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How will COVID-19 impact the student-agent-university relationship?

June 15, 2020 |   Nicolas Chu

COVID-19 has hit the education sector especially hard. Already faced with plummeting enrolments, huge financial losses, and little in the way of government assistance, Australian universities were dealt yet another blow when China’s Education Bureau warned Chinese students against studying in Australia due to “racist incidents targeting Asians” during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In the wake of all this uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that universities maintain good relationships with education agents in order to help shore up Chinese international student recruitment numbers.

To help universities navigate these murky waters, I enlisted the assistance of Robert Parsonson, executive officer at the International Student Education Agents Association (ISEAA). With over 25 years’ experience in education and education export both in Australia and internationally, Robert has marketed high education and vocational programmes on behalf of various institutions throughout China. His clients include Study Melbourne, Study NT, Study Queensland and the South Australian Government.

He joined me for a fascinating fireside chat about how COVID-19 has impacted the student-agent-university relationship (you can check out the full video here). Here’s a summary of what we discussed.

The government response to international students during COVID-19 was “less than optimal”

While few can deny the amazing results Australia has achieved in terms of suppressing the COVID-19 virus, in other instances – specifically in regards to international students – their response has been far from ideal.

“The reaction by the [Australian] government was less than optimal,” said Robert. “There was a kind of turning away from international education and international students, and quite strong comments by the prime minister that if students could no longer take care of themselves, they should go home – in the middle of a crisis where students couldn’t go home.”

International students were also left out of federal welfare payments like JobSeeker and JobKeeper, leading to what Robert called a “very mixed bag of different states offering different schemes”. But many students still struggled to make ends meet, leading to “a very strong reliance on community providers and charities to take care of students”.

“So we have images in Australia of many students lining up to get food handouts, which is not a great image to project to the world. And, of course, some students in real, real crisis.” 

 

This is bound to have a negative impact in terms of how Australia is viewed as a destination for students, with students likely to feel Australia is a country that won’t care for them as well as other countries like New Zealand and Canada. Though it’s not all gloom and doom: “On the flip side, [Australia] is a relatively healthy and safe destination compared to the US or UK, or even Canada. So we do have that advantage at the moment for sure.”

There are still many questions about students’ visa statuses

Another key area of stress for international students in Australia is the uncertainty surrounding their visas. Unlike in other countries, Australia’s response has been slow and unsatisfactory.

“New Zealand … were very quick to respond to say that all student visas would be automatically extended until September – a very simple and effective mechanism to give people certainty and take one area of stress away from the international student,” said Robert.

By contrast, in Australia, there has been little clarity from the government regarding where students stand. There are also questions about how doing online study offshore affects existing visas, and whether time spent studying offshore can be counted towards the overall length of study, making them applicable for post-study work rights. “It’s a cause of frustration throughout the industry … that there hasn’t been a response, a quick and simple response to the basic areas of student concerns. … In terms of retention of students who are studying offshore at the moment, these are important questions.”

“Australia needs to think about how we open up”

While organisations like ISEAA and Universities Australia are working on building a so-called “international corridor” to allow students to fulfil their quarantine requirements in a third country before travelling to Australia, there are still some 50,000-plus already-enrolled Chinese international students in China who have either had to defer their studies, or who are now studying online, and Australia’s strict border controls have made it very difficult for these students to know when they can recommence their studies onshore.

This of course raises many questions for students who were intending on enrolling soon, making them think twice about whether to even go ahead with their applications. “Students … will only commit to countries that show that there’ll be a way in.”

Robert argues that there needs to be a clear plan going forward. “Australia needs to think about how we open up,” said Robert. “First of all, [we need to] open up our university campuses. That’s, of course, the most important step – that the students who are currently here in Australia can come back to campus and start to study, even in a socially distanced manner. It might be a blended version of online lectures and tutorials, but there’ll be a way.

“So that’s stage one. Then bringing in students who have already got visas. That is definitely on the cards too, and has been pushed very strongly. Then trying to get some early groups of students in October or November to the country, then opening up more fully to countries that Australia considers reasonably safe in terms of COVID-19, then opening to other countries internationally.

“Unless we get that certainty, agents, students and parents can’t really plan on what to do.”

 

There is some positive news, though, with a few students being granted visas for Semester 1, 2021, signalling the government expects students to be able to arrive onshore by early next year. Nevertheless, there is a lot of uncertainty students are still contending with.

Australian universities need to look at diversifying their international student population

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many had warned that the Australian education sector was over-reliant on Chinese international students, leaving them vulnerable to political, reputational and financial international changes. And indeed, just as these experts had predicted, the loss of Chinese international students due to the pandemic has cost the Australian economy billions of dollars, and led to universities being forced to cut staff and courses.

“I think a bit more balance is required,” said Robert. “Universities have started working harder in South Asia, so countries like India, Nepal and Pakistan. And there is some more focus on ASEAN countries and Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Vietnam and so forth. These are growing markets and ones that we should working in a lot better. So the universities are certainly looking at diversification and seeing how they can do it.”

According to Robert, one key to increased diversification may be in looking closer at how universities work with agencies. “ISEAA [has] a very diverse range of students and now we’re trying to work with universities on a better management structure for agencies, because universities often tend to go to larger agents. They have large targets of students, otherwise you can’t get an agreement with them. So we’re saying that there’s got to be a different structure of how to work with education agents and have smaller agents in more diverse markets.”

Education agents will continue to play a meaningful role with students and universities

Education agents play an important role for students not just pre-study, but also during studies and post-study too. “The difference between education agents and, say, travel agents is that it’s not just a very transactional ‘one flight or one trip, and that’s it’,” said Robert. “The education agent often is in touch with the student throughout the whole student journey.”

This link has become even more important to students during COVID-19. “During these times, with students stranded offshore and universities under pressure, it’s often difficult for the students to get through to who they need to speak to [at their university]. The agent provides that communication channel, that fast track for getting complaints or issues heard. It’s a way for students to find out what’s happening with the university, find out what their options are, and get help with transferring or deferring and all those other things as well.”

With recruiters unable to travel internationally and universities unable to hold international events, this person-to-person contact between students and agents will be more important to universities than ever. “[Universities] will need the agents there to be the point of contact. People still want to talk to people about these life-changing decisions – and these are big and very high-cost decisions.”

A strong digital marketing presence will be more crucial than ever to support agents on the ground

Over the year, digital has become an increasingly important component of the recruitment process for education agents. As Robert says, “Where it would once take about four visits to an agent office to close a transaction with a student, it’s down to one or less.” This is because students are doing more of their research themselves online, and coming to agents with a much clearer idea of where they want to go.

But with study tours off the cards for the foreseeable future, universities also need to look at how they can support agents digitally as well. “The agents can point [students] back to the digital presence of the university,” said Robert, whether it’s to their Chinese website, or their Weibo or WeChat accounts. With students used to searching for information independently, these resources will be vital supports to agents in the coming months.

Robert also notes that when trying to decide where to go, students are looking for more of a peer-to-peer connection. “Talking to students on the ground in the country is what a lot of students would like to do. They would like get reviews from students of what they think of the university experience and what’s been good and what’s been not so good. That transparency that comes with the digital presence is going to become more and more important,” said Robert.

Universities also need to be aware of how everything they do can potentially feed back into their digital presence. “In my opinion, universities need to step up the student experience, and think about how they’re delivering to these students who come to Australia, how they can take better care of them … because through digital, it’s instant – the good and the bad [experiences] get transported back to the market very, very quickly through social networks.”

The role of the agent will move down the funnel

While once the agent played an important role throughout the funnel, helping to generate and nurture leads, as well as to convert them, with students now getting their information from numerous other sources, such as online or through friends and relatives, agents are now playing a bigger part towards the end of the funnel. These days, their role is to help students make their final decisions about their choice of institution or destination and assist them with their visa applications and so forth.

As well as advising the student on the universities that would be the best fit for them, they also help ensure the university gets suitable candidates – “the right student for the right course”.

Universities need to think of their relationships with agencies as “partnerships”

With international travel restrictions in place, it’s crucial that universities build and maintain relationships with education agents – and to do this successfully, universities must think of these relationships as partnerships, said Robert.

This doesn’t just mean reaching out to agents, but also managing the perception of agents within the university itself. “[An] important piece in the partnership is to make sure that other people in the university system understand what the role of agents are. It’s very often that the marketing department has a very good relationship with education agents and the rest of the university has no clue about what the agents do – all they see is the university paying the [agents’] commission, virtually giving away all this money, and [they think,] ‘Why do we do that?’

“So I think in terms of building better relationships, you actually need a bit of internal marketing with colleagues within the university about why you are using agents.”

 

So why are education agents so important to universities? “They’re the representative in the country. With them, it’s impossible for [universities] to have all this representation throughout China – a huge country – to do all this work to bring these students through to the point of application in a very competitive environment, against all different universities and countries, and then get them to your door. And agents don’t get paid until that student arrives … It’s a huge ask for a business. So that partnership idea has to be very, very strong.”

In these particularly challenging times, universities may need to think a little differently about how to structure their partnerships with agencies, said Robert. “We’re seeing some models now where universities are paying advance commissions for agencies in order that they can maintain their cash flow and staff through this time. So you have to look at different models of how we can support each other to get to the point where we can send students into the country again.”

Agents can help temper any political fallout – like that from the Education’s Bureau recent comments

As I mentioned in the introduction, China’s Education Bureau recently warned Chinese students against studying in Australia. But when I ask Robert what impact he thought these comments would have, he was generally optimistic.

“From my point of view, the accusations, while not baseless, are very – the cases of overt racism in Australia are actually very, very low. We polled a few of our members [about this and] nobody has had any cases of any direct racism to their students. To the contrary, the students have had a lot of support from the universities, from community groups and others – there’s a lot of sympathy for students in their situation.

“All we can say is that this is not a thing that we believe is common or has ever been common to students – students feel welcome when they’re here, they have generally a very good experience and go back with good memories.”

This view has been supported by several Chinese students, who have spoken out to defend Australia as a “friendly” place to study.

And, again, here is where the agent relationship is important, said Robert – they can be there to talk directly to the parents and students about any fears they may have, and give them a clear, accurate picture of the situation on the ground.

Robert also mentioned that in similar situations in the past, there has not been a big fallout in terms of Chinese student recruitment numbers. “Most of the other times when there’s been these calls that ‘you don’t go to Australia’, which has happened before from China, it hasn’t had any impact on the ground with actual numbers coming here or people choosing the destination.”

This assertion has been reinforced by education consultants and agents in China, who said that while they have had to answer more questions relating to students’ safety, they have seen no evidence of students changing their minds or cancelling offers as a result of the Education Bureau’s comments.

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