Trends, insights and research to inform growth and innovation strategies in international higher education.

September 20, 2013

Edwin van Rest of StudyPortals shares his entrepreneurial journey

Edwin van Rest, founder, StudyPortals

Edwin van Rest is the founder of StudyPortals – the international Study Choice Platform – helping students worldwide to find and compare the fast-growing international education opportunities. Edwin has always been a true believer in the value of international experience: while studying a Master’s in Industrial Engineering and Management Science at the Eindhoven University of Technology he spent a year at Osaka University. He did internships at the Olympic Games: both in Athens and in Turin. Furthermore he was very active in the world of international study associations – where StudyPortals’ foundations lie. Edwin’s expertise mainly lies in understanding student orientation needs, online technology and result-based recruitment for HEIs. StudyPortals has brought innovation to university promotion by offering an online, result based and cost-effective solution for universities to present themselves worldwide. Over 1,300 universities from 43 countries participate and StudyPortals was awarded the most promising social start-up in the Netherlands 2009. Edwin was granted the EAIE ‘Rising Star’ award in 2013, for his notable contribution to international higher education despite his only short career to date.

Rahul- Tell us about the key services your organization provides? How would you describe your target customer and the unmet needs you are serving?

Edwin- Our first priority is to help students get an overview of their education options internationally, and compare them on the basis of structured, comprehensive information on each programme and institute. We have by far the most information on on-campus education offers in Europe and online studies worldwide – this works: we have almost 3 million student visits per month. Secondly, we help higher education institutions promote their offer worldwide, through one channel, with a focus on results, reaching a better time and cost effectiveness than alternative channels and transparent. This works too: over 1,300 universities participate in our platform from 42 countries.

Rahul- How did the business idea originate? What was the turning point that made you take the plunge?

Edwin- When I came back from my studies in Japan I was full of great stories, many of my friends said ‘I wish that I had known about those opportunities’. At the same time, the Bachelor/Master (Bologna) system was introduced in continental Europe, resulting in a new decision moment for students if and where to study their master’s, and tens of thousands new Master’s programmes being offered all over Europe. We were frustrated as there was no way to find and compare all those programmes. We were active in an international study association’s committee on study-choice information ad expected the EU or a big publishing company to fill this gap but as nothing happened, we decided to fill it ourselves, focused to solve our own problem: was born! At the same time I was working at my University’s international office, in marketing to international students as the tuition fee had just been increased 8 fold for non-EU students. I found that we had to use expensive and labour-intensive marketing tools of which the effects were either low or not measurable.

Rahul- What were couple of key hurdles in building the organization? How did you overcome them?

Edwin- We need the institutes to participate with us to provide a good overview to students. There are a lot of ‘advertising options’ out there contacting universities and it’s difficult for them to determine the value of each. In the beginning we first focused on Europe’s top 100 universities, after 1 year of passionate convincing, trying to make them see the student problem, we had 70 universities that participated. We then reached critical mass with many student visitors and also received the support of the European Commission. From that moment on we started to receive registration requests from new universities on a weekly basis.

Rahul- How do you see your organization evolving next three-five years in the context of customer and sector trends?

Edwin- We currently have a team of 42 people and we project this will be 100 people in three years’ time. For our student community we will make study choice more interactive with information sharing, more user-based content, chat and webinars. Also we are constantly expanding our information, as our ultimate dream is to make education choice transparent, worldwide. In that context, we are now rapidly expanding our DistanceLearningPortal. This is a tailored platform to help people who are considering to study an online programme. We developed the platform recently and grows very fast, here we first started to cover the whole world of options. We are now in a project with ICDE and UNESCO to publish on the world developments in both the offer as the student interest in distance learning. For universities we will expand on our marketing to reach even more students. We will dedicate most of our cooperation time to help tracking and calculating the success of (all) their marketing activities, really helping universities to reach their objectives.

Rahul- Based on your experiences, what are two lessons you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the field of international education?

Edwin- Focus on value rather than money. The whole HE ‘industry’ is and should be focused on providing a greater good to students and society. Only a small part of that value flows back to the industry. If you focus on the long-term value you create in making our world a little better, it’s a greatly rewarding environment to work in. Of course you need profit at some point to be sustainable, but if you focus on the monetary gains, you will become unhappy and probably fail. Something I learnt in Japan: improve your product, your team and yourself continuously. I believe we managed to make such a popular platform because we were the target audience ourselves and knew exactly what we needed. We are in continuous touch with our visitors and our clients and highly appreciate their feedback. We launch an improved release of our websites every Wednesday.
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September 10, 2013

Emerging Markets for International Graduate Admissions: Insights from GRE Data

In the previous post, I mentioned that India and China are large markets with different growth patterns. India is a price-sensitive market which is showing signs of stronger growth for last couple of years, while China had been a consistent growth market which is witnessing slower pace of growth. Given the over-reliance on these two markets, it is important to cultivate next set of emerging markets. Based on GRE test-takers data, here are the emerging markets watch, sorted by % change between 2008-2011:

Which emerging markets for recruiting international graduate students? GRE data

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September 05, 2013

Strategic Choices for B-Schools: GMAC Book on Change in Management Education

Disrupt or Be Disrupted: A Blueprint for Change in Management Education is a recent publication from GMAC which takes "an evidence-based approach to improving the practice of graduate management education." The book is very timely, given the increasing challenges of optimizing cost and quality for many business-schools. For example, the strategic choice of Thunderbird, a reputed B-school, partnering with Laureate, an aggressive for-profit network, to give a boost to its financials and reach. Or UCLA to go independent from public funding to have more autonomy and pricing power. These strategic choices are becoming integral to the success of business schools. The book had two very interesting and insightful chapters on this topic. First, is Framing and Making Strategic Choices by Michael Hay and other is Managing Aspirations, Resources, and Cost Structures in Differentiating Constraints by Authors: Jikyeong Kang, Andrew Stark. I asked these authors about their chapters and what future they foresee for business schools. Erich C. Dierdorff, Co-editor of Disrupt or Be Disrupted answered the questions on behalf of Michael Hay.

Rahul- The chapter by Michael Hay, "Framing and Making Strategic Choices," highlighted the importance of clarifying strategic positioning of the school and concluded that "...schools that seek to copy the dominant design may be doomed to failure, especially if they attempt to design their strategies to improve their rankings by displacing schools currently ranked above them." Are you suggesting that business schools with specializations and niches as their positioning are more likely to succeed? What do you foresee as the impact of new technology-enabled delivery of programs and shorter duration master's programs on the future positioning of traditional business schools offering two-year MBA programs?

Erich C. Dierdorff- The main point Michael Hay is making in his chapter is that now more than ever, schools must develop a strategy and business model that fits who they are and who they want to be. This is especially the case for schools that do not have the luxury of substantial endowments or strong reputations. Put simply, there is no singular way to be a successful business school.

What makes this difficult for many schools is that figuring out one’s own unique value proposition is a significant departure from what schools have done in the past. Further adding to this difficulty is the rampant practice of casual benchmarking; where schools simply look to copy the strategies and practices of other “top-ranked” institutions without asking, “will this work for us?” Casual benchmarking is the exact opposite of a strategically driven approach.

In a bit of irony, thinking strategically requires precisely what business schools currently teach their students in strategy courses – concepts that include differentiation, value creation, and competitive advantage. Yet these concepts must not just be preached, but also practiced by today’s schools of business.

So where does a school begin? Hay describes several critical questions to be addressed in this process. Questions that range from a deeper understanding of the school’s mission and unique characteristics to highly practical concerns about whom does the school serve, how and where are programs offered, and how is the school funded.

It is true that being more strategically oriented could lead to increased specialization and niche positioning. And, this indeed holds the potential for promoting success. However, as with any strategy, there are trade-offs. At the most basic level, for example, schools must also decide whom they will not serve.

One trend toward niche differentiation has been the substantial growth and variety in degree program offerings (e.g., MS degrees, executive degrees, compressed formats, etc.). Such programs could indeed create uniqueness for a school in the broader education market. Yet, from a long-term strategic standpoint, critical questions remain to be answered. How new or unique are such programs? Do they really offer fresh curricular content, or are they simply repackaged, preexisting coursework? What is the personal competency cost for students in programs of shorter duration? Do employers understand the differences across various degrees? Again, thinking strategically requires asking the tough questions.

Another way schools might differentiate is through learning technologies. Such technology can profoundly influence the accessibility, efficiency, and effectiveness of education. At the same time, however, technology only deals with how learning is delivered, not what is delivered. Simply investing in better technology will not alone guarantee future value for a given institution. In fact, business schools should be asking a more pertinent question when it comes to technology – where and how business schools can add value beyond technology-based delivery mechanisms? Otherwise, why pursue university-based education?

The imperative is this – for any management education program to provide sustainable and unique value, business schools must first understand whom they serve before deciding how best to serve them.  This task is not only difficult, but also quite rare in business schools. This fact alone makes pursuing a strategically oriented approach both a challenging and a high-impact proposition.

Rahul- In your chapter "Managing Aspiration, Resources, and Cost Structures" you highlighted the research is an expensive positioning which influences the economics of running a business school.  Is it fair to conclude that existing business schools with research positioning are going to become even more expensive as they will have higher pricing power and less competition from new entrants? What do you foresee as the impact of new technology-enabled delivery of programs and shorter duration master's programs on the future positioning of traditional business schools offering two-year MBA programs?

Jikyeong Kang, Andrew Stark-  We believe that tuition fees for programmes such as MBA programmes are close to the ceiling, especially in the United States and at existing research-extensive business schools.  Non-US schools aspiring to achieve research reputation have some scope to raise fees but will still be constrained by the limitation on tuition fee increases by US schools. But, our overall conclusion is that tuition fees are not going to get more expensive; instead, we expect to see some or all of the following measures: (1) increased quest for additional sources of teaching revenues; (2) increased use of adjunct professors; (3) increased exploration of ways of reducing per student cost; (4) increased pursuit of executive education opportunities; and (5) increased pursuit of endowment funding. 

At this stage, we do not expect to observe any significant slowing down of the rate of increase in faculty salaries at research-extensive business schools or those which are aspiring to be such schools.  This is because we do not expect the imbalance between the supply of and demand for excellent researchers in business and management disciplines to be rectified in near future.  Indeed, as more and more schools aspire to acquire research-extensive status, there will be more pressure on salaries as more and more schools compete for a limited talent pool.

As mentioned above, some schools, in the absence of other opportunities, to fill funding gaps might well seek additional sources of teaching revenues to either supplement or substitute for revenues from the traditional MBA programmes.  We think that such actions are particularly likely to be observed at all but the very top-ranked business schools. Our view, however, is that the new technology-enabled delivery of programmes does not come cheaply, if educational standards and programme reputations are to be maintained, and/or if it is being exploited as a way to gain competitive advantage. 

We also observe that specialist masters programmes are increasingly being introduced at US business schools and, in any event, have long been a common feature in many business schools outside the US. We would still expect, for the foreseeable future, that full-time MBA programs will be the main reputation driver for most business schools, even if their full-time MBA student numbers decrease. Nonetheless, we expect that, over time, rankings of specialist masters programmes will become increasingly important to the reputation of business schools engaging in them.
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September 01, 2013

GRE data on China and India: trends and implications for international graduate admissions pipeline

Ten-year data of GRE examinees for international markets is an excellent source of insights to understand changing trends in demand and how sensitive are different markets to external environment.
Consider the case of top-two sources of international graduate students in the world, China and India. A sharp change in numbers from either of these markets can significantly influence the enrollment statistics at several institutions. (Here is a related blog post comparing GRE and GMAT test-takers)
Above chart suggests:
1. Growth: Number of GRE test takers from India have increased by 38% in 2011 as compared to 24% for China. Even with this growth, India is still lower than its peak volume of 70,000 pre-recession and almost same as its volume in 2002. In contrast, China touched its all time high of nearly 61,000 test-takers in 2011, which is almost 45% higher than 2002 volume. India still has higher growth potential as compared to China.
2. Sensitivity: India is a price-sensitive market which responds more in terms of changes in the external environment. For example, number of test-takers declined sharply during the 2008 global financial crisis. India also recovered faster last year, surpassing China. In contrast, China had been a consistent growth market, indicating a higher purchasing power and lesser sensitivity to financial concerns.
These trends should be interpreted in the perspective of the launch of revised GRE in 2011, which expanded the pool of people who used GRE for business school admissions.
Future trends
China is already showing signs of maturing in terms of interest for graduate education in the US. According to recent report from Council of Graduate Studies, final number of applications from China declined by 3% for fall 2013, after three consecutive years of nearly 20% growth. In contrast, India is showing signs of recovery with growth of 22% as compared to single digit growth in previous three years. 
Going forward, graduate school deans and admissions officers are becoming increasingly curious about future trends. They want to know--Is China growth story for graduate schools over? What will be the impact of steep devaluation of Indian currency and its implication on affordability for Indian students?
What are your thoughts/comments?
Dr. Rahul Choudaha (copyright)

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