With paperwork, airport transfers and a new place to live, international students will require a helping hand, especially children embarking on high school study abroad.
And this is where guardianship services fit in: “We’re basically like the oil in the cogs,” explains Ailie Fan, operations director at UK guardianship provider and placement organisation, Study Links.
“The student’s in the centre and then you’ve got four prongs off of that: the parents, the agents, the school and the homestay [host family],” she says. “They’re all helping the student in a different way but we’re there to make sure all of the parties are all working together.”
Guardianship providers worldwide offer a variety of packages in order to ease the student into their new environment and settle in. These will contain levels of guidance and advice depending on a student’s needs and include organising accommodation during holidays or exeats, which are weekends spent away from school.
Collin Mercer, director, guardianship services at First Choice International Placement in Canada, explains that he becomes the named custodial guardian for the students enrolled and using his services in Canada.
“I think the further away you go, the more important it becomes”
“Then we employ individuals, who we call student monitors, who are assigned to each school, college or university where students attend,” elaborates Mercer.
As well as providing a designated adult who is legally responsible for an international student charge, guardians are typically the first point of call when a student, and more importantly their parents, plan a child’s overseas education.
“Right from before they arrive: we’re giving advice on travel and how they’re going to get to the school, the term dates and when we’re going to help students with short-term accommodation,” explains Lana Foster, managing director of Bright World Guardianships.
Julia Evans, director of guardian services at Cambridge Guardian Angels in the UK, adds, “The first face a student will meet when they turn up at an airport is one of our drivers that works for us and will be trained to meet and greet an unaccompanied minor.”
One assurance that guardians provide is a point of contact in cases of emergency cases or unforeseen circumstances. “That’s part of our responsibility as the guardian to be there at short notice in an emergency,” details Foster in the UK, who says they are available when travel plans go awry or “if the student has to leave school”, for example.
Will Hume, marketing director at White House Guardianships, describes the time Kiev airport closed due to snow, and the flights were cancelled. “Quite quickly we had to rally resources and find host families around London for all those kids,” he says.
“Quite quickly we had to rally resources and find host families around London”
“When [a student] is suspended from school they can’t stay in the boarding house,” explains Irene Lee, director of UK-based James-Lee Consultancy. “The guardian needs to be prepared to chase up a host family or host them to make sure they’re somewhere safe while they’re away from school.”
So how do parents choose guardianship providers? Hume, says he visits Hong Kong regularly to give presentations about guardianship services, and outlines that in many cases, parents of international students are most concerned about their children staying with a host family.
“They can’t visit the host family, they can’t screen them, they’re putting a lot of trust in [us],” he says. “So that’s when we try to work together with them and say, ‘what type of host family are you looking for?’”
Another way parents find a guardianship provider is of course by liaising directly with a chosen school, which will be able to give advice on various guardianship (or custodian, if in Canada) providers.
Caroline Nixon, general secretary at the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students (BAISIS), emphasises how important it is for schools to work with a range of guardianship organisations. “The role of the guardian is to support the child and the family, if necessary, against the school,” she says. “So it would be absolutely wrong for a school to say ‘we work with this guardianship agency and you need to use them’ because you can see that there is a conflict of interests.”
Anfisa Bashkirova, director of UK-based Carfax Guardians, which also provides services in the US and Switzerland, explains the distance the student travels from their home country makes a difference in how they use guardianship services.
“It makes it then more important to make sure there is somebody there on the ground who can be there next to the child, giving them advice, reassuring them, so I think the further away you go, the more important it becomes,” she says.
Mainland China, Southeast Asia and the Russian speaking market are where there is a dominance in demand for this service. “The diversity is huge and goes from Peru and Colombia right across to the US and Australia,” points out Evans. “But with a huge dominance of Southeast Asia and the Russian states.”
“Our oldest ever in guardianship was about 40-something,” recounts Fan at Study Links. “It was someone who wanted to go to university and he simply didn’t know anyone in the UK at all.”
Although in the UK, it is not enshrined in law that international students studying in educational institutions need a guardian, many schools are now requiring it, or taking steps towards this.
“They see it as an opportunity to increase their fees without… actual delivery of support services for these students”
However, Nixon expresses her concern about the lack of legal regulations surrounding this practice. “At the moment not only is it not a legal requirement for a child to have a guardian,” she says. “There are no laid down regulations about what a guardian should be or who a guardian should be.”
It is clear that in most markets, there is a lack of cohesion among guardianship providers to accredit or vaunt the quality of the services provided in this most critical area of support, with little government input to mandate it either.
“Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of companies add custodianship as a service item on their fee schedule,” says Mercer in Canada. “But they don’t have representatives visiting the schools, assigned homestay families, etc. They see it as an opportunity to increase their fees without… actual delivery of support services for these students.”
Bashkirova underlines it is important students and guardians establish relationships of trust, so the students can go to them with any problems they may have while abroad. “It’s very important that this third party is completely neutral,” she says.
Ivan Mckinney, managing director of ISA Guardian and Welfare Services in Australia, agrees. “You can’t have a homestay company and my homestay host doubles up as the role of the guardian. Who do the students complain to?”
• A longer version of this article first appeared in The PIE Review.