Saturday, March 10, 2012

From Agents to Brands: Changing the Marketing for Independent Higher Education in UK

Traditionally, UK universities and colleges, alongside their counterparts from Australia and elsewhere, depended on agents, or education advisers, to recruit students in the international markets. This model works beautifully: The agent brings the local knowledge and personal touch students need while making the big, transformational decision in their lives. It also works well commercially: The institutions pay a commission, usually 10% to 20% of the first payment the student makes, to the agent, a good sum of money in many countries, and being paid after the registration is secured, is good in cash flow terms too.

However, while the benefits are obvious, the problems of this model are increasingly becoming apparent. Over-dependence on the agents usually results in the institution becoming distant, not closer, from their target markets. The agents often work for a number of institutions, and auction off applicants to the highest bidder, which may not be the most appropriate institution from the students' point of view. Being the gatekeeper - as they make the first hand judgements about a student's suitability - and the beneficiary of the admissions process, there was always a conflict of interest which many agents failed to resolve. Finally, because the agency model is so profitable, institutions, and particularly the independent colleges, used this as a sole channel for recruitment, giving away too much leverage to the agents, which led them to dictate terms in most cases.

As the UK Higher Education in general and the Independent college sector in particular reach an inflection point, time has come to interrogate the agency model and evolve better practises. The abuses are indeed too apparent: A number of agents in different countries have been found guilty of malpractices, ranging from helping students to forge documents, depositing money to the students for a short term (for an exorbitant fee) for representation purposes in their visa application, falsifying English Language test results to outright human trafficking, giving the whole practise, and the sector, a bad name. This is what brought the disproportionate attention of the UK Border Agency on the Independent College sector, and while there are some colleges still hiding their heads in the sand and expecting to return to business as usual in a few months time, there is a widespread acceptance in the sector that things have indeed changed and a new model will have to emerge.

Indeed, the solution is quite straightforward, with established templates from other industries. As the easy money flowed in through the agents, the institutions forgot to develop their distinctive brand identities and hawked the 'Made in the UK' label instead. While the markets were expanding, it did not matter: Almost everyone was doing better than earlier, and no one bothered to question the practise. But, as the gates have been effectively closed by UK Border Agency and certain parts of the business have completely disappeared, this is a moment to return to brand, and to the familiar terrain of company reputation, product differentiation, customer service etc. 

Going forward, this will possibly be a hybrid model. The benefits of local agencies are undeniable, but the institutions will now have to engage proactively in the markets they want to recruit from, rather than responding to agents walking through the door. Exclusive, value-added relationships with a new generation of agents, those who are not just recruitment shops but education organisations themselves, would possibly be the way it would pan out. However, we would surely see scholarships and bursaries, entrance examinations, education fairs and seminars, outreach efforts, alumni network building, instead of fatalistic dependence on agency network that we have seen before. 

This is part of the 'professionalization' of the sector and this was bound to happen at some point of time. It is better for UK Higher Education as a whole that this happens now, rather than later.


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