Student recruitment seems to be one of the only fields that hasn’t been revolutionized by the Internet yet.
As a 20+ year veteran of the International student recruitment field told me:
“Universities are the dinosaurs of marketing… It’s insane! They can’t track anything… They don’t have the concept of marketing…
The people running university student recruitment programs need to all die out. But, a new wave is coming... It might take 10-20 years, but it’s coming. The industry will catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to digital marketing.”
It’s a bit harsh, and a bit of exaggeration. But, I agree there’s a huge opportunity to reshape the student recruitment industry, especially for outgoing Chinese students. A lot of other people besides myself can see the problems as well, and they’re coming up with solutions of their own.
In this post I interview 5 people with experience with this niche, although each of them is coming from it from a different angle. They are:
The way that global education institutions recruit Chinese students really takes me back to the 90s… Before the days of the Internet.
(Note, I’ll be calling them “universities” throughout, while referring to higher education institutions that include universities, colleges and polytechnics.)
The basic model is a system of middlemen called “agents”. The agents earn a commission from universities for each sale. The system isn’t as simple 1-to-1 relationships either. Between a university and student, there may be several agents, including individuals and businesses.
When any modern marketer or techie I know that learns how this system works immediately thinks “wow, this is a gold mine! One of the last undiscovered area for the Internet to replace the middleman.” … But they shouldn’t think too fast. There are quite a few barriers in the way. Well-funded companies have tried and failed.
While the network of agents is inefficient, there is indeed value to the services provided by some education agents. Some provide great value to students by helping them understand education options and get into the institution that best suits them.
Here are the 3 questions I asked the experts:
China has remained the top source country for university students and ranked second in sending college students to major destination countries such as US, Canada, UK, Japan, Australia and New Zealand for a few years. How to stand out and make your voice heard has become a challenge to many institutions.
Second, China is a huge country and densely populated from North to South. It’s hard to just apply resources to one or two specific locations like in some other markets. Quite some efforts are needed to build connections that work as expected.”
Should they hire in-house staff with agency relations and experience? Or, how should they manage relations with education agents?
How should they communicate with students? They can't to everything by phone and email.
Also, are they prepared financially? They should set aside a budget to find and secure partnerships in China. There are additional expenses to consider, such as more country visits for periodical training and information sessions, marketing fees, and possible FAM Trips (familiarization trips) for agents and partners to their campus.”
Schools can use digital channels to reach more students. The challenge here is that China’s internet operates very differently from anywhere else in the world. Many staples like Google, YouTube, and Facebook are completely blocked in China. Even the way people use the internet differs greatly; for example, in China, people seldom use email and prefer to use instant messaging. Therefore, for institutions to have the broadest impact, they really must localize their marketing and communication. This certainly requires some local knowledge as names like Baidu, Weibo, QQ, and WeChat may seem very foreign to many recruitment staff. As an added barrier, many of these platforms require China-based representatives in order to create official accounts.
Last, it can be very difficult for international institutions to differentiate themselves in China. Because Chinese students may not be familiar with the nuances of foreign education systems, they tend to rely heavily on rankings and agent advice. Also, on the surface, many schools advertise similar things - stimulating environments, friendly faces, and beautiful campuses. The key is for an institution to communicate and deliver a unique experience offered by their faculty, campus, and corner of the world.”
Some information still doesn’t really exist in Chinese language, still very few people have the ability to research in English and verify the source of the content in English.”
Also, simply put: studying abroad is confusing. Students must get to know a foreign education system along with a new language and culture. They must select their “dream school” but also navigate test preparation, visas, and adjusting to a new life abroad.
As students have so many questions and limited resources for answering them, it’s easy to see how the majority of students have come to rely on agents. However, this has created different problems for students and schools: there have been cases where agents falsify student’s credentials or recommend schools based on commission instead of proper fit. ”
BOSSA’s International association hosts various opportunities for educators and service providers from overseas to meet its 200+ agency national members. Whether in the form of in-country events, agent networking workshops, or online via webinars, BOSSA has serviced almost 60 overseas institutions and companies for over 3 years since it began.
BOSSA at its core is the national association of international education agencies in China. Since 2004, the association has been the professional accreditation body for the industry.
Furthermore; along with ICEF and the Chinese Ministry of Human Affairs, BOSSA launched a public-private initiative in 2014 known as the China Education Agent Course, CEAC, an individual certification program which has become the standard credential for individual professional agents in China. BOSSA also in 2014 launched a Verification Center which authenticates academic documents such as transcripts, diplomas, and degrees.”
‘Western’ universities often seem to forget that the background skillset and social media habits of local students might be very different from that of home students.
Institutions can benefit from better channels of communication by finding the best-qualified applicants. Also, institutions can build relationships with partners they trust and keep these partners 'in the loop’ with standardized marketing and updates. For students, better information will lead to better outcomes as students can gain a 360-degree picture of schools and choose the best pathway for enrollment.
Another way it could be done better is for schools to engage their current Chinese students and alumni: solicit students for ways to improve their experience; support graduates in finding jobs; and use successful students as your ambassadors. After all, who is better qualified to speak about a school’s unique features than someone who lives on campus? Who can better advise on applications and visas than someone who has gone through it all before?
In the end, a school's student network may be its greatest asset for recruiting in China. Positive word-of-mouth goes far in China, and it is the best tool for communicating, localizing, and differentiating an institution among Chinese applicants.”
Of the 5 answers, they all recognized similar problems, but played different roles in creating solutions.
Ivo and Pacyon work for students only, and charge for their service. I’d call them real education consultants rather than education sales agents.
Jon and BOSSA set standards for education agents, helping to weed out the bad ones and make it easier for universities to work with agents.
Cecilia and China Higher Education take a broad approach, and recommend universities take a dual approach by using agents & direct/digital marketing channels.
Jessica works in a university that is also taking that approach. From talking with many universities, I feel that most are very apprehensive in taking that approach. They’ll spend $1M on agent fees before they set aside $50K/year for marketing.
I have hopes for web portals to create a digital marketplace for universities and students to connect. Maybe it will be eduFair China that succeeds there. I’m also aware of a couple small start-ups pushing in that direction, although it seems the worlds’ biggest portals aren’t active in China in a big way.