Universities should resist the temptations of exclusive contracts

Working with just one company to deliver a service belies the variety of international students’ needs, says Tony Gao

July 3, 2022
A man removes his wedding ring, symbolising exclusive partnerships
Source: iStock

The average-sized university executes tens of thousands of administrative processes each year. With so much on their plate, it’s easy to understand why they may prefer to work with just one service provider where possible. But administrators may not realise that entering into exclusive relationships could create enormous problems down the road.

For the service provider, an exclusive deal with a top university can be hugely beneficial. Establishing partnerships with universities is a difficult process, because there are many considerations and decision-makers to get past. Slipping in an exclusivity clause means bigger commercial and business gains for the service provider, whether it be a cleaning contractor or stationery supplier.

But there are many cases in which a “one-size-fits-all” service does a disservice to the huge variety of students that populate the campuses of international universities. Chinese students are a particular case in point. Not unexpectedly, Chinese and other foreign students at Western universities face language barriers and cultural challenges when filling out their university application forms. As a former international student myself, I can empathise with the common challenges faced – understanding how a university’s culture and expectations may differ from what they are used to, how to get from destination A to B when arriving in a new country, and how to more effectively settle into a new environment.

What such students need is not a one-stop “how to apply” consultancy for foreign students. They need help from consultants in their own countries, who understand their unique background and needs.

Another example relates to international payments. The fees of Chinese and many other Asian students studying overseas are usually paid by their families. So it is often their parents who have to navigate the university’s payment systems. The challenges they can encounter are significant, involving language barriers, navigating unfamiliar web pages, and – in the case of payment issues or related questions – the prospect of making expensive international calls to a university on the other side of the world in the middle of the night.

Almost every part of the world has its own popular payment providers, and no single payment platform can yet offer both global reach and localised customer support. Such support can range from the complex – understanding the host country’s regulatory environment and local laws – to the deceptively simple, such as offering guidance on the local language and time zone.

Just as what will work for one country won’t work for another, not all services will suit all students. And, as the “customers” of the universities, they should have a choice. The lack of it can lead to bad experiences and unhappy customers – even if universities can easily fail to notice. Giving certain companies a monopoly over a service can hinder innovation, limit attention to service quality and eliminate price competition – all bad for consumers.

By contrast, working with a variety of firms and encouraging friendly competition between them allows universities to optimise the student experience – especially if they use technology and data analysis tools to track students’ satisfaction with the various services on offer – such as via an annual review of the usage, user experience and adoption rate of each service provider. Those products and services that aren’t adding value to the staff or student experience could then be re-evaluated or even replaced.

As bastions of lifelong learning and progress, it is only natural to expect universities to be innovative and flexible – not just in their teaching, but also in their administrative systems. After all, the student experience is not only about the teaching universities offer, but also the services.

Exclusive agreements with providers may be institutionally convenient, but if universities move away from them, it will signal that they are embracing their diverse international student communities, catering to different student needs and cultivating an environment that is equal and transparent for all.

Tony Gao is co-founder and president of EasyTransfer.

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