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International education facing the digital challenge

  • 02 June 2021

  • Buyout

In this episode of Entrepreneurial Journeys, we speak to Emma Lancaster, Chief Executive Officer of Study Group.

Studying abroad has never been easy. You need to get on an airplane, fly across the world, land in a country where another language is spoken, and then try to assimilate culturally - all while managing the academic stress of beginning university! This is what thousands of young people must do when studying abroad.

That’s why Study Group, a for-profit education provider, prepares international students for university degree programs in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, UK, and Ireland. Students from China, India, and over 150 other countries are offered specialized training in English language skills, study skills, and other forms of cultural support.

In this episode, we speak to Study Group’s CEO, Emma Lancaster, about the new world of online education and how she is successfully pivoting her company and is leading international students to success in the face of an unprecedented crisis.

You can't just put a presentation online, it's not engaging enough. It's one thing being engaged in a classroom, but sitting to watch half an hour lecture on Zoom is another.

Emma Lancaster, Chief Executive Officer of Study Group.

Welcome to Entrepreneurial Journeys, a podcast from Ardian for anyone curious about where growth is happening around the world. Each week, we speak to the people behind innovative companies building the future. I’m your host, Portia Crowe.

Studying abroad has never been easy. You need to get on an airplane, fly across the world, land in a country where another language is spoken, and then try to assimilate culturally - all while managing the academic stress of beginning university! But that’s what thousands of young people have to do when studying abroad for their undergraduate degrees.

That’s why Study Group, a for-profit education provider, prepares international students for university degree programs in places like Australia, New Zealand, UK, and Ireland. Students from China, India, and some 45 other countries are offered specialized training in English language skills, study skills, and other forms of cultural support. Study Group’s staff are there to help students with anything from difficult pre-engineering-degree questions to advice on where to get a good pizza in the neighbourhood.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic, studying abroad has become an even more challenging experience, especially because so many students are unable to travel. Luckily, Study Group has been at the forefront of digitization and innovation since before the COVID crisis even arose. And Ardian has been there to help.

In this episode of Entrepreneurial Journeys, I speak to Study Group’s CEO, Emma Lancaster, about the new world of online education and how she is successfully pivoting her company leading international students to success in the face of an unprecedented crisis.

Portia

So how does study group work? What do you do and what's your purpose?

Emma Gantner

what we do is we recruit students from 150 countries around the world. We bring them to their destination market of choice, either -- Anglophone -- either U.K., North America, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, or the Netherlands. We teach them for a year, either a sort of foundation course or a diploma or their first year. And as part of that, what we're doing is helping them with their English language. We're helping them with their study skills because many of them will have come from different academic backgrounds and will help them with a sort of settling in period, if you like. And we've been doing that for 25 years and have worked with some great university, partner brands, across the globe.

What Study Group offers is much more than just academic or linguistic support.

Emma Gantner

So assimilating and working out everything from how to use the local public transport system, you know, how to navigate your way to the university, how to make friends, how to you know, how to study what's expected in a study environment, which will be different from the educational backgrounds that many of them will have come from. So, yes, a lot of it is that sort of cultural soft skills side, if you like, which is really making sure they're prepared, that when they really arrive in university proper, you know, they're going to be successful. And the heart of everything we do is around student success.

The roughly 120,000 students Study Group has worked with over the past decade come from some 150 countries around the world. But roughly 40 percent are from China, and 10-15 percent from India.

Portia

How do you differentiate from your competitors?

Emma Gantner

So we would suggest that actually, it's, what differentiates us, our partner portfolio. We have many partners in the top 100. You know, we really focus on student success. We really focus on high quality. So we are looking for taking able students and really prepare them to be super successful at, you know, really prestigious universities. And that's what really sets us apart from our competitors.  

Study Group works with more than 40 universities, including the Universities of Durham and Sheffield in the U.K., Australia National University and the University of Sydney in Australia, and Baylor in the U.S.

And, through the recent acquisition of the online platform Insendi, Study Group is adding even more schools to its portfolio, including the University of Oxford.

Portia

What do your clients, the universities, get out of the bargain?

Emma Gantner

What they get is very well prepared international students. So international students generally will pay a much higher tariff than the domestic tariff, and so therefore they're more economically beneficial. But I think the other part is as we move, you know, we’re, all universities want to be global. And so having that international cohort that brings diversity of voice into the classroom, into the study, makes a big difference to the learning experience for the whole university.

But something happened last year that challenged to its core this vision of bringing international cohorts together: Covid, of course.

Portia

Let's talk about COVID and how Study Group responded.

Emma Gantner

I was actually at a dinner in Shanghai with a number of our agents and our team based in Shanghai. And somebody said, oh, have you heard about this flu in Wuhan? And I said, no, no, I haven't. You know, should I be worried?

Emma Gantner

I just didn't realize how quickly it would move through and, as I say, in some ways, we were -- we saw it happen to our Chinese colleagues, first, it moved through Singapore in terms of lockdown and how all that was working, and in pretty short order, Australia shut its borders.
So we had to move very quickly to put online provision for our students in Australia. And actually, there's a lot of scrambling to get a lot of our students home. Now, the good news is partly the way it landed is that a lot of our Chinese students were home because of Chinese New Year, so they hadn't yet travelled. So actually, we would move, we moved, very quickly online in Australia. And then in a matter of a couple of weeks, we were then doing the same thing in Europe and North America as well.

But not all the foreign students made it home for lockdown.

Emma Gantner

We did have a chunk of students who were left in-country and in lockdown in a student room on your own. It's really tough, really tough. So we've, you know, the teams have worked really hard in really trying to put in some quite innovative ways of bringing peer to peer interaction and making sure that the students that were kind of left in-country were kind of looked after and supported kind of through the various lockdowns.

And that was just the beginning. Then, Study Group had to figure out how to carry on teaching students — online, in different time zones.

Emma Gantner

Fortunately for us, we had just acquired Insendi, which is our kind of online learning platform, and that meant that we were very able to put some really good online learning in very quickly. And we'd already been working on it, but actually, it meant that we could roll out some high quality product very, very quickly. And if you think about the challenges of operating online, when you've got different time zones, you can't do synchronous classes in the same way. And in fact, the way you break down teaching is very different in an online environment. You can't just go into Zoom and expect it's going to be with all sorts of operational challenges with that. So we were very fortunate that we had the Insendi expertise to pull on.

Because moving to virtual education is much more than just throwing some presentations online.

Emma Gantner

It's different, and particularly in terms of teaching, it's a different way of teaching. And so actually you almost have to unlearn it. So one of our teachers sort of explained it to me. It's like when you learn to drive, if you've been driving for 15 years, you know, you don't think ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ — you just turn left. And that's the same as being in the classroom. When you then move online, you have to go back to thinking ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre,’ because you've got to break it down into constituent parts because you can't do the things that you could do in the classroom. So from a teaching perspective, it's been, you know, challenging.

Emma Gantner

You can't just put a presentation online. It's just not engaging enough. And you can't, you know, videoing lectures, even. It's one thing being engaged in a classroom, but actually sitting to watch half an hour lecture on Zoom. It's not -- it's not great or very interactive, so. Well, we've tended to do and, you know, all the literature would say you need to break it down into bite sized chunks. You can have a little bit of video. You have a lot of interactivity, you have forums, you have discussions, you can quizzes, you know, a whole range of different ways of engaging because otherwise it's, it's hard to absorb the the information in the way that you need to or could potentially do in a classroom where it's inherently much more interactive.

Portia

Tell me how Ardian supported you through the pandemic.

Emma Gantner

I think it's very easy when you're one step removed on a board or a shareholder to to really kind of feel like you need to step in and help management. But in fact, what they were very good at is, 'look, we can see you're cracking on with this. We're here if you need us. But equally, we're not going to try and kind of interfere or help you along the way.' And so that that's been great.

Portia

Do you think that digital will sort of be the business model going forward for Study Group?

Emma Gantner

I think well, there will definitely be an element of digital. I don't think you can wholly replace the face to face experience for some students. I think some students, if you're going to do a postgraduate, you could probably do it all online. But what we know is our students like that kind of, you know, the settling in piece, if you like, the sort of handholding. But I do think that blended is going to be definitely part of what we do going forward. And we kind of knew that before the pandemic already, which is one of the reasons we made the acquisition. And it's really working through which bit of it we keep in which bits, you know, we move to face to face. But I think what we've learned is we can do so much more online than perhaps we ever anticipated.

Even virtually, Study Group has continued to offer much more than just academics.

Emma Gantner

We try and do a lot of social things. And so, I mean, it really ranges, you know, cooking classes, Netflix parties we have just had in the UK, we have had a Eurovision Song Contest. So each of our students has not each, but many of our students have entered from whichever centre they're in. And it was brilliant because I watched the final and there was a student who was singing in their bedroom in Peru. There was a student who is in Shanghai and the talent was amazing.

Emma Gantner

I love what we do because it's real. You know, it's adding value to the world is not just making widgets and it comes alive when you see the range of students and you sort of see them in their home countries, in their, you know, their different backgrounds, it was it was great.

Emma Gantner

And they're very good at participating and really, you know, throwing themselves into it. And as I said at the outset, this may not be exactly what they signed up for, but they're going to make the best of it.

Looking ahead, Lancaster has high expectations that the international education sector will continue to grow.

Emma Gantner

that's really because the macro drivers are a growing middle class in our source markets with not enough supply, frankly, of good universities. And it takes it takes many years to build a university. And so what we are doing is sort of filling that gap, if you like. And I think that what we see is that trend will continue to grow. I think where we have seen variations over the years and continue to see it even as we speak, is that while the demand is there, the supply will vary depending on which destination market. So right now, for example, Australia and New Zealand's borders are closed. It's pretty straightforward then for for a student to go, okay, well, I can't go to Australia, so therefore I'm probably going to go to the UK or the US instead. And so that's where I think we'll see the variation. But I think the overall growth will continue just because of the macro factors.

- Portia

And you've said that the pandemic was, in your view, just a short term blip, but there's still a desire to study abroad and what's changing is where. And so maybe we can speak a little bit more about where you mentioned Australia being shut right now, maybe more interest in the UK, is that right?

- Emma Gantner

Yeah. So I think, you know, that's the thing that always changes over time, is different approaches to immigration, different approaches to visas. And what we've seen in the UK, particularly with Brexit, is that they are much more recognising that they need international students and international students can make a massive contribution to the economy.

- Emma Gantner

Arguably Brexit doesn't really impact our business and very few of our students were Europeans from non European countries. And that's because actually European students could get access to the UK university system pre Brexit anyway. So that's not really where our business was. But I think the consequence of Brexit is that the UK government has reassessed their whole immigration policy, out of which has come a recognition that international students make a big contribution to the economy, and that's resulted in them changing the legislation such that students can come and work for a couple of years afterwards

- Emma Gantner

And there's been a whole series of improvements that's just made the whole process so much more easy for our international students as well.

- Emma Gantner

And it just makes it. Yeah, certainly the UK certainly become a lot more attractive as a consequence.

- Portia

And how do the current students feel about their futures?

- Emma Gantner

Well, what always impresses me is how resilient our students are. You know, those students that want to study abroad, even in normal times, it's a big step. So they, you know, they have views. They know where they want to go. And actually, that's still the case. IT May not be exactly the way they wanted it to be, but, you know, they're very pragmatic.

- Emma Gantner

Yeah, we'll, crack on, we'll do this online because it's going to get me to where I want to be. You know, I want to do a degree in medicine at Cardiff. So actually, I'm going to really focus on doing that. And I will do the pathway course. And if I have to do it online, I'll do it online. But I know it's going to get me where I want to be. They’re very determined young people.

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Entrepreneurial Journeys is a podcast for anyone curious about where growth is happening around the world. Here we speak with the people behind innovative companies building the future. They are entrepreneurs from across Europe, working in technology, healthcare, mobility, education, and more.

We'll hear about their greatest successes and challenges, how they weathered the pandemic, and where their industries are going next.

This podcast is hosted by Portia Crowe and produced by Louie Creative for Ardian.

Tune in on Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts - and join us for an inside look at where the world is going next.

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