A perfect storm of macroeconomic variables, including the introduction of the graduate route post-study work visa, a global pandemic, and technological age, has conspired to propel UK international student numbers to record highs, ten years ahead of aim. However, the UK sector audience at The PIE Live conference 2022 was eager to learn about the impact of rising application volumes and the risks associated with them.
“How busy is busy?” was the opening question from Amy Baker, CEO of The PIE and chair of the Agents, Integrity and Application Overload panel session at the event.
“We’re really busy in terms of high volume growth,” explained Francis Glover, deputy director of International at De Montfort University. “Over the pandemic years we didn’t know how university finances were behaving, we had to get as many international students as we could in, we had to make sure the university was financially viable.
“Now we can take a step back, decide where we are going over the next three, four, five years and what solutions we have in the sector to match individual problems.”
Amy Baker, CEO of The PIE and chair of the Agents, Integrity, and Application Overload panel session at the event, asked the opening question, “How busy is busy?” Bobby Mehta, associate pro-vice-chancellor (Global) at the University of Portsmouth, echoed this picture of peak demand, citing “unprecedented demand” over the last 18 months. Moreover, he cautioned that, while we celebrate this period of growth, there is an understandable concern in the sector about what it means in the long run, stating that “everyone is worried about what comes next.”
This is the fork in the road that universities are at. The decision between investing in admissions capabilities and planning for future growth, or exploring new recruitment partnerships in response to other global markets returning to normalcy and competition increasing. Indecision could cost you money. While demand for the UK remains high and rising, the overall share of inquiries for the UK is decreasing, according to Digvijay Gagneja, CEO and UK director at Leverage Edu.
The Leverage Edu website receives over 7 million visitors per month, with 75% from India and 25% from the rest of the world. Gagneja explained that “75-77 per cent of student traffic was previously coming forward for the UK” in the Leverage Edu business. This represents a roughly 35% decrease in levels of inquiry, which may translate into slower growth for the UK in the future. He estimates that 50% of students applying through Leverage Edu do not have a preferred country. It serves as a stark reminder of global competition. The days of single-destination agents and complete loyalty to the UK are long gone.
Agents in a Covid world must cater to multiple destinations in order to cover their own risk and continue to scale. The disruptors are then added. Aggregors are new digital application tools that use AI to automate large volumes of application flows, a term that is quickly gaining negative connotations of application overload and low conversion.
The perceived loss of control and the speed of change clearly issues for universities, and it is true that higher education marketing does not have a history of early adoption of digital technology or third-party solutions from the private sector. Whitfield also stated that late application markets, such as the postgraduate West African market, compound the problem.
Glover recommended that in De Montfort University’s priority markets, an initial offer could be issued in 48 hours – a strategy that many universities have used in the past, including spot-offers or automated offers in concept. Attendees have noticed the disconnect between old and new approaches to international recruitment, in which personal experience and expertise are being questioned by automation and scale. The risk is that while the UK navigates this transition, it will fall behind the more synchronized competition from abroad.
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