British Council recently announced that it will sell its IELTS business in India to IDP for £130m on a debt free and cash free basis.
“The news of IDP taking over British Council IELTS operations has raised multiple questions”
British Council and IDP were both previously partners in the business: IELTS is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. Following the sale, all IELTS tests in India will be delivered by IDP.
However, education agents in India have raised concerns saying that the acquisition of IELTS in India by IDP is potentially anti-competitive. IDP in turn has said that they do not share candidate data between IELTS and IDP’s student placement teams.
“The news of IDP taking over British Council IELTS operations has raised multiple questions, which if not resolved would lead to confusion in the market and probably arbitration before the Competition Commission of India,” Govindachari Balaji, general secretary of AAERI, told The PIE News.
“The common fear [among agents] is that students who register for the IELTS at IDP will be approached by the counsellors at IDP for admission,” said Sushil Sukhwani, founding director and owner of Edwise.
“This is OK if the student has permitted sharing of his/her personal information for services other than for the exam. However agents would be extremely uncomfortable with this as there is a possibility that they would lose the students to IDP.”
High Commission authorities in the country insist mainly on IELTS, he continued, meaning students from India have limited options other than IELTS.
“Agencies need to share this business related information with our university partners and connections in the High Commissions. It is important that they understand the implications of the new acquisition,” he added.
Sonya Singh MD of SIEC Pty Ltd told The PIE that there is a “very clear conflict of interest” given that IELTS is the gateway to admissions and visas.
“IDP Education being a private international student recruitment agency, publicly listed, working for shareholder profits could influence the international student market unfairly through this acquisition,” she said.
Singh explained she also had concerns about how IDP will collect test takers’ data.
“All IELTS tests are held at IDP controlled centres and every student that registers for the test will be on the IDP database,” she suggested.
“Data being king in today’s business world, this will leave the other competing agencies out in the cold, insecure about their students and their future business. The question that the entire industry needs to ask is whether it is fair for a student recruitment agency to control the test that in turn controls the student outcomes.
“Tests need to have a clear and separate sanctity of their own and not be a part of a commercial enterprise that benefits directly from their outcomes,” she added.
“We do not share candidate data between IELTS and IDP’s student placement teams”
On this point around data an IDP IELTS spokesperson said the organisation has “a proven track record of the highest data privacy standards”.
“As student placement agents in India who already send students to IDP IELTS centres are well aware, we do not share candidate data between IELTS and IDP’s student placement teams,” they told The PIE.
“We have strictly enforced firewalls in place between student placement and IELTS data.”
Ravi Lochan Singh, speaking in his capacity as MD of education agency Global Reach, told The PIE that it was not the first time that AAERI had considered filing a complaint against IDP with the CCI.
“In 2010, AAERI had filed a complaint with the CCI. The complaint was pertaining to a then decision of IDP’s to franchise out IELTS centres across India to third parties who would also have the franchise of their education business,” he explained.
The ruling was that the concern didn’t stand. “And IDP’s decision to franchise was not deemed “anti-competition” as it was a commercial enterprise and within its right to do so,” he said.
“The ruling says, “The candidates can choose any one of the test centres from British Council and the IELTS: IDP. There seems no agreement between the agents controlling the services for any anti-competitive behaviour,” he continued.
“So now I wonder as to how CCI would rule, if approached, now that the candidates don’t have an option to choose between IDP and British Council and with the fact that all students have to walk into an IDP setup to take the test,” he said.
“More clarity is required on the above as all other agents in India would be hesitant to promote IELTS”
Balaji said that AAERI is keen on resolving the issue through dialogue and a “clear stand from IDP” on a number of questions would bring more clarity to all the agents operating in India.
These questions include whether IDP would continue to hold the current status in the market and promote IELTS under both British Council and IDP banners or only under the banner of IDP.
Another question relates to how IDP will ensure clear demarcation of their role as IELTS examiner and also an agent promoting international education.
More clarity is required as other agents in India “would be hesitant to promote IELTS”, Balaji continued.
“Unless a clear picture emerges in the immediate future, this could lead to education agents… pursuing legal remedy under MRTP Act 1969 and CCI. This they may do independently or through any of the many associations that exist.
“If this happens, AAERI may have to collaborate too as the reference to the earlier 2008-2010 AAERI vs IDP case with CCI and also the undertakings given to agents by IDP will have to be referred to,” he added.
Lochan Singh explained that at the time of the CCI action, IDP communicated to AAERI that an adequate firewall would be structured between recruitment and English testing activities and it would not pursue the franchise approach and AAERI did not challenge the CCI decision.
Responding to agents’ concerns around the sale, an IDP IELTS spokesperson said that IDP has worked successfully with competitor student placement agents in India for more than 20 years.
“It is worth noting that IELTS is solely distributed by either British Council or IDP in more than 70 of the 140 countries where it is offered, including in China, one of the world’s largest international education markets,” they said.
“This is a model that works in many countries around the world, and there is no difference in India. India remains an extremely competitive market in English language testing and student placement.
“IDP has always been, and will continue to be, driven by a goal to deliver exceptional services for our customers,” the spokesperson added.