Introduction to international student recruitment
International students are the lifeblood of educational institutions and economies, and will be well into the future. Market intelligence firm HolonIQ predicts there will be up to 9 million internationally mobile students enrolled in foreign institutions by 2030. The firm also forecasts USD$433 billion in international student spending by 2030, more than double what it was in 2019.
Education agents are a key element in the international student recruitment ecosystem. In fact, according to ICEF, approximately 22,000 agents operate worldwide, ranging from sole traders to multinationals, who serve students and clients across the globe. Their involvement in the international student recruitment process depends on many things including student home countries and study destinations. But one thing is certain, with the number of international students expected to increase substantially into the next decade, education agents are here to stay.
From the International Office to other departments such as admissions and finance, education agents work closely with institutions to aid student recruitment. This is why having a holistic approach to managing the relationship reaps benefits for students, education providers and agents alike.
Here is everything institutions need to know about education agents, their role in the international education space and how to foster and cultivate relationships to ensure a smooth enrollment process for students.
What do education agents do?
The role of an education agent is very similar to the role of a travel agent. Acting as an intermediary between a provider (the institution) and their customers (the students), education agents typically specialize in a particular region or recruit for a particular institution.
Agents primarily work for institutions to help find and place international students – ideally looking for the best fit for everyone involved. However, they also provide an advisory and support function for students and their families, sharing extensive knowledge and insight on available options and making recommendations on the most suitable destination countries, institutions and courses.
In addition, agents, and their interactions with universities, have a direct impact on the student application and enrollment process.
How do education agents work with international students?
For many families, sending their child abroad to study is one of the biggest decisions they will ever make, and let’s not forget the almost incomprehensible level of choice that students have. So it makes sense they would seek professional advice and support from an education agent, advice on the countries, institutions and courses best suited to meet the student’s aspirations and aptitude, as well as their financial means, to distill their options down to a manageable level.
The core services and benefits agents offered to students include:
Matching students with institutions and courses
Helping students with the application process and entrance requirements
Assisting with document translation and verification
Helping with/preparing student visa applications
Providing up-to-date information on government and provider policies (e.g. those relating to visas, teaching delivery and more)
The level of involvement agents have in the application process tends to vary according to both student home and destination country locations. For example, students wishing to study at Australian institutions often work with an education agent to navigate the student visa process, which can often be convoluted. Students wishing to study in the U.K. or U.S. may decide to work with an agent in a more advisory capacity to help support their school choice and application process.
An agent’s work does not stop after students get placed. According to the 2022 ICEF Agent Voice report, “Financial products and support to students has increased, with 74% of agents reporting helping their students facilitate tuition fee payments … with the largest majority using Flywire.”
Payment services or recommendations on how to pay are particularly valuable to families because, with the significant financial investment involved in sending their child abroad, they want to be sure their payments are secure and they are getting the best value for their money.
The same report also shows significant growth in the range of ancillary services, such as accommodation booking, insurance, travel and post-arrival support, agents now offer to students. In addition, as the ICEF report notes, “Agents’ product offering to partners is also growing with 67% increasing the range of products and services offered to students to provide a greater level of support.”
Flywire's Agent Platform connects students with education agents and institutions to optimize the payment process.
How many types of education agents are there?
Agents come in all shapes and sizes. In the Good Practice Guide for Providers Using Education Agents, BUILA identifies six agent types with size often determining the scope of their role, both for institutions and for students.
The sole trader agent
These agents are usually family-run businesses and have deep roots within the community. They offer a highly personalized service and can usually only offer institutions a small number of student enrollments.
The SME agent
SME agents often have more than one office all within the same country. Typically recruiting up to 200 students per year for between 10 and 80 institutions, SME agents may act as sub-agents for other larger agencies.
The market specialist agent
Market specialist agents typically operate from multiple offices in the same country or region, recruiting approximately 1,000 students per year for more than 80 institutions. They tend to have good staffing levels and systems in place to streamline operations and best serve clients.
The multi-national agent
As the name suggests, multi-national agents operate in multiple countries and act for 100 or more institutions. They usually, though not always, have robust systems and significant staffing levels, and will send large quantities of students to institutions across the globe.
The specialist/online agent
While often a sole trader or SME, this type of agent is distinct from the other agent types because they tend to specialize in a particular discipline, act for or are embedded in a single institution, or use well developed digital tools and systems to operate purely online.
How do education agents get paid?
Nearly all (97% according to BUILA & UUKi) education agents are paid a fee, or commission, by institutions, usually upon placement and based on a percentage of a student’s first year tuition fees. Other established, but less common, payment models are retainers, a set fee for services provided regardless of the number of students placed, or a per-head rate for each student that enrolls.
Unfortunately, commission payments are often a source of frustration between institutions and their agents. This is due to a lack of clarity around how many/which students a particular agent should be paid for, and at what point in the application/enrollment process. For example, an agent may invoice for commission before a student has confirmed their enrollment; the agent’s commission invoice may relate to a number of (perhaps unidentified) students, or internal records may not correlate to the invoice figures. To prevent dissatisfaction from building up on either side, it is important that a mutually agreeable commission payment policy is developed and agreed by Finance and International Office teams . This policy should address agreement terms, invoicing processes and payment timescales.
Technology - or rather a lack of technology - exacerbates existing friction in the commission payment process, for both institutions and agents. According to the ICEF’s 2022 Agent Voice report), 68% of agents do not have a CRM or software to support commission payments, and 63% use excel or other manual processes to invoice for commission payments.
Without a robust way to record, submit and validate commission payments there is room for errors (e.g. duplicated or missing payments) to occur, ample opportunity for unscrupulous “bad actors” to attempt fraud, and payment delays, all of which affect the bottom line of agents and institutions.
What is the difference between an Education Consultant, an Education Agent and an Education Aggregator?
Education consultants are generally professionals who charge a family a service fee for interviews, learning / personality assessments, and a list of school recommendations that best match selection criteria. They also facilitate school visits, and assist with application, test and interview preparation. Educational consultants are considered to be impartial because they are hired by the family and they do not accept a commission from the school after student placement.
As explained previously, the role of education agents is expanding to include some of the services provided by an education consultant. However, they are paid by the institution rather than the family so the support provided may be less personalized and considered less impartial.
Education aggregators bring together a large number of agents (acting as sub-agents) and institutions with the aim of recruiting as many students as possible. They usually operate online and some utilize AI to streamline their screening processes. Aggregators usually share the commission paid for a student’s placement with the relevant sub-agent.
What is the finance team’s role in the agent relationship?
While the agent relationship usually sits with the International Office, payments resulting from agent-derived applications and enrollments are processed by finance teams, and finance processes can impact agents.
Apart from the application process, payment is one of the first points of contact between students, their families and educational providers, so a smooth process is key to satisfaction. If the payment process is unclear and difficult to navigate with queries going unanswered, it can significantly impact the student’s perception of the institution.
According to the 1H22 Agent Voice report, 85% of agents said that quick responses to queries are the most valuable support institutions can provide them with the enrollment process.
When finance teams are kept on the periphery of the agent relationship, and only have limited interaction outside of payment inquiries or processing commission payments, inefficiencies and a buildup of frustrations affecting internal and external relationships can result. The student, or payer, ultimately pays the price.
Learn how institutions and agents can streamline communications and payment tracking.
How can finance work more effectively with agents?
To help international students have good study experiences, a smooth payment process is essential. This is why it is important that finance teams and agents communicate and work together effectively. Here are a few best practices to cultivate and foster solid working relationships:
Build relationships across internal departments:
As the relationship with education agents tends to sit with the international team, finance teams should connect internally to foster cross-departmental relationships and mutual understanding. This will not only help finance better understand the objectives of the international team, their recruitment strategies and agent partner mix, but will also help the international office address common issues arising from agent-initiated student recruitment, institution selection and the payment process.
Understand student demographics:
It is also useful for the finance team to understand the mix of nationalities within the institution’s international student population, get a grasp of the financial frameworks in each country, and work to minimize the complexities of making tuition payments. This way, finance teams can better anticipate issues that might occur and provide proactive solutions to help ease the payment process - and potential financial hardship - for students from those territories. Being able to anticipate financial issues and offer more flexible payment options will help improve enrollment and retention, reduce missed payments, and increase cash flow.
Meet with education agents:
Taking the time to meet with agents when they visit campus (or to participate in a visit overseas to their office location) provides an opportune moment for all relevant departments and agents to discuss the relationship, opportunities and challenges, and the “on-the-ground” impact of policies and processes that are in place. Fostering cross-departmental communication, and refining processes to work for everyone can help build a stronger, more effective partnership which delivers a superior student experience.
Provide agents with dedicated points of contact:
Education agents also benefit from having dedicated contacts from finance, admissions and other relevant teams to approach for answers to student queries, the swift resolution of which will help students more easily navigate their international education journey.
Automate more processes:
The international education ecosystem is often complex, especially as institutions look to diversify and add more regions to their recruitment efforts. In addition, finance teams seek seamless payment processes that support multiple locations to better meet the growing needs and expectations of students worldwide, while also reducing complexities to increase staff efficiencies.
ICEF reports that nearly 40% of agents in 2022 were not using a CRM to manage student information/applications, and 68% of agents were without software to support commission payments, leading to a reliance on manual processes, particularly for commission invoices. Delays and errors in commission payments, which can be a result of inaccurate data about a student’s enrollment progress, are a key frustration for both parties and could easily be solved by employing a robust solution to monitor the progress of agent-initiated student applications, enrollments and payments.
How can you provide a seamless agent-initiated enrollment process for students?
Most agents are working with many institutions, each with their own application, enrollment and payment processes that need to be communicated to students who may not have any experience of how things operate in the country they are bound for. So, the simpler a university can make a process, the better - for agents and students.
Despite ICEF reporting that 74% of agents say they are helping students with tuition fee payments, only 25% use their own third-party payment platform, or a platform recommended by an institution to facilitate these payments. The opportunity to better leverage technology to improve the student experience is vast.
Offering a simple and clear payment process preferably one that automatically reconciles payments using student information, and can be used to proactively communicate to students more easily will reap rewards in multiple areas.
As the Trusted Choice for millions of students and thousands of education institutions, agents and partners worldwide, Flywire has built a powerful global payment network to flexibly meet the diverse needs of the industry. Our Agent Platform makes it easy for institutions to better manage agent relationships, while also streamlining the payment tracking and reconciliation process for transactions processed through our network . In addition, our solution helps to eliminate short-balance payments, wire fees, and risk by:
Centralizing all relevant agent and student data
Securely processing and delivering payments in full
Reducing unidentified transactions
Automating reconciliation to save time
Tracking payments in real time with transparency
With a significant proportion of agents operating without technology, institutions and agents alike need to team with proven third-party providers like Flywire to improve student experience by simplifying processes and increasing efficiency and overall data and payment accuracy.
How Flywire's Agent Platform helps Annalink offer fast and secure tuition payment services
We found Flywire to be the safest and easiest method of payment for our students. The Agent Platform helps us offer tuition payment services fast and securely, making sure the institution receives the full amount. We are very confident to promote Flywire to our channels because we trust the company and are able to bring the best service to our clients.