Private providers in student recruitment: is it time to reassess?



As more public universities in the UK look to the private sector for help in recruiting international students, suspicion and lack of trust in forming and running such partnerships remain an obstacle, according to a new report.

Pathway providers, along with local representation and overseas university delivery, scored the most favorable reviews in a survey of the use of private providers to support UK universities’ international student recruitment efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In contrast, aggregators received the least positive responses “due to a perceived lack of transparency and a lack of control”, according to research by We Group, an international management consultancy, for Oxford. International Education Group, a private provider of educational services. , and Universities UK International, which represents UK higher education institutions around the world.

The report Public Meets Private: The Growth of Educational Services in International Student Recruitment was published on Tuesday 11 October 2022 and is based on responses to a detailed questionnaire from 61 respondents, followed by in-depth interviews, using Universities UK International’s network of Professional Vice-Chancellors.

The institutions that responded represent around half of all international enrollment in the UK in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the report.

It revealed that 47% of respondents have increased the use of private providers for their international student recruitment efforts during the pandemic.

The role of the private sector

We Principal Matt Durnin, the lead author of the report, was Global Head of Ideas and Consulting for the British Council in Beijing before moving to Toronto, Canada to take up his new role in November 2021.

He said the increased reliance on tuition fees for international students as well as increased competition for students is pushing many UK universities to seek support from the private sector.

“Global recruiting teams are under increasing pressure to deliver greater results without a corresponding investment in resources, requiring innovative thinking about the role the private sector can play.

“This trend was underway before 2020, but the pandemic and the influx of venture capital into education services in recent years has accelerated the development of services from private providers.

“While most universities recognize the value of engaging private providers, satisfaction with different types of providers is mixed and trust can be a barrier,” Durnin said.

Dr David Pilsbury, who joined the private education sector at the end of 2021 after more than 13 years as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International) at Coventry University in the UK, said Academia News there are many similarities between working in public higher education and working with top private providers.

Now director of development at Oxford International Education Group, Pilsbury said: “We have many people who have worked in public higher education who share the values ​​and belief that higher education is a transformative experience and the emphasis on quality and placement to the student. the center of things.

“The big differences are that engagement with colleagues in private providers is less formal and we don’t have a lot of committees. Reporting lines are clear and shorter, we are very big on data and knowledge and there is a massive willingness to invest resources to build capacity and capacity.

“Even in Coventry, at its height, we have not moved at the speed and with the level of resources that we enjoy at Oxford International, which helps our partners.”

Dramatic change during the pandemic

Pilsbury said he accepts that “there have historically been private providers who have substantiated suspicions about them”, but he said Academia News there has been a “radical shift” in quality and professionalism in consulting, which has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, with public-private partnerships helping to overcome many obstacles caused by the sudden shift to teaching and working online, and other measures imposed by the health emergency.

This was backed up by Dr Janet Ilieva, director and founder of her own international higher education consultancy, Education Insight, who said: “The pandemic has accelerated partnerships with private providers in the student recruitment space. , as continued closures and travel restrictions have made it difficult for many to organize student fairs, expos, and other large-scale student recruitment events. Working with trusted partners in students’ countries has become essential for international recruiters.

pilsbury said Academia News there was still room for improvement, including “establishing the language that allows us to speak to each other effectively and recognize that we are different but complementary”.

The report showed that satisfaction with different types of private providers was mixed, with 94% of respondents satisfied or very satisfied with local representation and 82% satisfied with overseas university provision and 74% satisfied or very satisfied with course providers.

“Notably, these three types of services have a long history in the international education sector and tend to involve deep and integrated partnerships,” the report notes.

Criticism of aggregators

Aggregators are the most controversial among the types of private providers with which institutions collaborate the most.

The majority of respondents (63%) described their satisfaction with aggregators as “neutral”, while only 37% were satisfied or very satisfied. In interviews, several detractors questioned the value that aggregators provide, as they can “impose additional burdens as additional checks are required to process a large volume of low-quality applications.”

“Respondents who gave the most positive ratings of aggregators tended to use them for very specific purposes,” the report said.

“One university told us that they used aggregators to reduce the overall application processing load by feeding their small, underperforming agents through them.

“Any agent who fails to meet the university’s target conversion rate, for example by submitting low-quality applications, loses the privilege of submitting applicants directly to the university and must instead refer them through the aggregator. This incentivizes agents to focus on quality candidates and compels aggregators to establish the individual and other credentials of students who pass through them.

“The other criticism frequently addressed to aggregators is the lack of transparency of the networks of sub-agents from which they draw their candidates. Universities fear weak oversight and the possibility of sub-agents misleading both the aggregator and students in their desire to see students secure a place.

Interestingly, despite the ambivalence that many survey respondents showed in their satisfaction with aggregators, this is the area where most respondents said they were considering expanding or adding partnerships.

“This suggests that, while there are issues to address in terms of the operating model and building trust, agent aggregators will become a more prominent feature in student recruitment,” the report said.

Other areas in which universities want private sector support but see few satisfactory options available include academic engagement, course search and placement, alumni engagement and graduate employability, the report says. report.

Hesitation from major universities

The results also show that larger, higher-ranking UK universities are more hesitant to engage with private providers and are instead happy to trade on their brand until the private sector has proven its worth.

Meanwhile, lower-ranked universities are reluctant to engage private providers because they lack sufficient resources to assess and manage industry relationships.

This has led mid-priced universities to make the most of private supply to boost their efforts to recruit international students, especially when faced with declining domestic recruitment or concerned about declining fees. income from local students, Pilsbury said.

He said Academia News he was surprised that the research showed lingering concern over the use of private providers at some institutions where admissions are experiencing a worrying decline internationally and where “diversity is taking a hammer blow” so that the reliance on China for international recruitment is being replaced by an overreliance on Indian postgraduate students.

“We know the old model of traveling international teams needs to change due to climate concerns – not to mention efficiency – and yet there is a desire to go back to ‘business as usual’. COVID forced people to innovate, but now we see people wanting to put the genie back in the bottle.

“That’s why bringing in the insight and objectivity of an external party should help ensure that everyone makes better decisions.

“Record numbers apply to UK universities at the moment, but this is causing a hot platform in the processing of applications and the quality of service to students and let us not forget that global competition is restarting and that we are on the about to start a new unstoppable period. change.

“That’s why UK universities need to think strategically and be open to working with private providers who can help clarify their goals and how to achieve them,” Pilsbury said.

Charley Robinson, Head of Global Mobility at Universities UK International, agreed and said: “Public-private partnerships can help increase the capabilities of the UK sector in the face of global competition – and rather than a strengthening or extension of Existing recruitment models, such as partnerships can allow for a broader assessment of implications for future strategy and operating models.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant specializing in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at


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