The changing role of the education agent

“We will be increasing, not decreasing, our webinar and online training for agents post pandemic”

 Prior to Covid-19 Agents prided themselves on the face to face relationships they built with both families and boarding schools but the pandemic has forced a rethink and required both agents and schools to pivot significant marketing and recruitment activity online. Pat Moores of UK Education Guide explains.

What have been the major changes?

With regards to how agents have operated during this period, as Henrietta Lightwood, group director marketing and admissions, Dukes Education, points out: “Many agents have spent a lot of time and resources developing new platforms and increasing their digital marketing in order to reach parents and students who would normally come to events. Schools have had to support this move online, producing additional digital materials to support agents and being available on agent timelines to support their efforts.”

However, as Mike Oliver, principal at Brooke House College says, some of the digital offering from agents, notably the introduction of agent led recruitment events has not always been successful and the variable quality of these events has sometimes been challenging for schools.

“Marketing staff have, in some cases, reported just sitting in front of their screens for hours waiting for a possible client,” he says.

“Many agents have had a steep digital learning curve.”

Anna Trott from Kings Education has seen the agent role change, but has seen different adjustments, depending on the location and reach of each particular institution.

“Where an institution has a global presence, the restrictions on physical visits has been felt less keenly, even with international travel restrictions,” she says.

“In these cases, strong digital marketing and existing robust local agent relationships have maintained an existing high level of awareness and interest, especially where this has been coupled with national travel restrictions in key recruitment markets only lasting a few months, allowing local agents to carry on their face to face work with families pretty effectively,” she adds.

Neil Herrington, head of international recruitment at Cognita, highlights overall how the pandemic has in key ways increased schools’ reliance on agents, even whilst their ability to meet families and schools face to face has, in many territories, decreased

“Having a robust international student recruitment strategy is about taking a multi-channel approach to each market, however during Covid, it felt like that approach had been reduced to just digital and our education agents,” he says.

“At Cognita (which owns and operates 85+ schools around the world) we’ve worked hard to increase digital engagement with our agents. We were already issuing a monthly newsletter and regularly meeting agents face-to-face, but since the start of the pandemic we’ve also been running quarterly webinars and lots of online training sessions.”

So, what changes will stay, post pandemic and what will revert to business as usual?

Certainly, there is a general lack of interest to reinstate all the international travelling many schools undertook to meet local agents prior to the pandemic. Also, as Trott points out, “there is a lack of appetite for families to join large scale recruitment events, and while college reps are keen to travel again, realistically it looks like 2022 before that will happen on any scale.”

Many schools have trimmed their international travel budgets and are not reinstating them any time soon.

”We will be increasing, not decreasing, our webinar and online training for agents post pandemic,” says Herrington.

“Meeting online for agent networking events will be a working practice that does continue beyond the pandemic as the ability to target specific regions and meeting new agents quickly, virtually and cost-effectively has been extremely successful,” adds Lightwood.

But what does this all mean for agents? Certainly, there will need to be an ongoing focus on their own online marketing, aimed at drawing attention from schools they are wishing to attract and retaining existing schools. There is also a need, in some cases, to increase the professional aspect of their online offer.

For example, whilst some agents have used a recognised platform to organise their fairs, others have tried to run their own without investing in a virtual meeting platform, saving money, but in some cases damaging their reputation due to a lack of investment.

So, overall, agents will need to continue to sharpen up their online marketing skills and almost certainly increase their marketing budgets as the boarding school market may well never return to business as usual.

About the author: Pat Moores is the director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.