The international education sector has been forced to adapt to new norms triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent travel bans and restrictions. With the upcoming fall intake on the verge of starting, students stranded at their international residence halls or at their countries of origin gear up for online instruction, with enrollment deferrals continuing to make a dent on the revenues of higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world.
With many other concerns affecting the outlook of international students, agents are now an extremely valuable resource for calibrating the sector’s approaches, highlighting a great need for effective, continuing engagement of international student markets.
To uncover the role of agents and education technology in efforts toward recovery, MSM Reporter sat down with Suneetha Qureshi, MSM Vice-President for Global with more than a decades’ worth of leadership and experience in the sector, for her expert insights.
How important is the online presence for HEIs during and after the pandemic?
It is absolutely important for HEIs to be visible at this critical time in history. The webinar platform is one avenue to do this, allowing them to maintain interactive exchange with agents, students, and their parents. It engages not just current agents and their prospective students, but also new agents who still have limited institutional partnerships. The virtual platform enables them to discuss insights on holistic student support, movement to online learning, and prospects and opportunities for recovery in international education, to name a few.
Technology is an industry enabler. While mobility is limited, HEIs can create virtual reality (VR) campus site tours the agents can use in their recruitment. These virtual tours can help prospective families make an informed choice, especially if they are thinking twice about their child’s learning experience abroad while the pandemic still rages on.
What concerns need to be addressed by HEIs at this period?
According to a survey conducted by MSM on agent wellness and recruitment during the pandemic, 78.9% of education agent respondents say addressing students’ and parents’ uncertainties around the pandemic should be a priority of the highest order for HEIs. While other challenges such as adjusting application deadlines and requirements persist, colleges and universities need to go beyond simple awareness of the plight of international students and their families.
Agents can be the sole and direct receivers of concerns from prospective students; if they have an inquiry for HEIs, it is likely they need an answer right away. Any time lost in the lull of waiting for a response is opportunity lost, and that is why we work hard to make sure connection and communication is available for agents and the international staff at institutions. Simply, to expedite the processes for agents is to ease the burden of students just as much.
How has the pandemic changed the marketing strategy of HEIs and the role of agents in supporting and recruiting students?
It is absolutely time for HEIs to go back to the drawing board. Old ways and methods no longer cut it in the “new normal.” They should revisit the program offerings, student services, and stand-out qualities that keep them attractive to students; agents will need these tools in their arsenal to recruit prospective students.
With limited mobility, institutions have to do away with standard “Apply now!” messages in their promotions. Instead, maximize agent involvement in communicating the strengths of the institutions to applicants. Resources such as how-to blog posts and e-seminars related to course offerings, along with Facebook Live and interactive sessions on social media, can help draw interest and sustain it enough to prompt application and enrollment.
Agents around the world have actually successfully transferred their recruitment efforts completely online, and they’re ready and willing should HEIs give them the right tools. They will be HEIs’ secret weapon to enrollment levels within healthy expectations.
Do you believe agents are currently well supported by HEIs?
At this point of the pandemic, it is safe to say that agents have done their part to keep international recruitment afloat, against all odds. Among their recruitment activities, a majority of agents have implemented a working system to perform marketing and promotions, student counseling, and student counseling completely online. This paints a clear picture of readiness among agents, and moving ahead, HEIs may lean toward a recruitment staff that is well-versed in technology and student counseling.
Based on the same survey I mentioned, nearly 90% of agents are satisfied with how HEIs have responded to the COVID-19 situation, and almost 97% feel that they are getting sufficient and timely updates from their partner colleges and universities. This outlook is particularly interesting for post-pandemic preparations as it signifies the possibility of a resurgence of study-abroad interest with a new breed of international students who are adept at online modes of instruction. For this reason alone, HEIs simply cannot afford to become lax when dealing with agents.
Current best practices in the application process can work in tandem with technology tools and resources to improve the way HEIs and agents recruit. Automation is a sound investment and can go a long way in improving institution and program marketing, admissions-related communications, counsellor performance management, applicant data analytics, and program matching for students, to name a few crucial areas.