While the world adjusts to the new landscape of education post-pandemic, the big players are not sitting still. 2021 on a global level, has been a record-breaking year for mergers and acquisitions, not only because of low borrowing rates, but because so many organisations and institutions have been weakened by the lack of student mobility and the shift to online learning. There is a major shift going on right now, but what are the standout moves?
Not everyone is taking a holiday this year. Keystone are very busy living up to their name and becoming ...well... a keystone of the education marketing and recruitment edifice.
In merging with Educations Media Group, the newly formed Keystone Education Group has come together to challenge the status quo of university aggregators, or most commonly called student portals. EMG's growth trajectory has culminated in a merger that will help support more than 110 million students per year.
Keystone has had a record period of growth on its own, with CEO Erik Harrell sharing that with physical recruitment fairs on hold, institutions have been channeling all their offline recruitment budget into the digital space. Offline recruitment strategies don't work in the online world, and so institutions took those huge budgets that used to go on flying around the world with free pens and roll-up banners, and spent it on those who could help them navigate this new landscape.
Earlier this year, Keystone acquired FindAUniversity which not only hugely increased their reach and the breadth of their search options, but also gave them greater access to the expanding market in PhD courses, which has increased by 69% over 30 years in the US alone and continues to grow.
With the Head of EMG moving into a Head of M&A role, Keystone are making no secret of their intention to grow further. They have openly said they will move into the application to enrollment phase of student recruitment, so perhaps the next acquisition will be in support of that strategy. Things are going very well for Keystone, and they are using every bit of momentum to firm up their position and hang on as the rest of the field reacts.
Yes, the gators are moving in. Jokes aside, this is a fascinating moment for the world of digital recruitment, as technology really starts to step up in the complexity of its offer. We all know how big the world of international recruitment is. So many options, so many networks and connections, but each individual agent, agency, institution or applicant can only handle so much information on their own.
Enter aggregators like ApplyBoard, which has raised a startling amount of funding even before the pandemic. On one single platform, you'll find agents, institutions and students all connected, and the breadth of networks it can deal with are giving everyone so many more options, whilst simplifying the whole recruitment process end to end. ApplyBoard say they are trying to democratize the decision-making process and reduce the bias that might come from commission structures, and though they were the first unicorn in the sector, other competitors such as StudentApply, among others, are emerging quickly.
There is scepticism, however, with the UK still taking a cautious approach to aggregators according to The PIE.
Reasons cited in a recent survey were that some aggregators were not open about who they were working with, it was not clear how much smaller institutions would benefit, and of course that these are commercially driven platforms where the "education" focus might take second place.
All of these are valid, viable concerns, but given how recent the advent of aggregators actually is in education, it is likely they will prove to be teething problems as opposed to systemic issues. If you need proof, look no further than ApplyBoard's partnership with Times Higher Education. These platforms are clearly reaching big, are well funded and are here to stay, so it will be interesting to see how quickly the rate of adoption grows, and how the aggregators respond to concerns over transparency and equity. Watch this space.
This is huge, and hugely smart as well. EdX is one of the original heavy hitters in the MOOC world, owned by Harvard and MIT, and at the exact time of writing this article, there were more than half a million active users on its page that day. That said, though EdX compares favourably to Coursera in aspects like the respectability of its certification, and its slightly sleeker UX, for years it has been slowly losing ground in the marketplace.
Enter 2U. For years, they have been the go-to provider of online learning for several universities, and the Covid-19 pandemic has radically shifted that trend from an add-on to a must-have for many serious universities. This explains how 2U found $800million for the acquisition, with its coffers swelled from universities quickly funnelling capital into a shift online, just to stay open.
EdX has 500million users worldwide, and all 2U has to do is to create an effective funnel from their new EdX MOOC base into its regular offerings with partner universities, and it will have created a new and innovative recruitment channel at a bargain price in the long term. Smart indeed.
This move will surely open the door to more innovation in recruitment for purely online learning in higher and further education, and we are sure this is not the last such acquisition we'll see this year.
We were surprised by this one in 2020, but it does make sense on a very practical level. Times Higher Education is a very trusted name, and its university rankings are taken as a key standard. No wonder so many prospective students go there to find out more about where and what they might study.
It is these early discovery phases that certainly appealed to Studyportals, who can very comprehensively deal with the rest of the journey. Tailoring recommendations and offers takes a huge amount of data and a broad range of partnerships, so the combined forced of the two are a force to be reckoned with.
The biggest focus of this partnership: data. This is fully aligned with a previous action where Studyportals crossed their student and university data with Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Data Stream. This pioneered student mobility data in the early-stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, through an interactive dashboard offered by Studyportals' Analytics and Consulting team.
Partnerships with universities in specific geographical areas, for data purposes, is and will keep enabling this key player to uncover further key insights around international education. The data they now hold, might have taken years for other institutions to gather.
Through this data supremacy, Studyportals is enabling institutions to have an immediate impact in terms of student recruitment, but also fostering a more transparent and fully-fledged experience for potential students who were previously in untracked territory.
From the online shift to the disaggregation of the college degree to adaptive learning and the changing nature of admissions, things are really shaking up. These big moves in our world will not be the last, but they do signal a watershed moment. The old rules and structures are being broken up, competitors become partners, and both EdTech and private investment are in there plugging the gaps and pushing tradition aside.
We'll keep an eye on it and, as always, bring you fresh insights every week on the innovations, dreams, challenges and straight weirdness of the world of education.