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Interview: Unite Students’ international footprint

The UK is one of the most popular destinations for international students, and Unite Students have supported international students on this journey for over 20 years. Since then, we have grown our global presence; building successful relationships with education professionals and student accommodation experts across the world, as well as opening our Beijing office in 2014 – you can read our recent interview with China office manager Hattie Zhao here.

But our first international office was set up in Cyprus to support our growing work with international students. Now, Bernadette Cochonat interviews Maria Papageorgiou, our Cyprus-based overseas marketing manager, who reflects on the changes she has witnessed over the past two decades and her thoughts and insights on the current climate.

Q: Maria, you’ve been working with Unite Students for over 20 years and set up our Cyprus office – some of our international partners know you as ‘Maria Unite’. How did this adventure start, and how did you come across Unite?

A: My journey in the student accommodation industry started in 1998 with UniLodge, when I was a postgraduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University. The owners visited the property as potential buyers, and one of them – who had studied Greek – started to chat to me in Greek, asked what I thought they should explore in Greece, and asked for my number. He discussed my ideas with his brother and offered me a job a few days later.

My role at UniLodge was mainly to recruit Greek and Cypriot students by attending educational events both in the UK and internationally, and visiting the agencies in those countries every few months; I was also responsible for all the Greek and Cypriot students booked with UniLodge. In June 2000, the company was sold to Unite Students and I stayed on, with my role remaining the same. After two years, we decided that we should open an office in Cyprus as a pilot international office, in order to support our Greek agents and start networking within the region.

As for ‘Maria Unite’, this is the name that agents, students and parents call me, both because I have worked for Unite Students for so many years and also because Maria is a very common name here. I think some of them have forgotten my real surname!

When I joined Unite Students, I was surprised that we had a team in Cyprus. Can you explain why it was important to establish a presence there?

Cyprus is a Eurasian island country, located in the extreme north eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, belonging geographically to the Middle East and politically to Europe. This geographical position offers easy access to so many countries in south-east Europe and the Middle East. Also, Cyprus is a former British colony, which means there is a lot of migration between the two countries, and Britain is one of the main university destinations for Cypriot students.

Establishing a presence here was a very wise decision. The company learned how to manage an international office and establish itself in not only Cyprus, but neighbouring countries in the region.

The PBSA market in the UK was very different when you started out than it is today. Unite Students was a pioneer in expanding overseas to reach students from their home country and supporting them in their journey to study in the UK. What are the most significant changes that you have seen during this time?

The journey with Unite the last 20 years on the Cypriot market has been a successful story made of ups and downs due to significant market changes. In 2004, Cyprus entered the European Union, making it easier for students from less affluent backgrounds to study in the UK as study fees were the same as for home students. Improvements in technology have also made it much easier for students to study abroad; not only in being able to book via an online booking system but in terms of accessing information. Social media helps prospective students to better understand what to expect when they arrive in UK and what accommodation to book.

However, human connections and consistency are still important. We have kept the same office for nearly 20 years and provided a strong after-sale service to students, both of which have helped us to maintain our leading presence here. Several competitors tried to set up offices or recruit agents here, but were unsuccessful; there was a lack of understanding the local culture that made it difficult for their agents to deliver the same services that we offer.

What would you say is typical of the Cypriot market in terms of student recruitment?

Parents are very overprotective of their children in Cypriot and Greek culture, and they want students to have the best education and best accommodation. They often sponsor their children’s living expenses and tuition fees, so it’s important for us to gain their trust through our established local presence.

Education agents also play a significant role in prospective students’ university and accommodation decisions, our presence locally is really important and helpful. Prospective students send an application form to the Cyprus office, and after that we look at what accommodation would be best suited to their needs and budget. We find that undergraduate students usually book shared flats, while postgraduate students tend to book studios.

Being able to book through our Cyprus office offers students a huge advantage – it means we can accommodate their preferences, book them with friends or flatmates from the same countries, and generally customise their booking experience depending on their preferences. It also means that students and their parents get to know us either face-to-face or over the phone, and building these personal relationships has often led to siblings, cousins and friends booking through us as well.

My family had very close friends from different neighbouring countries, so I am very familiar with different cultures of the region. It’s a real advantage to understand your customers’ culture – what to offer, what not to offer, and what’s important.

What major changes have you seen at Unite Students over the years?

First of all, our portfolio has grown significantly through the years; not only in terms of beds, but also the number of cities, which offers us the opportunity to cover more students’ needs.

The Unite Students brand and reputation has grown throughout the years, providing additional reassurance to students and their parents. By putting down international roots early on, we have an advantage over our competitors – we were one of the first accommodation providers to partner with education agents, and have worked with and learned from them for years now. Now we have a very strong network of agents not only here in Cyprus, but all over the world.

Our customer-driven strategy and profiling helped us to better understand our customers and how they make their decisions. I am strongly believe that we are pioneers in terms of understanding students: it’s what drove us to create international offices with dedicated members of different cultures who speak many languages.

By understanding different cultures, we also helped the people working in our properties to understand better students’ needs, which is so important for our business – students deal with our city teams from the day they check in to the day they check out. A student from a foreign country needs to adapt to the new environment, and the city teams managing their new home need to understand them in order to help them. We organise check-in events for students and different cultural events to make them feel at home, such as Chinese New Year events and ‘smelly Thursday’ events for Cypriots and Greeks. ‘Smelly Thursday’ is the translation of Tsiknopempti, which is a part of Greek and Cypriot carnival celebrations prior to Lent, involving lots of barbecued meat. The barbecue parties we’ve put on to celebrate this have been really popular with our Cypriot students!

We have learned so much about students’ needs over the past two decades, but students in 2021 have different expectations from students in 2000, particularly given the impact of technology on their lives – so we have adapted and innovated online over the years to improve and promote our organization.

Based on your experience, to what extent will Brexit affect Cypriot students’ decision to study in the UK? Are students are considering other study destinations now?

Because of Brexit, fees are now much higher for EU students again – which may direct students towards cheaper studies in countries still in the EU such as the Netherlands, Germany and Czechia. This, along with the financial effects of Covid, will have an impact on our business. I can see more EU students coming to the UK for postgraduate studies rather than undergraduate.

However, as a UK university graduate myself, I strongly believe that it is difficult to compete with the prestige of an education in the UK. Some students may be redirected to other destinations because of the increased fees, but the UK is an attractive market and I believe we will continue to thrive.

What will Unite need to do differently in the future to remain attractive for EU customers?

I believe that Unite Students and the PBSA sector in general will have to demonstrate more flexibility than before, and UK universities and accommodation providers will also have to diversify the countries they source students from. The Higher Education sector will have to innovate to maintain their competitive advantage, but as Unite Students is usually a leader of new trends and initiatives, I am confident we are in a good position to face future challenges and continue to lead the way.

And finally, a more personal question: before working with Unite, you were yourself a student in the UK. What surprised you the most about life in the UK? Is there anything you wish you knew before getting here? Any advice for those planning to come?

I wish I’d had a ‘Maria Unite’ to help me with my accommodation decisions! I visited the UK several times before I began my studies and was already familiar with the weather and food. Adapting to my accommodation stressed me more than adapting to the teaching style, although living in a new country is very different to visiting. Sharing accommodation with people you don’t know, not having an en-suite, waiting in a queue for the pay phone to contact with your family – these are all things I had to adapt to.

My advice to new students is to live student life to maximum, try to mix with students from other countries, and be positive. Education is the biggest asset we can have in our lives and having the opportunity to study in UK is a great advantage.

Thank you very much, Maria! We hope you can come to the UK to see us soon – we are all looking forward to your next visit here.

We will continue to share regular updates and insights from our international teams and to discuss topics around international students and Higher Education. Next month, as part of our extended Mental Health Awareness Week coverage we’ll be sharing our thoughts on how to support Chinese students with their mental health – follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter so you don’t miss out on our latest blogs and insight.