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Even though there is no official data on the number of Africans that are travelling abroad annually for postgraduate studies, it’s expected to be high considering the increasing local interest in foreign education and the general belief that the quality of Africa’s education system is not as high as in Europe or North America — even some parts of Asia.
One of the biggest obstacles there is for those keen to study abroad is not only having access to the relevant information. It’s about getting actual admission and eventually moving from Africa to the school’s hostel that’s complicated and stressful.
This is where StudySearch comes in.
Although he was born and raised in South East London, the co-founder of the company, Frederik Obasi, came back to live in Nigeria for a few years before returning to London to study law and political science at London Metropolitan University.
“While living in the United Kingdom during my university years, I helped out family and friends back home with university applications for free obviously. I decided to move back to Nigeria after a year or so of university. I had built a decent business in the UK while studying but I felt it was time for a new challenge and Nigeria was the place to be because many problems mean there are many opportunities,” Obasai said.
When he got to Nigeria, he launched UniSmart but quickly realised that just like many of his family and friends, Nigerian students want to study abroad.
“We realised that there were so many issues with the way Nigerians were applying and accessing education abroad. In fact some were being defrauded by fraudulent agents. So we set about launching StudySearch as we were compelled by the problems we had seen — and knew we had the team to solve them,” he said.
They decided to shut down UniSmart to focus entirely on StudySearch which was finally launched 31 May 2014.
Obasaai said StudySearch connects prospective international students with on-demand peer study advisors for advice and support applying to universities abroad. He said the platform has peer advisors who are current students and alumni of leading universities around the world.
This is how the platform works. Prospective students will tell StudySearch what countries they’d like to study in, the university, and course they want to study and what support they need. They are then instantly connected to a peer advisor and service partners who can help. All in one dashboard, on any internet connected device.
He said: “So you will tell us your study goals and we will match you with someone with that experience — for example a Nigerian that has studied molecular biology at Cambridge or one that is currently studying it?”
What a peer advisor does on the platform is to help users through applying and studying. They also give insights on living in the foreign land (UK for example). They arm the prospective student with the tools and information needed to make the best decisions about their education.
While some schools do provide some similar support services to their foreign prospective students, many of them don’t — although this does not mean StudySearch is competing with the schools. Instead, Obasi said StudySearch is helping schools.
“Many educational institutions struggle to scale their support services for international students — setting up an office in every country is not practical and student support teams are often stretched hence this is why many universities make use of agents. StudySearch helps universities mobilise their most powerful resource for recruitment, current students and alumni. We have dedicated tools for universities built in to our platform,” he said.
He added the foreign universities that do also offer the support have trained staff that probably would only tell students the good points about their university.
Since its launch about a year ago initially as a course searching website, the platform has recorded more than 100 000 students from across Africa that used their search tools.
“Our advisor network was launched in March this year the response has been great, in the first week we had 500+ advisor applications from current students and graduates around the world (including Africa),” Obasi told Ventureburn.
A good number of users are interested in institutions in UK, US, Canada and Malaysia; the co-founders are also currently working with 20 different universities and student service providers.
“We also have an official partnership with the Association of African Universities, through which we will be focusing on intra-Africa student travel. We haven’t launched it yet but when we do it will be a game changer,” he said.
Typical success story
Obasi said: “We recently helped a young Nigerian student — whose entire family network had pooled money together to sponsor his education in the US. However they were being quoted fees in excess of US$1 000 from several agents in Nigeria. And that was just too much considering the amount they were going to be spending to send him abroad. He found StudySearch and didn’t believe it was even real. After connecting with a peer advisor on the platform he received totally free and impartial support with his application and has recently received his US admission letter.”
Business or social service
Obasi said StudySearch is being operated as a business although it operates a freemium model where students can get advice and support with applications for free. But for the fast track [premium] option, users will be expected to pay a fee.
The difference between both packages is that students on the premium package get added extras such as dedicated travel and accommodation support. The turnaround time for both services is relative – as the targets are admission deadlines. Obasi said they’ve noticed that many of those that use the premium service do so when the application deadline is fast approaching.
The main revenue model for the company is not even what students are paying for using the premium service. According to Obasi, the bulk of the company’s revenue comes from two main channels — universities and partnerships.
Obasi said: “We offer universities the flexibility of either a commission based agreement or access to our student recruitment management portal for an annual subscription fee. We also monetise through partnerships with service providers (language testing, student accommodation providers, etc.). This allows us to give our product away to prospective students for free and our advisors are able to earn monetary and non-monetary rewards for the advice and support they provide.”
“At the moment agreements with universities for commission, and selling our management software that bring in more money. Our software subscription sells for between US$4 000 and US$10 000 depending on what level of involvement universities have. Our commission is a cut of the student’s first year tuition based on how many students use our service to apply.”
He revealed the company is performing well and they are seeing revenue.
“We are working to ensure the number of students using and discovering our service continues to grow. We’re rolling out our university partner program in the very near future and will bring onboard 30 to 40 more universities before the end of the year,” he said.
Convincing users of legit status
Obasi also disclosed that Nigeria is the company’s biggest market — a country which coincidentally has had several reported cases of prospective students getting duped by individuals and organisations that promised to help them to secure foreign admission. This poses a great challenge for the co-founders — convincing people the platform is for real.
“We clearly display some of our most high-profile partners’ logos on our websites — our approach is that we always speak with students (but most importantly parents and families). We have a dedicated support help line and various channels for contact. On our website we operate a fully transparent model — all peer advisors are ranked and reviewed by the students they help,” he said.
“But we are operating in Africa so we are under no illusions — it’s not just about building software and sticking it on the web – the ground work has to be done to educate students and other key stakeholders. For us the most important thing is our mission – empowering African students with the tools and information they need to make the best decision about their education. The most under-utilised and probably the best source for information on applying to university, life as a student and even careers, is a current student or alumni. We want to open up their insiders’ knowledge to the world.”