AI will transform the landscape for international recruiters in many ways, from mirroring human interaction to enhancing onboarding for pre-student arrivals.
Guest article by Professor Wendy Alexander Vice Principal, International Dundee & Scottish Government Higher Education Trade & Investment Envoy.
You know AI has gone viral when your waiter is urging it upon you as he pours the wine.
AI is not new in international recruitment. Leading agents and course search sites have used machine learning algorithms to guide student choice for several years. However, generative AI, like Chat GPT, is fuelling a new generation of products and services. The new ‘use cases’ for this generation of AI are not fully apparent but direction of travel is clear.
Generative AI will, over time, transform content creation, learning support and assessment at universities. Algorithms are already transforming learning analytics, powering a raft new of learning and teaching products. Online learning and language learning will become less isolated experiences because they will be scaffolded by a flurry of AI powered co-pilots. Much research will be powered by AI. And universities’ back offices: finance; HR; timetabling; registry; and student services will all use AI to power their operations. Granted, the deployment timeline is debatable, but the sector will not be immune to these changes to business operations.While there will be multiple challenges around product safety, reliability, hallucinating, inherent bias and ethics, it will not halt the tide of innovation.
So, what does this all mean for international recruiters?
Though universities have been slow technology adopters, international recruitment teams are often technology pioneers. Digital marketing was embraced early, data products were enthusiastically purchased from global rankings providers (QS, THE) and sophisticated visualisation products mapping international demand purchased from likes of IDP and Study Portals. Agent aggregators introduced AI based applicant advice products to identify best fit programmes. International applicants were no longer reliant on the partial knowledge of a local agent. Prospective students now explore their fit with institutions served based on AI analysing their attributes, qualifications, location preferences and price point. Already the agent advisory function has decisively moved online with AI driven insights increasingly an essential component of the agent function. With twenty million prospective international students exploring courses at five thousand institutions in the major destination markets, the matching prowess of AI driven, personalised recommendations were bound to triumph. Far-sighted agents have adapted by moving further down the funnel beyond supporting course choice, to application support, English language proficiency, visa, and pre-arrival services and insurance.
Now, the new generation of generative AI tools have taken off because they are intuitive to use and mirror human interaction. Their capacity for text, image and video generation will support most professionals in future. The core use cases for AI in marketing, recruitment, admissions and conversion are not centred on text generation but rooted in deploying data to increasingly personalise the applicant journey at scale. Data lies at the heart of the student recruitment journey. All leaders need to be comfortable with analysing, visualising and deploying data. It means closer working with strategic planning who can bring data to life, sharing tools and analysis. It also means a relentless focus on data quality. The adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ still holds.
In marketing, AI will drive ever greater targeting of potential students. For enquiry teams, AI driven 24/7 chatbots, will manage the routine queries that could previously dominate a recruiters’ time. In admissions, AI will increasingly review student applications, delivering faster processing and offer making and minimising applicant attrition via automatic red flagging. In conversion, where peer-to-peer engagements really count, leading players now support AI powered chatbots. This virtual advising on all aspects of the pre-enrolment journey will keep growing. Expect AI powered language translation for more effective communication with international applicants or their parents. Furthermore, AI driven predictive modelling will increasingly forecast applicant retention and success rates. This could prove irresistible to highly selective institutions and those concerned about visa compliance. Again, ethical considerations should be to the fore to counter the implicit biases that plague machine learning.
AI is already driving wider changes in applicant behaviour. The number of applications per international applicant is rising, driven by the ease of application via agent portals, and a post COVID appetite for considering multiple destinations. This rise in the number of applications per international student, means a concomitant reduction in the enrolment rate per application. At Dundee, our response has been to ‘pivot to conversion’ to win a higher share of offer holders to our institution. This ‘pivot to conversion’ implies a focus on the speed of offer; the quality of applicant support; visibility of the student and campus experience, access to academic advisers and easy student peer access. These service differentiators will be enabled by a new generation of AI products. The highest impact face to face engagements are focused further down the funnel.
At Dundee, we recently used an admissions services tender process to understand the new products in the admissions space. We found multiple providers offering post acceptance compliance support services e.g., financial credibility, CAS issuance. Several agents were also keen to provide filtering and admissions services for their own applicants. However, there were few takers for comprehensive admissions services processing.
A degree is earned and not purchased. In consequence, admissions processes are complex, sometimes decentralised, and frequently bespoke to programmes (think medicine, nursing, art and design). Admissions must assess multiple qualifications from a myriad of providers. Change is likely to be evolutionary. Yet with many UK universities routinely processing over fifty thousand applications annually, the potential for AI driven innovation is clear. Many institutions are locked into one of a few service providers specialising in admissions software, thereby creating higher barriers to entry than in other parts of the recruitment funnel. UCAS provides a structured process required for domestic undergraduates. The international application process is a more complex patchwork. However, expect change around the streamlining of admissions, with more AI enabled routine task management (document chasing, deadlines, deposit payments, accommodation applications etc.)
In core recruitment services, global agents and aggregators will accelerate their tech stacks to personalise their student services in ways unavailable to individual institutions. This tech enabled quality of service will tend to deepen a prospective student’s relationship with their agent/agent platform pre-arrival. The savvier recruitment teams will get alongside these tech enabled agents to better serve future generations of students. The prize is international students studying in the right region, at the right institution and excelling on their dream programme.
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