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Universities and third-party providers: fall in love to win the hearts of international students

With the growing complexity of international markets, higher education institutions are seeking new solutions for brand-building, creating the student pipeline, and managing the funnel through to enrolment on campus or online. The “why do we do everything ourselves?” mindset is permeating planning, particularly in these pandemic times.

Photo: MSM

"HEIs should partner with companies who are really interested in algorithms and the power of artificial intelligence for data-driven recruitment"

At a webinar on third-party providers, David Pilsbury from Oxford International Education Group put it succinctly: “We can be more agile. We can work in a way that NASA was able to put a person on the moon. We need this blend of public-private partnerships going forward.”

But what will make these partnerships work?

Throughout my university career I found that working with third-party providers to manage international or domestic enrolment, no matter how successfully, required me to adopt a warm embrace and vice-like grip.

At our webinar, UUKi’s Vivienne Stern said it was “absolutely essential” that an institution has in place internal checks and balances to make sure they are making prudent decisions with regard to who they commission to work on their customer journey with them. The objective of growing international enrolments has to be balanced, she said, against the need to maintain student visa licence compliance and entry standards and in many cases to preserve the overall reputation of the HEI.

Ray Priest, international director for Asia Pacific at the University of West England shared his view that the institution and the third-party partner must share fundamental values of the educational outcomes they expect for young people. Key to his decision-making in choosing a third party is the shared goal of meeting the students’ needs as well as building a strong relationship between the parties themselves. Ray talked of the best partnerships being more than the basic contract, working best when the two organisations and their representatives can “fall in love” and work together as one.

My personal experience is almost entirely positive. In my career I always worked with new entrants to the market, whose services I could adopt and adapt to suit my own institution and UK international student recruitment in general (and also of course get the best mates rates!). Whether it be outsourced overseas offices, digital marketing partners, or AI-driven portals, I always jumped at the chance to use the resources, energy, ideas, and entrepreneurship of new vendors to enhance the HEI’s core competences (and sometimes shake us up a little).

“The third-party must align itself with the university’s overall strategic plan”

Our webinar showed some key rules of engagement:

  • Follow the Strategic Plan

The third-party must align itself with the university’s overall strategic plan. The partner cannot apply its rationale or modus operandi to or at the HEI. The partner must become a natural extension of the HEI, while also delivering new skills and demonstrating new possibilities effectively and sustainability.

  • Use Data to Your Advantage

HEIs should partner with companies who are really interested in algorithms and the power of artificial intelligence for data-driven recruitment. David, today the chief development officer at Oxford International, told our webinar guests that despite general skepticism, digital is impacting every industry and transforming business. HE must not be left out. It is also crucial to consider the longstanding relationship with more traditional agents and how the landscape will evolve with more third-party organisations developing AI-based solutions. Know what the data will do for students and their study choices, what universities need to do differently, and how it can improve underperforming areas and drive positive outcomes.

  • Think Long-Term

Vivienne urged institutions to trust the organisation they are working with. “You have to understand what is driving them, what they consider to be a success, and be very mindful of the risks that the institution carries,” she said. There is also value in looking at peers: learn about their experience in the last five years and make sure to understand how they got to their current enrolment levels and recruitment success.

In an industry faced with new and upcoming trends, many new providers, and a wealth of data and information, the experts agree: think long term and expect it to be a long game.

About the author: This is a sponsored post by Andrew Disbury, President for M Square Media (MSM) in the UK. MSM is an education services provider offering in-country offices, education management, and edtech solutions to higher education institutions in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Andrew has a 30-year career that combines an academic background in international business with education leadership and management experience in China, India, Scotland and England. He held the positions of Pro Vice Chancellor for Global Engagement, International Director, Admissions Director, and Principal Lecturer at four British universities. He also served as the British Council’s Education Director in China. He is Chair of the Awards and Talent Committee of the European Association of International Education and is a keen linguist, speaking fluent Chinese.


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