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Changing Tides: The Evolving Agent Perception of COVID-19

While I normally share my insights on research by external sources, I thought it would be helpful to make a comparative analysis of two agent surveys we did in the midst of the pandemic. It showed some interesting trends in the way recruitment agents have pivoted, and the role HEIs could play.


Whether you call it COVID-19, the coronavirus, or simply “the pandemic,” it has definitely permeated everything we do in our lives. Most, if not all, people in the world have been affected by it in some way and it is being discussed quite extensively practically everywhere you go. Talking about it extensively  again might seem like beating a dead horse.


However, I would argue that more lessons could be learned in discussing one particular aspect: agent perception. I am in a unique position to provide some real-time insights into how international education recruitment as perceived by agents is evolving in response to the pandemic which is in itself also evolving. 


MSM recently carried out two separate agent surveys roughly six months apart, to get a feel of how our partner agents are addressing the situation and to figure out how we can help as their partner.


The two surveys are: “Battling the Storm: A Panoramic View of Agent Wellness and Recruitment During COVID-19” published in June 2020, when the pandemic was still growing and people were still shell-shocked by what hit them; and “Online Recruitment: Agent Toolkit, Challenges and Gaps to Fill” released in January 2021, when the vaccines had already been introduced into the equation. 


I will not reproduce the results of these reports here verbatim. They are available for download in their entirety on the MSM website for those who want to dive deeper into the numbers. However, I will be drawing out helpful comparisons on agent perceptions for key metrics in international education recruitment. This is what I found.

Attitude change

Immediately you can see the change in perspective between the two surveys. The first survey focused on agent reactions to the situation, while the second survey focused on agent projections for the future. 


It was important for us to pivot in this endeavor because we had become increasingly aware that the attitude of our affiliated agents had evolved from backward looking to forward thinking. As conduits for agents, institutions, and students, MSM wanted to highlight this agility and paint a more encouraging picture for our stakeholders. 


Indeed, the language used to describe the responses in the report was strikingly different. In the June 2020 report, the tone was quite worried as it enumerated the many challenges facing the international education sector because of the pandemic. In the January 2021 report, the tone was much more optimistic, running on a theme of resilience.


This is quite encouraging, but it would be more to the point to look at some of the responses that would provide a clearer picture for this optimism in international education. 

High agent participation

It is a small thing, but revealing nonetheless. In the June 2020 survey, 395 agents from 30 cities responded. In the January 2021 survey, almost double the number of agents (775) from 19 countries sent back their responses. This tells us two things: our agents feel increasingly more involved and more enthusiastic the second time around. 


Agents are very busy people, and do not like to waste their time, so they are not likely to answer surveys unless they feel it will benefit them in some way. The fact that more agents responded to our second survey means they see value in it.

Perceptions of success

The next point of interest in this comparative analysis has to do with income. In the June 2020 survey, we asked them if they lost income in the wake of the lockdowns. In the January 2021 survey, we asked them if they considered their online recruitment efforts successful. While these are not exactly the same question, I considered this as a technicality as agents often tie in success to income.


Below are their responses:

You can quickly see the major reversal in their perceptions of success from June 2020 to January 2021 despite the fact that the months leading up to January 2021 were arguably the worst period of the pandemic crisis to date. A majority of agents believed their recruitment efforts were successful in January 2021 as compared to the majority of agents that reported a loss of income in June 2020.  


I believe that the big boost in the January 2021 perception of success was due to agents embracing the concept of online recruitment, which was a big departure from their traditional methods such as in-person edufairs and on-ground seminars. 


MSM hosted many of these traditional recruitment events in the past, but we recognized the need to move these to an online platform as early as April 2020 when we launched MSM Live!. We encouraged our agents to participate, and many are now fully onboard once they saw the effectiveness of the online events we host on the platform. 


A heartening fact about the January 2021 report is that 86.4% of the respondents were highly or somewhat optimistic about their recruitment prospects for the next 12 months. They identified the availability of automation platforms and faster internet connection as major factors for their optimism. However, it should be noted that at the time of the survey, there was an expected permanent lifting of travel restrictions due to the availability of COVD-19 vaccines, which did not happen as anticipated. That said, this is likely to be a temporary setback, so I do not anticipate a significant dampening of this optimism in the next few months.

Online challenges

A surprising thing with the surveys is the seeming disconnect on the success of online efforts. The June 2020 survey came back with a majority of respondents believing that marketing and promotions (83.8%), student counseling (82.8%), and applications processing (75.9%) had made a successful transition online. 


In contrast, respondents to the January 2021 survey identified their top challenges as the lack of inadequate institution-sourced online marketing materials (36.5%), communication issues (29.9%), and student counseling (20.3%).


I believe the disconnect lies in the source. In the June 2020 survey, the agents were referring to the online services and support that MSM was providing them in their recruitment efforts. In January 2021, agents were referring to the higher education institutions (HEIs) they were servicing which were slower to accommodate online recruitment needs. 


This is understandable, as HEIs tend to be conservative in their marketing efforts, relying on their agents to do most of the legwork. However, HEIs do need to be on the same page as agents, because agents can only work with what they are given. One way to do that is for HEIs to have a streamlined and user-friendly online system that will make it easier for agents to recruit students. 

Application challenges

The main goal of an agent is getting a student to apply to an HEI he or she represents, so any challenges to this process is a real problem. A comparison of the responses on this topic for the two surveys shows some serious issues:

A bad connection is obviously going to be a problem when it comes to promoting online classes in lieu of in-person learning, and it seems to be a growing problem for HEIs. It is not clear if the problem is on the institution side or the student side, but either way, it needs addressing. The problem of lack of proper hardware does show significant improvement from June 2020 to January 2021, so that is good.

Student concerns

Finally, COVID-19 related student concerns also continue to be a big problem for agents, for which HEIs can provide solutions to some of them at least. 

These results mirror the application challenges in that student concerns seem to become bigger problems in January 2021 than in June 2020. Why is this? 


I believe this is a result of “growing pains,” so to speak, as HEIs and governments grapple with unique problems brought on by the continuing and arguably increasing threat of COVID-19. While there is certainly a movement to accommodate international students as much as possible, it is undeniable that increasingly stricter border shutdowns have a dampening effect on visa processing and a return to in-person classes. 


Tuition concerns are also tied in to online classes, as students consider remote learning as inferior to in-person instruction, and should therefore lead to a reduction in tuition fees. The sad fact is that until COVID-19 is no longer an issue or HEIs develop policies that will reconcile international students to online classes, these student concerns are going to be an ever-present thorn on agents’ sides, to the detriment of HEIs as well. 



The two surveys show a striking difference in attitude in the education sector that trickled down to the agents that, in turn, was reflected in their responses. In the first survey, the agents were feeling the pressure and focusing on problems. In the second, they were looking at opportunities for growth, and identifying what HEIs and organizations such as MSM can do to mitigate the situation by making it easier for students to apply and enroll.


It is heartwarming to note that MSM may have been instrumental in their renewed optimism since we have always ensured that we support them in whatever challenges they face. In fact, the reason we conduct agent surveys is to get realistic and actionable feedback. This allows MSM to identify areas for improvement in our offerings. 


Comparing these two surveys also provides us with an interesting snapshot of the challenges facing international education in general and recruitment in particular. It is important to note that agents’ success translates to HEIs’ success, so identifying the HEI-facing areas for improvement in a pandemic-driven world becomes equally crucial. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 

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