also just announced a tie up with QS: QS’s experience in predictive technologies will be applied to the former’s portfolio to facilitate mining the data of over ½ million students in the QS database with a view to defining the likely ultimate destinations of students with particular application characteristics.

Whilst QS might be the dark horse that seeks to come up on the inside, IDP is a proven performer, which needs to fight off the challengers. It embraces the holy trinity – eye candy in the form of rankings and survey, channel to market through its agency business and the intelligence to leverage both through its division IDP Connect – time will tell.

This is not entirely a zero sum game – if students can be shown that there are good and affordable matches for them then it is likely that this increase in market efficiency will translate into an (even more) lively and growing market.

These tech-led recruiting developments will truly transform recruitment – not just the process, but the flows – in the same way that Amazon has redefined our purchase of goods.

The move to a more efficient and effective marketplace will undermine control of the market by those traditional players who have captured the information and attention of purchasers,  to be replaced by the power of data and access to a massively increased range of options.

To push the analogy further, perhaps we are witnessing the transition from agent as corner shop two decades ago, through to agency as supermarket a decade ago, to key aggregators providing regional dominance as Amazon has emerged in e-commerce, with the pandemic accelerating this trend further.

The aggregators will be called upon to nurture and promote new educational destinations as the pandemic abates

However, further fundamental change, post-pandemic, will also come from with the forces that have yet to be unleashed – the rise of TNE and the rise of China as a receiving as well as sending nation.

These trends will be shaping the context in which both institutions and the new  aggregators will be operating. The aggregators will be called upon to nurture and promote new educational destinations as the pandemic abates.

We will also see the re-emergence of government efforts to drive regional education hubs – Malaysia, of course, will be in this mix, along with Dubai and new players – and probably the end of hopes for some of those who have been trying to make this happen for a long time.

In a world of data transparency and rational choices,  informed by relentless logic supporting international education, the operational and strategic challenges for the sector are changing fast.

Post-pandemic will not be a new normal, but a new landscape where timescales will be radically concertinaed.  Higher education is more used to innovating at a steady rather than dizzying pace.  Yet, post Covid, context talking the talk will not be enough, success will come to those institutions starting now to walk the walk in rebuilding their international strategy for the post-pandemic world.

The aggregators are coming – are you afraid?!

David Pilsbury is deputy vice-chancellor (International Development) at Coventry University, UK






Janet Ilieva is founder and director at Education Insight and a creator of the Global Engagement Index.




Wendy Alexander is Vice Principal, International at the University of Dundee where she leads the university’s international strategy. 

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15 Responses to The rise of edtech 4.0 – is a recruitment revolution coming?

  1. The evolution is indeed on the cards. It’s late but nevertheless, it is here..

    The aggregators certainly have shed the single biggest barrier of entry i.e. the contracts with the institutions. I wonder how do institutions intend to control the sub-agents (and their greed) who have had their track record that has concerned institutions over decades.

    I will be keen to know thoughts on this.

  2. GTE is certainly concerning to not only the institutions but many governments too. Do these platforms address those?

  3. GTE is a serious concern. The use of sub agents has always been a concern to the Institutions and Governments. I am wondering how these edTech platforms comply with the Australian ESOS Act – National Code part D, Standard 4. National Code clearly states not to use education agents who are dishonest or lack integrity.

    Would this mean that the institutions are risking their compliance by not having contract with sub-agents.? National Code also states “The registered provider must enter into a written agreement with each education agent it engages to formally represent it. The agreement must specify the responsibilities of the education agent and the registered provider and the need to comply with the requirements in the National Code How registered education provider will comply”. In 2017, the ESOS Act was amended to allow for greater transparency around education agents’ performance.

    These EdTech platforms do raise some serious concerns on compliance as they are the direct agents (being the aggregator) but working with the other agents. In my view, these other agents have no liability towards the institutions as they don’t have any contract with the institutions.

  4. Prior to the pandemic, most key agents generating 100+ student enrolments for a specific institution or a number of Education providers will have an embedded sub agency network under the hood. Education Providers are aware of these approaches and the onus lies with the Agents holding the contracts. It is the responsibility of these agents to establish transparency on their sub-agents networks, and any breach to the Master-Agent Institution agreement by the sub-agent networks will impact the main agreement holder and dependent on the extent of the breach may lead to termination of the Master agreement. Fast forward to the current environment, Agent Aggregators have only formalized and digitized the approach. There is nothing new to the sub agent network dilemma… It only got a brand new name, approach, and delivery but still have the same concerns from Education Providers who expressed the same issues for decades. When travel was still available, international recruitment staff were conducting formal training to sub agent network’s located in key market sources, so what is the difference again to the approach of training the ‘Business Partners’ of agent aggregators? To counter, it comes down to the providers ability to ensure that their Agent Management process is clear, transparent, and up to date. Education Providers will need to adopt and establish approaches which will develop a revised management approach to agent networks e.g. recording of training, up to date information of agents published on education provider websites, monitoring performance, delivery of training to ensure that all of these revised processes are delivered in a quick, agile, and, reliable approach. A revolution may be on the horizon, but Education Providers will need to ensure that all fundamentals are in check to establish a solid foundation and the core proposition to address the individual need, preference, and aspiration of prospective students are at the heart of any engagement.

  5. Aggregators we had seen in travel industry and in undergraduate programs in the US. CollegeHippo is an data aggregator in the graduate program space that connects prospective Graduate students with the colleges. Its unique feature is the data it has which helps students find the best-fit.

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