In our experience, working with experienced, professional agents is the most effective method of student recruitment,” observes Justine Cook at Trent College, an independent day and boarding school and sixth-form college based in Nottingham. She notes that approximately 50 per cent of current international boarders were introduced via an agency, and almost all overseas students enrolled on the summer programme for juniors stemmed from agents.
According to Helen Miller at Skola Group, agent usage currently accounts for 60 per cent of international students across their 10 centres, while at St Clare’s an Oxford based international and residential college that welcomes students from more than 47 different countries 28 per cent of the current overseas student body came via an agency, relates the school’s Greg Brett. “Our partner agencies are a valuable asset when it comes to maintaining a presence in our international markets,” he says.
Indeed, aside from the obvious marketing benefits (agents promote the school to the local market and, on occasion, represent the school at local education fairs) there are many other advantages. Brett asserts that a consultant’s local knowledge is extremely valuable, as is their ability to promote programmes and counsel students and parents in a context they understand.
The help and guidance that agents give during the admissions process, which can be lengthy and overly complicated, is also appreciated. “The admissions process can be very time consuming from initial enquiry, testing where relevant, interviewing and answering all the questions parents may have,” notes Cook.
Miller observes that without an effective network of agent partners, it is almost impossible for institutions to grow their international student communities. However, the process of developing a fruitful agency/school relationship takes time, she adds. “Developing the network is undoubtedly the hardest part of the job... It is this process... that can be costly and time-consuming.” A good agent should have a thorough understanding of the UK curriculum and be well-briefed in their partner schools’ product portfolios. “An agent is only as good as the information they have on their partner institutions and they have to be able to talk with confidence and in-depth knowledge if they are to successfully promote,” says Miller.
So what constitutes a successful agent/school relationship? “Continual contact is key to maintaining a friendly, professional and efficient partnership with agents in other countries,” Brett observes. “This entails regular email and phone contact with individual agents, both in answer to their requests for information and materials such as brochures, as well as to inform them of new courses, or places on existing courses.”
Cook asserts that it is important not to bombard agents with general correspondence, however. Instead, schools should establish a preferred method of communication with their agent colleagues be it newsletter, phone call or email and stick to it. “A brief chat reinforces the human element, which is very good for keeping a good working relationship alive and your school at the top of their mind,” she says.
“A partnership, however, is a two-way process and a good agent will always want to visit an institution if they are serious about being able to promote it,” relates Miller at Skola. Indeed, according to Brett, St Clare’s host familiarisation tours periodically to acquaint agent partners with its location and facilities. “Fam trips give our partner agencies a chance to visit the college, experience living in our accommodation, use the facilities, tour the campuses, and more importantly, meet St Clare’s staff,” he says.
Similarly, school representatives should visit agent partners wherever possible to strengthen work ties, and, as Miller says, to “inform and educate other office staff through presentations”. Meanwhile, Cook stresses the importance of supporting in-country events hosted by agent partners. “Not only is this important in recruiting new students, but it also helps to build the school’s reputation abroad whilst demonstrating a commitment to the agent partnership,” she details.
So what do schools look for in a prospective agent partner? According to Tessa Foulds at Worksop College in Nottinghamshire, professionalism, reliability and honesty are essential ingredients in any business relationship. Foulds also signals the importance of a flow of good quality students.
When marketing the school and its programmes to an overseas agent market, Foulds cites marketing trips and niche workshops, such as the British Boarding Schools Workshop, as good for making contacts. Agents have generated 80 per cent of the current international student population at Worksop College, says Foulds.
While the topic of commission structure will inevitably arise when forging a new agency partnership, Miller notes, “If during the first meeting the first question is what commission rate is being offered, then this would indicate that the students’ best interests are not necessarily their priority, which would be very worrying,” she asserts.
From an agent’s perspective
“The role of the agent in the recruitment of students is crucial and can’t be underestimated. Consultations with parents and students can take hours. There are a lot of things we discuss: a student’s academic results, their abilities, interests, extracurricular activities, the student’s character etc. Then we consider subjects, which is especially essential for A-level or IB and can affect the choice of the school. Efficiency of [a school’s] admissions department constitutes a good working relationship. We stop working with schools that do not respond to e-mails promptly. Sometimes the work of marketing staff and a school’s investment in marketing can be damaged by [an inefficient] admissions department. Many of our business partners have become our friends whom we can trust and discuss any problems or doubts regarding our existing or future students.” Olga Govor, Meridian Group, Latvia