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Gabriela Ardito, President, ARSAA, Argentina

Gabriela Ardito, president of ARSAA and founder and CEO of VCE International, first left Argentina with a group of students to study in the UK in the early 90s. She spoke to The PIE News about working as an educational agent for 25 years, why she set up an Argentine agent association and the state of the Argentinian market.

The PIE: How long have you worked in international education?

I am also a teacher at the Faculty of History, Geography and Tourism... It’s a good combination because my students can get a lot, because I have travelled a lot and I teach them English

Gabriela Ardito: I started back in 1993. I used to have a small language school in Buenos Aires and suddenly I decided I needed to come to the UK because I think, as a teacher of English, coming to the UK is a dream you must fulfil. I had a conversation with the parents of my students, and said I’m travelling to the UK for the first time. I have no experience at all, I’ve never been to Europe before, but if you want I can take your kids with me and we will have an experience abroad.

I was 21 and my students were 18, we were like friends. I was guiding them through the streets of Amsterdam and I didn’t know where I was. It was so much fun.

That was my first trip to the UK, 25 years ago. I brought four students, we spent a full month in Wimbledon School of English and then I took them on a tour of Europe. Two years later, I organised another trip and that’s how I started getting more and more students – word of mouth, someone’s cousin, someone’s brother, sister-in-law. So my groups got bigger. Now my groups are 60, 70 – I’ve got 75 right now.

The PIE: You also work in China?

GA: I send individual students, but I wouldn’t organise group trips there. Many people started to learn Mandarin, but there still isn’t a market for that [in Argentina].

The PIE: So what is the market like for English learners?

“It was pretty difficult. Sometimes I had to bring my students with their fees in their pockets”

GA: It’s very good. In Argentina, people prefer British English to American English. That’s why I come three times a year here, and only once to the US. It’s pretty good, it’s going up. Especially as English has become compulsory in schools. Now all kids have a knowledge of English.

The PIE: Has it become more difficult to sell courses?

GA: No, on the contrary. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but I’d say that there is more interest. Parents see this as an investment for the future. They are ready to pay for it.

The PIE: Do you offer longer trips or exchanges?

GA: High school is a product which is not very popular in Argentina yet because school owners see it as a drawback. If I take a student away from them for six months, they are losing money. If a student comes to the UK to study, they will not pay fees at home. Although the government establishes that when a student does a course abroad, the local school has to recognise credit for that, school owners will always try to dissuade parents from sending their kids abroad.

This is one of the reasons why I created ARSAA – the Argentine Association of Language Consultants. If we get together, and if we have something interesting to take to the ministry of education, they will understand the importance of a study abroad experience for all kids.

The PIE: Could you tell me a bit more about ARSAA?

“There is a rise in the junior market as well. Many school owners are willing to maybe stop lessons for two weeks”

GA: The founders of the association, myself, and two more agencies – Coined from Cordoba and Interway Consultancy based in Buenos Aires. All three of us started thinking about this idea, I participated in FELCA, in 2014/15 and 2016 and then once we became part of that federation, more agencies in Argentina started showing interest.

We set up a membership fee and set up conditions. We want to set up a kind of quality standard. In order to become a member, we need references from schools in the UK, but also from local people who have already used the services of that agency. If you’re an agent in Argentina you need to provide the names of three schools in Argentina you are working with.

2017 was very important because ICEF asked us to be part of a presentation in ICEF Berlin. As a result, we became more prominent in the market and now we are already eight agencies in the association, which is quite a lot. There aren’t many agencies in Argentina. We have a lot of support from ICEF because they offer training courses free of charge for ARSAA members.

I am also an IALC member, an English UK member, Quality English member.

The PIE: How do those other associations help you?

GA: They help me quite a lot. When someone starts looking for a course abroad, the more accreditations you have, it’s like you have more credibility. You go to their website and you can see my agency and you cannot see others. So definitely that attracts the attention of people.

The PIE: Do the other members also focus on British English?

GA: British English, American English, I think there is an agency that focuses on New Zealand, that is Network, one of our partners. We work with Ireland. I am trying to set up a new program in South Africa. I’m travelling there in March.

I am also interested in a program in New Zealand because in Argentina we are good at rugby. I have some schools which have rugby teams and they would like to have a program combining rugby training sessions with English.

The PIE: In 2011, we reported there were difficulties with foreign exchange laws. Is that still an issue?

GA: Fortunately, there was a change in government. We had the same government for 12 years and there was a slump – nobody could exchange money, nobody could send money abroad. It was pretty difficult. Sometimes I had to bring my students with their fees in their pockets. They paid upon arrival. There was no way you could get any foreign currency. If you paid credit card, they charged a tax of 35%, which made it almost impossible.

I arranged with all my partner schools that we would all pay upon arrival and that’s how I could keep coming.

[The exchange laws] stopped on December 15, 2015. I remember exactly when it was – it was one of the happiest days of my life.

The PIE: Is English the most desired language?

GA: Definitely. We speak Spanish, but our most important second language is English, then Portuguese.

“Many people started to learn Mandarin, but there still isn’t a market in that”

The PIE: How many students are learning English with you now?

GA: In 2015, I brought 120 students during the whole year and then 240 more or less. You also get more individual students who are willing to take a month off work to come here and study. That has been a huge change.

There is a rise in the junior market as well. Many school owners are willing to maybe stop lessons for two weeks, in order to send a group here and that didn’t happen before.

The PIE: Are all your students from private schools?

GA: Yes most. State education in Argentina is just for the poor. Middle-class people send their kids to private schools.

The PIE: How many schools would you say you work with?

GA: At the moment, I work with 16 schools. Right now, in the Wimbledon School of English I have people from Corrientes, which is in the north. I’ve got people from Neuquén which is Patagonia. I’ve got people from Bahia Blanca. So it’s not just Buenos Aires. I work all over the country, I travel quite a lot.

I am also a teacher at the Faculty of History, Geography and Tourism [at university]. I worked for 13 years in the modern languages department teaching phonetics and English language. It’s a good combination because my students who are interested in tourism and geography can get a lot from me because I have travelled a lot and I teach them English.

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