ApplyBoard co-founder: ‘My hope is we’ll be able to help millions in the decades to come’

Meti Basiri, co-founder and CMO of the study abroad platform, talks to ET about the importance of international study and how UK institutions can attract more foreign students.

Twelve years ago, Meti migrated from Iran to Canada as an undergraduate with his brothers Martin and Massi. Signing up to study abroad was complicated and painful enough to inspire the brothers to invent a platform which would streamline the process, by connecting students, recruitment partners and academic institutions. 

In 2015, the Basiris launched ApplyBoard, and in 2019 Meti and Massi were on three different Forbes 30 under-30 lists. In the same year, ApplyBoard was named the fastest-growing technology company in Canada by Deloitte, ranking #1 on the Technology Fast 50™ list. In 2021, ApplyBoard ranked #8 on LinkedIn’s Top Startups List in Canada.

ApplyBoard is now the world’s largest online platform for international student recruitment. It has helped over 300,000 students complete their study abroad applications and employs 1,500 team members in 25 countries.

Let’s talk about your experience of being an international student. Was it all positive? What were the difficulties? 

I wish had been easy! If it had been easy, we would have never started ApplyBoard that’s for sure. So Canada had a very immigration-friendly pathway for international students and that was a big selling point for us compared to a US state or elsewhere. But the process wasn’t easy actually; it almost took us nine months from the starting point. At that time the process was so broken and institutions were still needed to send the actual offer letters by mail, then we had to go to embassies. Nothing was online; we did everything from scratch ourselves.

We didn’t really look at all our options because it would have taken two hours to figure out – for every institution – how to apply, what the process was, whether we were even qualified. At the time we couldn’t speak a word of English, so we needed to study it, but even knowing whether the different schools had English classes was difficult.

So, this is why you started ApplyBoard?

Pretty much. We went through the pain and thought ‘let’s make it easier for a few other students’. A ‘few other students’ became over 350,000 students. So far – we’re still not done. My hope is we will be able to help millions in the decades to come.

Why do you think it’s so important for students to study abroad? What are the benefits of it?

I think there are two angles to it. A lot of institutions in western countries like the UK and North America are losing out on domestic students going to colleges because the baby boomers didn’t have enough kids. So, students aged 16–18 are in decline, meaning that there are more seats available in universities and colleges in North America and Europe, and other countries, than there are students. On the other hand, in other countries there are more students available than institutions. Studying abroad really balances this out and benefits the economy.

The second piece of it is, genuinely speaking, high-quality education, or just access to education, is not available everywhere. Students can actually enhance and accelerate their career growth before coming back to their home country by studying abroad. Canada, US and Australia simply need more than half a million immigrants in a year. And, without it, the economy is not going to develop.

What challenges is the UK facing in the study-abroad market?

It’s two-piece: UK universities are still operating in the same way they did in 2017-2018. Their mindset hasn’t changed. There used to be a lot of work being done to recruit students – there was a lot of flexibility around admission requirements and the journey of the student. Now things are easier but the old mindset is still there.

Right now, the biggest thing is the lack of technology. I was in the UK two weeks ago and it struck me how outdated the process is. The technology’s not there. This is the year I see the UK embracing new technology.

Diversity will be the biggest challenge for UK institutions in the next 18–24 months. India, Pakistan and Nigeria are the top three countries sending students to the UK, and the UK hasn’t built that muscle of going to a country like the Philippines or Vietnam. Canada really got it right in the past two–three years – it didn’t have that muscle until four years ago.

What tips can the UK pick up from other countries?

You need to really know what product you’re selling. In Canada for example, the community colleges and the government focus on the countries where students are looking for trade programmes. It’s about being laser-focused and understanding that what sells in Nigeria, for example, doesn’t sell in the UK. They are different markets and different personas.

What’s your view on the future of education technology, particularly in this area?

I think tech innovation is just beginning. More technology will come and enhance the institutions but at the same time make the students’ success the end goal because a lot of these decisions were made by processes and knowledge from 30 years ago. Students can enter the wrong programme, spend £200K, and after four years can get a job but not enjoy it. This is a domestic problem, an international problem, but it’s more of a risk for international students because it’s a large investment for them.

So much more tech will come in the next decade.

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