The PIE: You studied in Australia, and you now work for the British Council. How did you get into the sector?
Jazreel Goh: In the 1980s when I was a young student, we didn’t have the internet or any of these things to inform our choices. So, i’m very grateful for that period of time I spent overseas growing up. Even with Covid-19, I sincerely believe if there an opportunity for a young person to spend a period of time overseas, they should.
“Being an ethnic Chinese immigrant in Malaysia, the British Council position in China came at the right time”
When I came back [from Australia], I decided I really want to work in the international education industry and also to continue my ‘travel’ working in different countries.
Being an ethnic Chinese immigrant in Malaysia, the British Council position in China came at the right time – being based in China, getting reacquainted with my ‘roots’ as a Chinese, and at the same time, working for an organisation with values that I truly believe in. I have now been in the industry for over 30 years and continue to be inspired daily by the commitment and motivations that colleagues put into engaging in international education.
The PIE: Some UK visa centres are opening up in China. What does that mean for the UK sector?
JG: Certainly from the student and the education perspective, it is fantastic to see that things are starting up; slowly but surely. Having visa services open and making it possible to be able to apply [for visas], that’s definitely a good thing.
The Ministry of Education has yet to sanction IELTS in China. Many exams have not been allowed to run; so that was something which we all had to workaround. At the moment the June IELTS are cancelled, but we are working very closely with the Chinese government to look at workable solutions to ensure students’ plans to study overseas are not delayed unnecessarily. We will continue providing preparation resources and will endeavour to meet the needs of all test takers impacted by the ongoing cancellation of tests in the best possible ways.
The PIE: What are the top priorities for the UK sector?
JG: The key priority is ensuring student health and well-being for all students, and also ensuring students can all continue to study in a safe environment and receive full support. I think these are the priorities for the UK sector. Students in final year classes [must also be] able to graduate successfully.
“We didn’t have a tally of how many [Chinese] students actually decided to stay in the UK or come back”
The forthcoming priority is focusing on converting applications for the September 2020 intake and helping students to understand the application process and requirements. With that, of course, comes the challenge of English language testing and visa application issues. On that note, it’s good to see that visa application centres are now opened.
The PIE: Have many Chinese students returned home during the crisis?
JG: We didn’t have a tally of how many students actually decided to stay in the UK or come back. I think quite a number decided to return home to be closer to family. The key thing was to ensure that there was equitable access to resources and support through online learning as well.
The transition from face-to-face tuition to online has been pretty smooth. Students were very understanding and accepting of the fact that this situation is beyond our control. A lot of them acknowledged that it is not easy to move everything online, but they didn’t consider themselves victims. Rather, I think they were seeing that it was an opportunity to demonstrate that they are resilient, and that [opportunities exist] to demonstrate to employers they can adapt and be flexible.
The PIE: Do Chinese students and families think some countries are safer destinations, based on the way governments have handled this crisis?
JG: I think the Chinese students felt that there were things that they were doing – such as wearing masks – that wasn’t readily acceptable in Western countries. It’s not just in the UK but also other western countries as well.
At the start of the pandemic, there was a perception that in East Asia, governments were probably managing it better than Western countries. Those were initial noises that we heard on social media.
But gradually, we found such concerns have actually gone down. In fact, we saw a lot of UK universities demonstrate good examples of how they are taking care of students still on campus, and how they are managing and prioritising student health and well-being, communicating promptly with students and supporting agents and student queries promptly.
Based on our latest survey, the majority of students are still keen to continue or commence their studies in the UK.
The PIE: What advice would you give language schools providers who teach Chinese students?
JG: We work with members of English UK, who mostly recruit for summer school programs. A lot of Chinese students spend summer, or two to three weeks, in the UK to build their language skills. This year, unfortunately, with Covid-19 this will be the most hard-hit sector, I would say.
Firstly, I think the sectors have to [continue] working closely together because we are interdependent of each other. This is not just about higher education. A lot of the work that the language sector does – taking in younger students on UK summer programs – is really fundamental in building interest in the UK. Language schools are a pipeline for higher education.
Working under the Study UK brand and having a shared commitment and understanding of what the UK stands for, what our unique selling proposition is, and how we leverage opportunities and but address the challenges and changes of Covid-19 jointly – that’s really important for the long term sustainability of the international education industry.
“We saw a lot of UK universities demonstrate good examples of how they are taking care of students still on campus”
The PIE: And in the short term?
JG: In the short term, it may be important to look at more collaboration between smaller language institutions; and to look at how we rebuild and regain the confidence of the market. It will be slower for the summer school sector because it’s two or three weeks of travel for younger kids. Parents will take longer to regain confidence that it is going to be safe for their kids to travel.
Engaging with students digitally to rebuild interest in UK study tours and not forgetting local agent [partners]. Keeping them in the loop on course development, new routes/plans for next summer and to demonstrate that there is much more that the UK can offer [is important].
The PIE: Some have proposed that transnational education is going to be a way forward post Covid-19, how much of an option is that?
JG: Running TNE programs is a big commitment and resource-intensive if done well. It’s not something that can be set up overnight.
Covid-19 may be a catalyst for looking at TNE delivery but I don’t necessarily think that it should be the reason to set up TNE. It will probably trigger more thinking about blended learning and more efficient uses of technology. But I don’t think it will mean suddenly a big switch from on-campus to TNE.
The pandemic provides an opportunity to reframe it in a useful and productive way, consider its key principles, what it means to have international experience and the possibility of a blend of on-campus, TNE and virtual experiences.
It is also an opportunity perhaps for a shift from destination-focused programs to discipline focused where students will be able to take classes from other branches of the university in other countries in ‘multi-campus’ through a blend of virtual and face-to-face experience.
The PIE: How can the UK sector look at current tensions between the Chinese and the US or Australian governments?
JG: We definitely saw, at least last year, more interest in going to the UK. No doubt some of it was spillover from students who were planning to go to the US. In the long term, this US-China trade war and immigration issues may benefit other countries, including the UK.
But what we in the UK want to focus on is how we work as one sector to continue to maintain our unique offer and ensure that we don’t compromise our quality. We are very sure of what our value proposition in the UK is and what an experience in the UK is all about.
The PIE: How is the Belt and Road initiative affecting student interest in countries that China is closely doing business with?
JG: I definitely think that the Belt and Road initiative has built a profile for China. China has the ambition to be an international education provider, and they have a lot of students from Belt and Road countries coming to study.
“I think agents are having to reinvent themselves in order to survive”
Every country has its own attractiveness and has its own way of attracting groups of international students. There is competition, but it is also focusing on the fact that education should be a global offer. Ultimately it is the student’s choice where they want to go.
The PIE: In China how influential can agents be on prospective students?
JG: There are a lot of agencies in China. Really big ones may manage up to a few thousand students a year. Others are quite boutique. The difference is the services they offer, and I think that the agency industry is also changing quite a lot. Students are very sophisticated now. Information about universities is out there on the web.
The use of agencies is perhaps for very specific services – parents wanting to have assurance from agents about applications, accommodation, and the visa process. Just clarifying the process face-to-face with an agency is helpful. In China, about 60% of students use agents and the rest go direct.
It is very competitive, and I think agents are having to reinvent themselves in order to survive.