BG: EIC was founded more than 20 years ago in China – I think it is one of the earliest pioneers in terms of starting to provide Chinese students with study abroad advice. Later on, we migrated into test preparation and study tools and nowadays, we have an academy which is an academic English provider. So in the past few years, we have been trying to adapt ourselves to changes in the market.
The Chinese education system is going to take a longer time to reform itself; parents are still looking into international education opportunities for their kids and the trend is now not only for college students but also for younger kids.
“Now we see ourselves as not just an agent but also an educational provider”
We don’t call ourselves agents anymore because usually ‘agent’ means you are just a bridge and an information provider. Now we see ourselves as not just an agent but also an educational provider. This means we have to provide more systematic and value creation and content and services to our students.
The PIE: How has the trend of counselling to younger students evolved?
BG: In the past, our students came to us when they were approaching their senior year. We called them ‘early birds’ coming in one year in advance, but nowadays the early birds could be three years in advance. A seventh grader’s mum will come to us to ask for an application service for the kids for college – not for boarding school, but for college.
They are really thinking about it, they know it is going to take a few years to kick off the application process but they are savvy. They understand it is not that easy, actually one year in advance nowadays is way too late and you really have to be prepared way more in advance.
The PIE: Why do you think parents want to send their students overseas at younger ages?
BG: I think the goal is actually more for the enhancement of the student as a human being, which is why we are trying to provide short-term ‘value-add’ programmes like life coaching and public speaking, debate and also critical thinking and writing.
Usually the project-based learning is more effective for younger kids, so we provide different kinds of competitions – the international space design competition is one of them.
We are also doing test preparation, but test preparation is different from language study, so that is why we are working on starting a department of academic English and courses to teach how to really navigate yourself through a real setting in an English classroom in a university.
“I think the goal of sending students overseas at younger ages is actually more for the enhancement of the student as a human being”
The PIE: How many students do you send abroad a year?
BG: Every year more than 40,000. I think study abroad is really a personalised case for each individual, you cannot really do it on a massive scale. So although it sounds like we have thousands of employees, we send so many students abroad each year, if you look at each individual case, they are all unique.
The PIE: Are there any emerging destinations that Chinese students are interested in?
BG: Our Chinese students are interested in going to all the developed countries. Thailand and Russia are becoming popular, particularly for some provinces. Going to study in the UK, US and Australia, are the top three most expensive destinations, followed by Canada and then Hong Kong, Japan and Korea and then some European countries as well.
The PIE: There has also been an influx of international schools in China. What trends are you seeing in this space?
BG: They are not necessarily coming in, but sometimes the local private schools can set up their own international division. If a Chinese provider wants to set up an international school as its own standalone entity, sometimes more for marketing purposes, it had better have an international partner, usually some top notch or well-known high school in the UK or the US.
The current international divisions are in their early stages, though. They are recruiting the first batch of students usually around 9th-10th grade. So in two to three years you are going to see them graduate and then comes the final judgement, right? To see if those schools are really operating well and can attract more students. I think right now it is just market demand, and so many Chinese parents are willing to spend the money and send their children to international schools or international divisions, which is nurturing this new phenomenon. Whether all the players are going to survive in the end, we will have to see.
“Whether all the international high school players are going to survive in the end, we will have to see”
The PIE: Employability is obviously a hot topic in international education. How are you helping Chinese students to focus on their career skills as well as their academics?
BG: Maybe 5-10 years ago, parents were more concerned about acceptance rates, but now because the competition is so fierce, so many people are studying abroad, so employability is becoming a question frequently asked by parents. It is not like, “Oh you graduated from UCLA, that is amazing.” Tons of people have graduated from UCLA and are coming back to China. It is not just about your academic background anymore, so doing an internship in college, prior to application, prior to departure, has become a must if you are aiming to get a full-time job after graduation.
Not all the players are aware of this, there are so many trends in this market that people can focus their efforts on, I think it is not necessary that everyone has to really focus on career development for the students, but we do.
The career offices in many universities I think function well in a traditional sense, but I think they are going to face a lot of challenges in the future if they keep just bringing the companies on campus – that is not going to be enough. And since the university is only putting a handful of staff in the career office, they are not going to put that much emphasis and focus on each individual student.
We can be more specific because we have all the experience in terms of one-on-one coaching and more tailor-made coaching for the students. I see that as a very important strategic move for us in the future: tying study abroad to career development.
The PIE: Has anything changed within EIC since the company was acquired from its previous investors, CVC?
BG: Actually, our company has been owned by a private equity firm over the past five years. Private equity firms, every time they exchange hands, the value of the company gets higher and higher. That means they see our company in very healthy financial condition. A lot of Chinese private companies are still owned by the founding families, but not EIC. We have no member of the founding family currently working as an employee or manager for the company – the founder is the chairman.
“Career offices in many universities are going to face a lot of challenges in the future if they keep just bringing the companies on campus”
The PIE: How do you see the agency market in China changing over the next few years?
BG: This is a question we keep asking ourselves. I think the education business is essentially a service business; to be honest I even think the high school and university businesses are. As an education company, you really have to understand what are the demands of our customers, what do they need? We also have to remember not to be too fascinated by those new kinds of trends, for example, online education.
Technology is there to try to help facilitate the student experience, but are we going to completely migrate into it? I think it is still going to take a long time. I think in the future, the ones who are going to be very successful are the ones who have all the big data. The big data can show you all the success cases and success patterns of past students, which can indicate the trends of the market.
But kids still want to meet the teachers face-to-face most of the time. More than 40% of our students are receiving their test preparation class online, but it is live using our own online video classroom facility. Still it is face-to-face, it is just using the online platform to make the accessibility more flexible.
In China we haven’t seen the consolidation of agency businesses, you still see a lot of big players and small players, the phenomenon of one player dominance has not happened yet. But we usually see this in many other sectors when the competition becomes fierce, one day it boils down to only a few players. I think that will eventually happen in the agency industry as well. And we are aiming to be the one of the few big ones who have our own unique positioning and products.