How can universities better support their international student recruitment agents to maximise ROI?

7 February 2017

By Martyn Edwards, Head of Marketing and Business Development, IDP Education, UK and US

It has been nearly a year and a half now since I made the journey over from working at a university international office to being part of a team within a student placement organisation, or to use the more common parlance, an agent.

Having been engaged in some capacity with agents for almost 14 years prior to working at IDP, I felt reasonably confident in my knowledge. However I have come to realise that I had a number of preconceptions and, dare I say, misconceptions about what it is to effectively manage the relationship and support an agent network.  

The majority of UK institutions have been working successfully with agents now for some time; many have robust processes and procedures in place to deal with agent enquiries and applications effectively, they also offer regular training be it via virtual platforms, face to face in-country or even through training conferences in the UK. However there is one area where, in my opinion, we as a sector can continue to improve and in doing so really add value for agent partners.

A recurring theme in my conversations with IDP colleagues across our global network of more than 30 countries is the hunger for stronger, differentiated messaging about the specific programmes of study that UK institutions have to offer, this includes tangible evidence of excellence along with further case studies showcasing employability, student success and value for money.

We find ourselves in an incredibly turbulent operating environment where Government policy and rhetoric have had a significant impact on our work and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is therefore critical that we take ownership of those things within our sphere of control, and for institutions this includes building a compelling narrative to articulate their points of competitive difference.

This is particularly true today where the sector is witnessing unprecedented levels of global competition and also a significant increase in student expectations, which is driven in part by the breadth and immediacy of information at their disposal via digital platforms. At IDP we have a global network of over 650 trained counsellors; these are experienced staff that are committed to providing students with transparent and essential information on their future study options.

As students and their parents find that they have more choice, then their information needs also evolve, they desire greater personalised and detailed content. They want our counsellors to help them meaningfully differentiate between one programme compared to another. They do not want generic or vague information, as this will not enable them to make an informed decision.

It might therefore be advisable for institutions to revisit their messaging and look with a critical eye at how they present and promote their programmes for international audiences. This enhanced content can then be provided to agent partners as part of their training resources.

An additional factor that has also become apparent to me, again following feedback from my colleagues overseas, is the need for institutions to undertake additional destination marketing in relation to their town / city and region. This is relevant on two levels; firstly, where there is perhaps an understandable leaning towards London when students and parents think of the UK and have less awareness of other locations.

Second, and I feel this is particularly pertinent given the current political discourse in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, is to help present the UK as a welcoming, tolerant and safe place to study. Studying overseas is an emotional and often life changing decision, for students but in particular their parents, it is also a significant personal not just financial investment.

Therefore when institutions develop messaging and collateral around student life and experience, they may wish to align and incorporate content from external sources to include information on wider off-campus communities, diaspora groups, faith and worship, culture, food, heritage and tourist attractions.

Our IDP student buying behaviour provides further insight on factors that institutions may want to consider when developing their marketing and recruitment strategies. The research explores the perceptions that international students have of the five major English-speaking study destinations in relation to key attributes namely quality of education, graduate employability opportunities, affordability, safety and visa requirements.

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