Short on time? Here are the highlights:
- International education is an undertaking built on the relationships institutions have with students and families, agents, and other partners.
- Looking just at relationships with education agents, it is possible to identify a number of best practices based on the accumulated experience of leading practitioners.
- These include a long-term orientation, a focus on selecting partners that are best-fitted to your institution, and the importance of building strong personal relationships with partners overseas.
This article is adapted and reprinted with permission from Beyond the Horizon: The Near Future of International Education. Launched at the 2016 NAFSA conference in Denver, Beyond the Horizon is a special anthology of essays and commentary from leading practitioners on the issues that will shape international education over the next several years. The complete edition is available to download now.
A cautionary tale is told of a university that had nearly 2,000 agents from China alone. On average, the university received one student from each agent and its staff found it difficult to reduce the very large number of agent agreements they had entered into. Before long, however, it became impossible for them to manage such a large network in any practical way. The university’s recruitment in China became terribly inefficient as a result: services to students were uneven, quality controls were out the window, and the institution’s risk exposure was climbing.
Along the way to building its massive Chinese network, this university had lost track of one of the essential truths in international education: it is, at the end of the day, a business built on the relationships institutions have with students and families, agents, and other partners.
This is a simple idea but one with wide-ranging implications for marketing and recruitment strategy. To make the concept more concrete, let’s narrow the frame to look just at agency relationships.
Agreements between education agents and schools are commonplace, and many institutions maintain a number of agency relationships in markets around the world. The British Council estimates, for example, that over 92% of UK institutions work with agents, and this is the case for the majority of institutions and schools in Australia and Canada as well.
In the US, the landscape looks very different than it did even a couple of years ago, in large part because of NACAC’s (the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s) 2013 repeal of a ban on the use of commissioned international education agents.
The increasing use of agents also reflects intense competition in the marketplace. Agents offer local market expertise and additional marketing capacity that can help institutions penetrate international markets more quickly and efficiently. Good agency relationships, in other words, translate into better market access. There is also a growing recognition that agents can be an important extension of the institution’s support services for students and can help to boost student satisfaction and retention as a result.
In an environment where more institutions are competing for attention and referrals from the best agents, building strong relationships with agents is crucial. From discussions with experienced educators and agents on the topic, we can identify some common threads regarding best practices in establishing relationships with agents.
• Think long-term. Lasting relationships are not built on unrealistic expectations or promises of immediate results. Be patient and work toward longer-term goals based on mutually agreed, sustainable targets.
• Focus on fit. As the earlier example illustrates, the more agency agreements you have, the more challenging it becomes to manage your network. A shotgun approach to signing agent contracts is not effective. When looking for agency partners it is essential to do your due diligence. As we have seen, signing contracts for the sake of having contracts can actually be detrimental. It is far better to focus on those agencies that are best suited to your institution and with which you have a real opportunity to grow for the long term.
• Keep it simple. Complicated legal agreements and administrative requirements will do nothing to ensure performance or advance your standing with a new agent. Simple and straightforward agreements, with reasonable terms and clear opt-out provisions, are a much better foundation for a productive relationship.
• Pay attention. Assuming you exert reasonable due diligence in evaluating new partners (e.g., checking on how long agencies have been in business, what quality controls or standards they have in place for counsellors, what industry qualifications they possess), your best quality-assurance mechanism over time is to be attentive. Talk to students about their experience with the agent, and actively measure performance against targets. With a good working relationship in place, you and the agent can work together to resolve any issues that arise. Reinforcing and rewarding exceptional productivity shown by agencies in your network also fuels positive relationships and results.
• Offer support. Never underestimate the importance of ongoing training for agency staff as a means of improving your institution’s profile and as a basis for strengthening relationships. Be responsive to feedback and in your handling of student files. And always make time to visit and learn from key agency staff. At the end of the day, investing in and respecting the agents working to send you students will distinguish your institution and improve your competitive position.
• Make it personal. Don’t just provide agents and partners with information about your programmes and services – introduce your staff and include pictures of them in your briefing materials. Take a personal interest in the people you work with, including asking them about their lives and families. As one very experienced recruiter said to us, agents send students to educators they like and feel comfortable with. Agents are responsible to students and their families for the experience students have at your school. They gain confidence to choose your institution when they know you and trust you.
Across distance and cultures, through the inevitable ups and downs of business cycles, and in the midst of all the other changes and pressures in the market today, strong working relationships with agency partners represent an important source of competitive advantage for any international educator.