Hauer Santos is recalling the early days of the education agency business, in an era that might seem more distant in time than just 20 years ago to the millennials who now make up the majority of the education agency client base.
Two decades ago, the internet was just a murmur and fax machines seemed like a modern, direct connection with clients. In fact, Hauer Santos remembers working with telex machines, and managing business relations with language school partners without making phone calls, because of their cost.
A different era
“It was different times, with no communication,” he recalls. “For example, Brazilian students didn’t have a credit card, there was no specific law that allowed you to transfer money, so it was done through the black market – in cash dollars. It was really more difficult at that time.”
In Russia, at Insight-Lingua in Moscow, Elena Solomonova recalls that it was a university friend who invited her to join him in his business venture 25 years ago, principally because she had a good level of English.
“Travelling abroad was a limited opportunity in my country; I had never been abroad to any country, never had any contact with foreigners and was very curious to do that,” says Solomonova. She is now the sole director of the agency, which has offices in three cities in Russia.
“I managed to bring two suitcases of maybe 50 university brochures [back to Russia] and it was extremely valuable material”
Setting up a business model that was based upon receiving commission payments for students and ensuring a good match between student and the education program, “Our only way to communicate was using fax. International calls were extremely expensive and even travel itself was very expensive,” she recalls.
In India, Ravi Lochan Singh of Global Reach also remembers the era of airmail-based correspondence in the early 90s. “India only liberalised its economy in late 1991 and prior to this, there were significant restrictions on availability of forex for studies overseas. It is not that Indians were not travelling overseas to study but it was largely for studies that were funded through scholarships.”
“Once the universities were shortlisted, airmails would be sent out for prospectuses and depending on the reliability of airmails, some would be lucky to hear back from the institutions,” he recalls.
Gatekeepers and gurus
Solomonova shares a memory that perfectly highlights the guru-status that experienced education agencies had in those days: “After one trip, I managed to bring two suitcases of maybe 50 university brochures [back to Russia] and it was extremely valuable material!” she says.
Insight-Lingua offices in Russia started operations when overseas travel was a rarity
“The fact that I had this information in my office was a great value. It is hard to imagine now, but people would come to our agency [to consult the brochures], we couldn’t go to the internet to check which courses were available.”
Sometimes, an agency business would be established by enterprising local business people, such as Hauer Santos and Solomonova, leveraging their global access for the benefit of locals. And in other cases, an agency came from a business idea conceived by an expat.
This is the case for Brit, Rich Smith, who founded UKEAS in 1993 in Taiwan, where he was teaching English at the time along with his brother John. “We had been teaching English, and we had friends here, and people were starting to ask about the UK and ‘how do I study there?’,” he explains.
“I found out actually there was this industry where you could send students and get paid commission so that’s how we kind of fell in to that.”
Students still value the services of an education agency, but now not only because they are the gatekeepers of knowledge
Fee-free in Asia
The central piece of advice which has remained a cornerstone of the UKEAS service was to offer a free counselling service to students in Taiwan at a time when charging fees was the norm.
And that is how UKEAS first started its counselling service, with the Smith brothers benefiting from the language skills of their Chinese wives and setting up out of John’s bedroom in Taichung and Rich’s hostel business in Taipei.
“My apartment was actually a hostel which I ran for foreigners, and I’d hustle a student straight into my bedroom which had a bed settee and a desk so it didn’t look quite like a bedroom during the day,” Rich recounts. “I would try and do the counselling in the evening when my wife was there.”
From these early days, UKEAS has emerged with muscles. The agency operates in 10 countries, across 34 offices, and sends between 4,000 and 5,000 students overseas to study at language schools, high schools and at universities. Its Nigeria office was shortlisted from a wide range of entrants to be considered The PIEoneer education agency of the year in 2017.
Onshore offices and exhibitions – seeds to expansion
Many education agencies attest to experiencing real growth in the number of student clients, as growing ranks of young people, a decrease in the cost of air travel, and a rising expectation among the middle classes to be able to have some sort of seminal study experience overseas combined to build a boom.
“Our growth was [in part] driven through the high economic and young population growth in Turkey between 2002 and 2012,” relates Mesud Yilmaz, who became a co-owner and managing director of ATLAS Overseas Education Consultancy in Turkey in 2004, having joined the company in 1999 as a counsellor assistant.
“Our growth was [in part] driven by high economic and young population growth in Turkey”
The other reason for growth at his company, says Yilmaz, is attributed to two decisions.
First: to open offshore offices in nearby student source markets and onshore markets such as in London, UK, “to offer after-sales service and offer onshore recruitment”.
“The second [approach] was driven through our sister company a2 organising student recruitment events,” explains Yilmaz.
In Taiwan, Smith also recalls that their decision to go full time on their UKEAS business was taken when they gave themselves six months to organise an exhibition in Taichung, to dovetail with an event run by the British Council in Taipei.
“We managed to get 32 institutions (a mixture of high schools, language schools and quite a few universities) to come along to Taichung for two days following on from the British Council exhibition, and that was a massive success,” says Smith. “Quite a few of the universities that came along to the exhibition we didn’t yet have contracts with, but after the exhibition they gave us contracts.”
The first issue of Ryugaku Journal in 1983
Meanwhile, an early pioneer of the agency industry in Japan, Ryugaku Journal, attributes its business ascendency to its publication of a guidebook, literally translated as “Let’s Learn English Abroad”, in 1981, which soon after became the Ryugaku (which means study abroad) Journal in 1983.
Miki Harada, marketing manager, explains, “When the idea of selling it was proposed, the magazine was put on the shelves in bookstores. As the number of bookstores holding our magazine started to increase, business boomed exponentially and the rest is history.”
As the industry evolved, so did the number of agency brands that began to cross borders. One of the largest examples of a global agency, IDP Education, steadily built its international office network up from a startup office in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1981 to nine offices by 1996, when many of the agencies in other countries were in early infancy.
Unlike other agencies being founded by entrepreneurs, IDP – an agency giant – was originally established as Australian Asian Universities Cooperation Scheme (AAUCS) to deliver development assistance to Australian universities only, which were seeking to engage in southeast Asia.
CEO, Andrew Barkla, explains, “In the mid-80s, the Australian government changed its policy to allow Australian universities to enrol international students on a fee-paying basis rather than just scholarships. At this point, IDP shifted direction to student placement.”
IDP now advises on study options globally, has a network of 93 offices and is also one of the co-owners of the IELTS English language placement test. At the end of 2015, the company listed on the Australian stock exchange. Speaking in 2016, Barkla said the ASX listing meant easier access to capital markets, to help fund further company development.
AIRC’s US revolution and accreditation momentum
The establishment of the American International Recruitment Council in 2008 was a bellwether for the increasing recognition of the work of agencies, in the US, at least.
While agencies had been integral to the recruitment strategies of language schools, high schools and universities in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and elsewhere for many years, the US as an education destination has grappled with the “ethics” of paying a per-head commission to recruiters, particularly for tertiary enrolments.
NACAC established a commission in 2011 to deliberate and deliver its official stance on whether it would allow members to pay commissions when recruiting internationally. The practice was not permitted for domestic student recruitment, but it did permit the practice in 2013.
AIRC was set up prior to the US’s “agent debate”, establishing a robust certification process for agencies to go through before becoming members, in a bid to offer assurances to US education partners. As AIRC states on its website, it is “the only provider of independent certification of recruitment agencies based on a rigorous accreditation model”.
Meanwhile, other agency training schemes emerged in the mid 2000s. Offered by PIER in Australia, ICEF and the British Council, they enjoyed popularity with education agents keen to seek professional certification and boast an endorsement of their knowledge.
Global linkups and franchising
As well as certification and recognition schemes, continued agency expansion and development was achieved via strategic partnerships and franchising agreements.
Information Planet, which now operates in 50 offices around the globe, became the major player that it is today when Josef Kysilka, who founded a company in central Europe with an onshore office in Sydney in 1996, joined forces with Mauricio Pucci, who was serving onshore Brazilians in Sydney with his company, Information Brazil.
Information Planet used technology to help build its services and infrastructure, offering seamless consultation from Sao Paulo to Sydney
They consolidated their businesses under the Australian Education Centre brand in 2004: “Our partnership helped the company to consolidate its business in Australia and overseas,” says Kysilka.
A period of expansion followed and a rebrand in 2008 to become Information Planet. “The new corporate image together with strong marketing strategies led Information Planet to an expansion of products and franchises,” explains Kysilka.
Victor Hugo Bassegio, co-founder of CI in Brazil, which was established in 1989, agrees that franchising helped CI expand to its position of having 100 stores in Brazil today.
“We were the first company in our niche market to openly promote the expansion through this model,” he says. “This growing strategy is wise as part of the capital used also comes from the franchisees themselves.”
iae Edu Net Korea in South Korea also relied on franchising to achieve global growth after building its business in the competitive Korean education counselling market.
OJ Kim, founder and owner, set up in Seoul in 1992 and has since achieved significant scale, building up a business of 70 offices in 14 countries, which placed students on 18,500 courses in 2016.
The company used joint venture “country partner” franchise agreements when it launched iae Global in 2006 and set about a new phase of expansion, after initially opening in student destination markets such as Australia, the US and UK.
Mark Lucas, director of global administration & business development at the iae Global Network, based in Australia, explains, “We now are more focused on wholly owned offices unless there is an issue [regarding] licensing of overseas companies like in Vietnam.”
Technology and partnership
In Korea, Kim also attributes his success to his adoption of technology as central to his agency’s operations.
“iae has invested many millions of dollars creating a bespoke CRM system for our counsellors,” explains Lucas. “It has thousands of marketing and sales ideas continuously being adapted by our marketing team from the ongoing input and feedback from the counselling staff using it.”
Lucas hits upon two very modern themes mentioned by a number of the veteran agency businesses that we spoke with: technology and partnership. It is technology that has enabled counselling businesses to grow and build cohesive businesses across borders, and partnership with education providers that ensures an agency’s longevity and relevance in the information age.
The agency industry has perhaps surprisingly grown alongside increased access to free and credible information. The internet changed everything and nothing: students still value the services of an education agency, but now not only because they are the gatekeepers of knowledge.
What does the future hold?
An agency’s defence in a commoditised market is innovation. In Russia, Solomonova explains that strong partnerships have also enabled Insight-Lingua to customise programs, to be able to offer products that resonate with the Russian market.
“For example we have very special relations with the University of West London,” she says. “For a number of years we have been running a program where we bring a group of younger students to London and they attend art and design courses in the university, not English language.”
In Brazil, both Hauer Santos and Baseggio also point to their role developing new products that suit the Brazilian market, both with existing partners and sometimes by finding new products to add to a portfolio.
But in India, it is a decision by institutions to “go direct” that presents a threat, comments Naveen Chopra of The Chopras agency.
This includes universities forming partnerships with local schools in India, which previously might have asked agency staff to deliver a career counselling seminar and refer students to the agency for impartial advice on future education plans.
“Generally, universities are open to ‘agents’ both as insurance of recruitment in addition to strong efforts to directly recruit,” says Chopra. But he warns that “agents are seen more as a cost on the balance sheet rather than a contributor; ‘why are we paying commissions, why are we not recruiting direct?’ is a conversation common among the financial and senior corridors of universities.”
The work of associations such as AIRC, national agency associations and the professionalisation driven by agencies themselves in innovating and offering their clients a broad, relevant range of services – and pursuing partnerships instead of business transactions – is protection against these doubts.
Education agencies also continue to evolve, like British Summer in Spain. President Ignacio Mas de Xaxas says the company has sent clients to learn English in India and set up its own summer camps in Spain.
“We develop according to our customers’ needs,” agrees Solomonova. “Now we have contracts with four language schools in the Philippines. Our function is to help the client to understand their needs properly and to find the product to perfectly fit their needs.”
• This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in The PIE Review.