SI-UK celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2021. Company directors Dwayne Gallagher and Orion Judge sat down with The PIE to talk about how the agency has developed since 2006, the current state of international student recruitment and what the industry can expect looking ahead.
The PIE: It’s SI-UK’s 15th anniversary this year – how has the company grown over that time? What have your key achievements been?
Dwayne Gallagher: SI-UK has grown from its original office in Tokyo set up in 2006 to over 64 offices in 32 countries. In our first year we assisted about 200 students with applications to UK universities. In this anniversary year we are on target to assist over 50,000 students with applications.
When we started, the majority of education agencies in Japan and NE East were charging students significant fees for education advisory and application support services. We opened on a 100% free service model, without limits on which UK universities they could apply to.
“We opened on a 100% free service model, without limits on which UK universities they could apply to”
We saw our mission as supporting students to receive the best international education they could that fit with their educational, employment, lifestyle and budget needs.
We started our first UK university fairs in 2008, and since then have run the largest solely UK fairs in the world. Our UK office runs three fairs per year, with 90-100 UK universities attending (virtually during 2020/21). Our India offices run the largest solely UK focuses fairs with 65-70 UK universities, and during our first virtual fair in May 2020 we had over 7,000 students registered to meet with the universities.
The SI-UK brand is one associated with quality of service and support to both universities and students alike.
In 2006, SI-UK had set up two websites, which attracted about 225,000 unique visitors per year. We currently have over 40 websites, offered in several languages, that receive well in excess of 35 million unique visitors per year. During our 15 years, SI-UK has scaled up its service support to students and universities alike, and we have scaled up our operations, with our teams processing between 12,000-14,000 university applications per month.
This year – despite coronavirus-induced headwinds and international travel curbs – SI-UK expects 25% revenue growth to approximately £25 million; and with the addition of new offices and territories we expect 40% growth from 2021 to 2022.
The PIE: Why is the partnership with UCL so key for SI-UK? Does that mark a shift in the UK sector – can you talk a bit about the aims to become a £100m company in the next two/three years?
Orion Judge: The partnership with UCL is very exciting, UCL is arguably the most prestigious university in Britain that has chosen to work with an agency. Only Oxbridge, Imperial and LSE remain not working with any agency representative.
“Only Oxbridge, Imperial and LSE remain not working with any agency representative”
UCL is ranked in the top 10 in the world, has 34 Nobel laureates associated with it, and is a world leading research university in many subject areas. To have been chosen in a long tender process as the exclusive representative by UCL is a great honour and also highlights the professional abilities and quality of the SI-UK organisation.
Although we completely halted growth last April 2020 until January 2021, we are back in expansion mode; several new offices have opened this year, four new offices in India, where we expect to have 25+ by the end of 2022, and new country offices including, Taiwan, Indonesia, and opening soon, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Poland and Spain.
We are also in talks to open further offices in South America where we are currently thin on the ground, we are particularly interested to open in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. A major new region for our offices will be Europe, as EU students have become international students for UK universities, they have encouraged us to assist them with their recruitment needs across the region – we plan to open across several countries, including France, Italy, Spain, Romania, and Poland.
“SI-UK expects to expand its business to reach a valuation of several hundred million pounds over the coming years”
SI-UK expects to expand its business to reach a valuation of several hundred million pounds over the coming years. This year, we expect annual revenues to be £25 million — and we have a 2-3 year strategic growth plan to increase annual revenues to £100 million.
Partially this will be achieved via physical expansion of our offices and territories to 120 offices in over 50 countries by 2023 with the goal of increasing UK enrolments three fold. There are a number of highly significant developments for SI that will be announced over the coming several months to one year; these will provide clarity on how Dwayne and I envision SI reaching the £100 million annual revenue target.
The PIE: Do you see yourselves as cheerleaders for the UK as a study destination? Why do you promote the UK ahead of other destinations?
DG: We certainly see ourselves as extremely loyal and committed promoters for UK education and culture.
We believe the UK has the finest education system and educational traditions in the world. It was one of the first countries to admit women to university and has world leading research. The UK, with its academic history of ideas, science and social sciences and its foundation and commitment to liberal equalitarian values, provides an ideal country for international students to study and live.
The PIE: With such a broad range of locations where SI-UK has offices, do you see differences in student cohorts in certain regions – are some countries, more open to using the services of agencies?
OJ: SI-UK has a global footprint which allows us to assist students from the widest range of national backgrounds, this is valuable for UK universities, who want to reflect a truly global campus, rather than just a narrow range of nationalities.
As there is such a range and complexity to courses, and factors for students to consider when choosing appropriate programs, institutions and areas to live and study; students are best assisted through one-to-one counselling where their unique situation can be discussed, reviewed and reflected in the personalised service and support they receive.
Online ‘self-help’ platforms can be useful for cursory reviews of options; most serious students contact in country agents, even after potentially visiting online self help platforms. The students and their parents appreciate that at these meetings, they gain several hours of professional and specialist advisory support face-to-face.
Consultants can take students through all aspects of study abroad, many that they may not have considered, and tailor the information and support to their exact requirements; providing the best options for their academic and career needs and allowing them to confidently select the programs and insitutions ideally suited to their circumstance.
SI-UK works closely with UK universities – we have regular meetings with the heads of international offices, and vice chancellors, and together review where and what support international students require regionally. SI-UK seek to establish offices where the student demand for quality, objective service and support is needed.
“UK universities continue to suggest different regions that we should open in”
UK universities, over the 15 years of our history, have always been very supportive of SI-UK’s plans to expand globally, and they continue to suggest different regions that we should open in. We believe this is a true testament to the value that our universities see that SI-UK brings in enrolling a diverse range of high-quality students from all over the world.
The majority of agencies represent a city, or country, there are few indeed that are multi-regional and only two or three that are truly global in their reach, marketing and enrolment support. Throughout SI-UK’s 15-year history we have always looked up to the prestigious and extremely professionally run agency IDP with its 55+ year history.
The PIE: Looking ahead, is the international student market becoming more competitive? Is SI-UK leveraging digital options to grow? Do you work with any recruitment platforms or agent aggregators?
DG: We do not believe the space is becoming more competitive, however there has been much more consolidation and rapid growth of large agents taking much more market share. We have seen a shift with education related companies moving into the recruitment sector. UK universities as a group have more or less kept the number of agents they work with at manageable levels so this has not shifted significantly – the number of agents each university partners with.
“Of our 700+ staff at least 20% are in roles related to managing or developing technology and this team is growing quickly”
SI-UK invests significant human and capital resources into technology, of our 700+ staff at least 20% are in roles related to managing or developing technology and this team is growing quickly.
SI-UK does not work with platforms as it would be far too difficult to manage quality control due to the fact that 100% of platform students are coming through agent networks. As a commercial entity the margins would be far too small, as platform companies return 80-90% of the commission income directly back to the agents who process the students.