Quality and Profits: Reforming International Recruitment

This has been a difficult year for the private sector HE in the UK: The visa regulation changes have started to bite, and the International students have more or less decided to abandon the private sector colleges in the middle of all the uncertainty. The fact that the students can not work part time if they are studying in a private sector college, even when they are studying an university level course (such as an MBA) but can work if they go to a public sector university, is hurting the most. Seen together, the legislation is a cynical attempt to force the private sector colleges to close. The government has been reasonably successful in attaining this goal: A number of private colleges have indeed closed leaving their students unserviced. This has created further uncertainty among the students and the student recruitment for the private sector has completely dried up. This has now taken the shape of a self-perpetuating cycle: Private colleges are closing because they can't recruit the students, and students are not coming because the private colleges are closing.

For me, this is an interesting time to be in charge of the Higher Education section of a medium size private college. We are not big enough to be above trouble, but are not small and can sustain through the lean time. The conscious strategy that we have adopted is not to bang our heads on the brick wall - so we are not trying to recruit the students which is bound to result in disappointment - but rather forcing ourselves to look around. So far, we have been reasonably successful in diversifying: We have received funding for our work-based learning programmes, and put renewed effort and focus on our professional courses, which mostly recruit locally. What we achieved through these twin channels is the continued survival of the college for some time to come, time enough for us to meet the new quality and compliance benchmarks - the guarantees that an international student can believe in. As a team, we can be reasonably proud of this strategy as this ensured that the college will continue trading without recruiting a single student from overseas: Time now to begin the next phase of rebuilding the college.

That starts with rebuilding the recruitment channel for the college. The past practises of agency-based recruitment will not do. In the past, colleges passed down the financial risks to the agents, but agents passed up the compliance risks. In these lean and difficult times, neither the students nor the colleges can afford that model anymore. We started with a review of all our agents and their performance, not just in terms of business but also compliance, looking at students from which agents have been delinquent and accordingly rating the agencies. After this, we terminated all the existing agency contracts and issued new contracts to a select few: The new contracts upped the rewards for recruitment but made it dependent on student performance and retention. Most agents didn't like it: However, we have already accepted that most of our recruitment will not come through agencies, but instead through progression arrangements and partnerships, and hence our stance on the new agency arrangements were non-negotiable.

Since then, we have put in work in building the channels of progression and partnerships, rather than passive recruitment. This is different from students walking through the doors wanting to come to UK. The model we are developing will require the students to study a large part of the programme in their home country, either through one of our international outlets, as we are setting up in Turkey, India and Poland, or in a partner college, as we are doing in some parts of India, Thailand and Philippines.

This indeed means I go back to my old life - that of travelling to different parts of the world building partnerships - but I am enjoying being part of this transition. Over the last eighteen month, my colleagues and me have transformed what was a largely unreformed college - British Private sector HE has been a fragmented, unorganised affair right up to now - into a leaner, strategically aligned business entity with bigger ambitions. The business remains small in size, having shrunk somewhat in the last six months or so, but this was intentional rather than unwarranted. The step change required us to close the gates and retool the entire offering, which we have now done. There are battles to fight still, and this journey was never easy: However, I feel confident that when, many years hence, I would look back at this phase of my life, I shall feel that I have achieved something of significance, learnt a great deal and experimented with models which will now become the norm rather than exception in a refashioned industry.


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