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It’s time for admissions to seize the automation advantage

Lately, no conference or industry talk in the education sector is immune from discussions about the impact of AI (Artificial Intelligence). Everywhere we look, innovative companies are using technology to make manual and ineffective processes easier – and yet for education, most of this discussion focuses on preparing students for a workplace where machines will do their jobs.

Of course, there’s another application of this next tech frontier – university admissions teams can use its potential to improve efficiency, compliance and accuracy.

When the subject of AI came up again at a dinner StudyLink hosted before the AIEC conference in Hobart last year, it was clear our clients are excited (and a little impatient) for the arrival of AI. They are ready for the benefits of further automating many tedious processes, and feel that any technology innovations designed to enhance the student experience should be encouraged – and fast-tracked.

2017 Navitas Venture survey confirms this sentiment. Students, edtech founders and university leaders all agreed that of the many technologies emerging, AI would have the most significant impact on higher education. The same survey found that 72% of university leaders said digitising marketing and admissions would be very important as a means to drive recruitment growth.

Dispelling the myths of AI

Automation may be the beginning of the AI solution, but true AI is a very different beast. To understand the difference, it’s useful to drill it down into three parts:

    1. Artificial intelligence refers to the concept of technology designed to mimic human thinking – including the ability to learn and make decisions.
    2. Machine learning is the way AI is currently being applied. Giving computers the ability to use data to make decisions without necessarily being pre-programmed.
    3. Automation is software pre-programmed by humans to make repetitive, monotonous tasks easier. It relies entirely on its human-configured rules and cannot make other decisions.
The best emerging AI technologies across all sectors use both automation and machine learning to make life easier. Chatbots are one obvious example – helping us make complex product decisions such as insurance or mobile phone plan purchases for example. But we’re also seeing AI at work in the legal sector, with automatic document verification becoming more common.

In education, we’re beginning to see chatbots used to guide prospective students through the process of deciding what and where to study, as well as through other important and difficult steps in the process – like applying for a visa. At StudyLink, we’re working hard to make the most of both automation and machine learning as it evolves, and very soon our StudyLink Connect customers will be able to set rules to prioritise and rank applications depending on criteria such as English score, source country, and academic profile.

In the future, AI will enable the StudyLink platform to verify student identities, automate offers and make decisions on both credit recognition and the equivalency of international degrees – all of which are currently time-consuming manual steps in the admissions pipeline.
What role will AI play in student admissions?

Expanding the use of automation and machine learning into admissions workflows will help…
  • Save time and resources with faster application processing, automatic checking and replies.
  • Create better student experiences through responsive support systems to guide students through form filling, as well as other difficult steps in the applications process.
  • Increase staff morale by reducing the frustration of manual, repetitive tasks and placing higher value on relationship building tasks and personal career growth.
  • Make smarter decisions and set new benchmarks with the ability to capture and analyse more data for better insights and trend forecasts.
  • Increase return on investment by analysing and targeting recruitment around retention goals and outcomes from previously admitted cohorts.
  • Reduce risk of human error by improving decision transparency, and automating manual decisions such as scholarship criteria matching and qualification equivalency.


What good AI looks like today

That all sounds great. But is it really within the reach of most institutions? If retro-fitting emerging technologies into your current admissions process seems like an impossible, daunting task, it might be worth looking at some simple options that could plug straight in.

Here are some current features our customers have told us they appreciate most about the StudyLink Connect platform:
  • Built-in automation that can be customised to your unique workflows,
  • Standardised processes and assessment criteria across multiple platforms,
  • A simple dashboard that displays all of your application data in one place,
  • Transparent access to reporting and analytics, and
  • The ability to take advantage of more advanced machine learning technology as it evolves.
These are all tangible steps towards automation – and once these streamlined processes are in place, you’ll be ready to make the most of AI applications as they emerge.

Why NZ is the latest international education hotspot

2017 StudyLink Connect agent survey results

With the New Zealand Government recently announcing ambitious plans to grow its international education revenue by 2025, StudyLink Connect wanted to find out whether its university application and admissions were ready to scale.

So we surveyed our network. 92 agents who service the New Zealand market responded – and here are the results.

Demand for NZ studies is on the rise

• 61% of agent respondents have seen a surge in enquiries into studying in New Zealand
• 78% anticipate the number of students applying to increase over the next two years.

The main attractions include:

• Safety – 72.8%
• Quality of education – 67.4%
• Value for money/cost of living – 56.5%

But application efficiency is an issue

Most student applications to New Zealand are still processed by email (75%), with 49% by the institutions application system and 34% by an online application system.
47% said the average turnaround time for applications was between 1 and more than 4 weeks.
Agents told us their biggest frustrations for NZ applications include:

• Application turnaround time – 42.4%
• Inability to check the status of applications – 27.2%
• Amount of data entry – 19.6%
• Poor communication – 16.3%
• Varying application forms – 12%

The solution is simple

These agents all use StudyLink Connect to submit applications to other institutions around the world – and more than two-thirds said it would improve turnaround time if used by NZ education providers.

Top three benefits of using StudyLink Connect

According to agents:

• Easier application submission – 73%
• All information in one place – 67%
• Can easily upload all student documents – 53%

“It’s easy to submit the application in one portal, rather than submitting it individually at different university websites.” Agent respondent
Agent profile

Agents are an important channel for international student applications around the world. On average, the agents who responded service over 50 institutions around the world – but an average of just 4 in New Zealand. The majority process less than 100 applications per year for NZ institutions – mostly for universities or polytechnics.

Australian education agents make their voice heard at SYMPLED

While it sometimes feels like there are more education conferences than days in the year, none focus on the business of being an education agent. Until now, with SYMPLED 2017 in September.

For the 170+ agents who attended, the Symposium on Leading Education Recruitment at Sydney Town Hall was also a chance to have their voice heard, away from provider-focused discussions.

As Brett Galt-Smith of the Department of Education and Training emphasised, education agents play a vital role in bringing international students to our shores. In June 2017, more than 500,000 international students were in Australia – an increase of 14% on the previous year. It’s our most important service export, contributing almost A$22.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016 and supporting over 130,000 jobs.

But agents are under increasing pressure. Some of the issues raised at SYMPLED include the new compulsory reporting regulations and global uncertainty over changes to migration policies – with some GTE decisions seen as subjective. Trust and communication between agents, providers and government is more important than ever.

So, it’s encouraging to see Australia’s education agents work together, rather than compete for business. One initiative we can expect to emerge from this event is Australia’s first association of Australia-based recruitment agents, with a working group formed during the symposium. This body could play an important role in building the professional recognition of agents within the education sector through training and development, and advocating on their behalf.

New focus on student outcomes

Australia continues to lead the world in the use of agents – and the regulation of their activities. As a crucial channel for quality students, good agents know how to work in positive partnership with institutions.

Although some agents have expressed concern about the new performance reporting, the DET aims to provide greater transparency. It also promotes the vast majority of education agents who provide a great service for prospective international students and the partner institutions they represent – including this good news at SYMPLED: 80% of students are completing their chosen course of study.

Collecting this data is important, because it allows agents to make decisions about the commitment and ambitions of the students they are placing – and it ensures providers also take responsibility for student outcomes.

Student satisfaction is a growing concern

Chris Evason of PIER Online presented the latest survey results of its agent learning community of more than 50,000 counsellors. Worryingly for our institutions, agents are most concerned about student dissatisfaction with providers – along with ‘poaching’ of students once they have arrived in Australia.

PIER estimates there are 7,900 agencies globally, employing 40,000 people, and says post-study work rights are having a significant impact on the choice of study destination.

Counselling increasingly depends on efficient access to data

As an exhibitor, I welcomed the chance to discuss these concerns in person with agents. Our platform, Studylink Connect, is now used by a third of Australian higher education institutions for international admissions – and it can streamline agent workflow and make their business more efficient. But it can also empower agents with the information they need to stay ahead of performance reporting – and make smarter decisions about potential student outcomes.

For education providers, access to this level of data can also ensure they choose to work with agents who will deliver on their promise of integrity – rather than volume – so they can avoid the risks of GTE ratings downgrades and build long-term, mutually-rewarding relationships based on trust.

StudyLink has also recently made its constantly updated course data available for counsellors to use in their website or intranet, to guide program selection.

I’d like to thank Robert Parsonson at Edex for taking the initiative with this event – we’re looking forward to keeping the conversation flowing.

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StudyLink User Group – May 2017

The StudyLink Connect User Group workshop will be held in Sydney on Monday, 8th May 2017. This event provides participants with an opportunity to review and discuss new and upcoming StudyLink Connect features; provide feedback on future system development priorities and share user experiences. Attendees will include key users with responsibility for admissions management, business process development, reporting, data management or system integrations. The format of the day will offer a full day workshop to all new users, while experienced users will be invited to attend an afternoon session. Registration details will be available in the coming weeks. An agenda will be distributed in early April to incorporate feedback from attendees. Timing of the user group meeting coincides with the IEAA Admissions & Compliance Forum taking place on Tuesday, 9th May. Information about the IEAA Admissions & Compliance Special Interest Group (SIG) can be found here. StudyLink User group - 8th May 2017

Connecting people and data for improved admissions results


At the recent Australian Education Conference in Melbourne Kathy Humphrey spoke about Macquarie University’s experience in connecting people and data for improved admissions results.

By integrating our best practice cloud based system StudyLink Connect, Macquarie University has achieved a 50% growth in acceptances, with minimal staff increases. Macquarie has been able to manage workloads, achieve consistent turn around times and use improved admissions data for strategic planning. Additionally it has been able to provide better service for both students and agents.

On Maquarie University’s wishlist going forward is an interface between admissions management systems and PRISMS. As luck would have it there was a Director from the Department of Education and Training in Kathy’s presentation who confirmed the Department is interested to investigate possible integrations.

For more information click here

View from the US: 2016 AIRC Conference review

We attended the AIRC conference in Miami in December.

AIRC accredits education agents so US institutions new to international recruitment can be more confident they are working with a quality partner. There are now 78 AIRC accredited agents.

Here are our main ‘take aways’ from the conference this year:

1. Trump trumps all

No one knows for certain what the impact of the president-elect will be on US international education. At this stage there have been no specific statements of policy but given Trump is a business person there was a feeling he is unlikely to do anything that would limit international education. The biggest and most immediate impact will come from the perception that the US is not a safe destination for international students. Some claimed this could have a similar effect on student numbers as 9/11 where the number of international students decreased by 4-5%. Hobsons reported drops of 40% in enquiries to UK institutions post Brexit and many felt there would be the same for the US. Canadian institutions were reporting increased enquiries and applications in the month of November and early December.

Some US institutions have began a campaign to counter this under the banner #youarewelcomehere. Search for it on twitter and view the videos by institutions like Temple Uni.

The US can also promote the recent change to their OPT (optional practical training) program that allows a graduate to work an additional 24 months in their field of study on top of the standard 12 months if they study a STEM program.

Agents we spoke to, particularly those from India, didn’t think the election statements around immigration would have an adverse effect on interest from their students. Of more concern for them was the alarming increase in the rejection rate for visas for applicants from Hyderabad without any clear explanation or consistency. This had begun to occur before Trump was elected and is more an indication of the tension between the US Department of Commerce, which encourages international students, and the Department of State which acts as the gate keeper on access to the US.

2. Momentum to use agents is building

This was our fourth AIRC and there was definitely a greater interest in how to use education agents effectively as part of a recruitment strategy. There were 362 participants which was a 30% increase over 2015.

Many of the sessions were still focussed on why institutions should use agents and how. The PIE wrote a good summary of the conference.

3. Response time is critical

A number of sessions reported surveys that showed the importance of clear communication with applicants and agents, transparency on the progress of an application and the speed admissions can get an offer back to an applicant. All will have significant impact on conversion rates.

4. New Horizon Scandal

This story broke towards the end of the conference so there wasn’t much discussion about it. However, it’s important to note that accreditation doesn’t stop abuse but it can move markets, as the New Horizon share price fell 24% after Reuters reported AIRC would be reviewing the agency.

There are still a number of organisations in the US who view agents with suspicion and this will only provide them with more evidence to question why US institutions should be using education agents.

5. Alligators like Cheetos

With a bit of time to kill before flying out on Sunday we decided to tour the Everglades on a fan boat and discovered that alligators loooove Cheetos.

alligators-love-cheetos

StudyLink Connect Users Gather

Over 30 people from all 13 Australian StudyLink Connect clients gathered in Sydney in May to spend a day learning more about StudyLink Connect and sharing their thoughts and experiences. The day included demonstrations of new features, best practice examples and gave participants the opportunity to provide feedback on the development roadmap. It was great to see everyone discussing how they used StudyLink Connect solve their admissions processing problems.   User Group forum May 2016 image 1 (Mobile)  

US market insights: smarter systems key to attracting international students

By Jason Howard, Managing Director, StudyLink Connect

There’s no doubt the US has finally awakened as an international student destination. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last December, the number of foreign students enrolled at American colleges has increased almost 73 per cent since 2005-6.

That’s why I was interested to see just how far the conversation has evolved over the last three ICEF conferences in Miami. When I first represented StudyLink there in 2013, US education providers were still debating the merits of using international agents. In 2014, they started asking how they could work with them more effectively. But last December, we had informed conversations about our technology platform, and how Australian universities are using it to effectively recruit international students.

For me, the tipping point moment at that meeting was when an agent presentation showed US providers now represent 30 per cent of their portfolio. That’s from a base line of almost zero three years ago.

Lessons from Australia

So what does a nation with over 4,000 colleges and universities, and 17 million students, think it can learn from a country with just 43 universities?

Australia has always outperformed in the international education market. In 2015 education services generated an impressive export income of $19.65billion, making it the largest services export for the nation. It’s still the third most popular destination for international students after the US and the UK – partially assisted by a more competitive Australian dollar and appealing immigration policies.

Another factor behind this success is the streamlined way overseas students can connect with agents and institutions, resulting in 640,922 full-fee paying international students last year.

The Australian model, built on those strong relationships with international agents, seems to be working, and this is why US institutions are more open to dealing with international agents rather than forcing students to apply directly.

It’s great to see the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) work with the International Education Association of Australia (IEEA) to develop global agent certification standards, because this will form the foundation of transparent, streamlined systems and processes. Meanwhile, international agents are certainly lining up to get the accreditation they need to work with US institutions.

Why are US colleges going global?

In the past, international students may have been seen as ‘nice for campus diversity’ in the US. Now they are essential for enrolment numbers and revenue, with more domestic students choosing to stay in their home state and ever-increasing local competition amongst providers.

International student growth has been patchy. Around 75 per cent of colleges have more foreign students today than they did 10 years ago – but many have gone backwards and those are typically the ones also struggling with domestic enrolments. How this plays out will be interesting – I suspect we may see the overall number of providers decrease over the next decade with smaller colleges under more pressure to find students.

One thing is clear from the discussions I’ve had with providers and agents around the world. Working with agents takes a lot more than dealing with data and email traffic. You need to invest in streamlined systems to nurture long-term agent relationships.  Or, as agents told providers at the AIRC conference, “look to Australia and get professional.”

One student admissions platform for efficiency and growth

If you value the education agent as an important channel, it’s time to be more efficient. Remove the friction in the student admissions process for agents and students – online applications, transparent tracking and fast offer turnaround can make all the difference. Our student admission platform frees up admin staff time to focus on student conversions – as Griffith University found when it deployed our platform a few years ago. Because staff weren’t spending time manually entering data, they could call prospective students – and they increased commencements by 37 per cent. We’re already processing around a third of all agent-initiated international student applications in Australia, and this looks set to increase to 50 per cent by the end of 2016. What’s more, we recently set up two US-based institutions – one a major provider, one a small college. In the process, we discovered just how cumbersome the US student application process is – which is why we also streamlined it for them. Less friction, better student and agent experience. In other words, if you’re not working with us, your competitors and best agents probably already are. The good news? You don’t have to build an agile international student admissions platform yourself. We can get you set up and running on StudyLink Connect in just four weeks – giving you a head start in the increasingly competitive race for international students. Contact us today to find out how you can be up and running with StudyLink Connect in 4 weeks.
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