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Jorge Alberto Otero, Study Union Bogota

This year Jorge Alberto Otero became a founding member of REAL, a Latin American association of study abroad agencies. Based in Bogota, Colombia, where he heads Study Union Bogota, Otero chats with The PIE News about agency activity in Latin America and what those interested in breaking into this student market should know.


Study UnionJorge Alberto Otero is a founding member of REAL. Photo: Study Union

"REAL currently has seven members"

The PIE: Hello Jorge. Let’s start off talking a bit about REAL, Registered Education Agencies Latinoamerica, which was set up earlier in July. How have things been going?

Jorge Alberto Otero: We are on fast-track growth. In terms of members, we have incorporated two new agencies from Argentina and Mexico and we are now seven members. Every day we are consolidating more as an important and leading group of study abroad agencies in Latin America.

We have participated together in seminars, have been panelists at several international events, have reached joint agreements with several international educational institutions, have optimised training processes together, and have also shared programs and experiences among ourselves.

“We have incredible ambitions for [REAL]”

We have incredible ambitions for this group. We want more agencies to join but to do this we are working on the criteria required. We are hoping to have an annual retreat for agents to discuss any issues or problems that they may be having.

Additionally, we want to implement a scholarship fund for deserving but economically challenged students in Latin America.

Eventually, we would like to sign agreements with new institutions through REAL instead of individually, giving universities immediate contact with seven markets.

The PIE: What were the trends you were seeing in the student market in Colombia and Latin America before 2020?

JAO: The years 2018 and 2019 in Colombia, and perhaps in Latin America, were years of very positive changes and exponential growth of our sector.

Colombia, for example, was ratified as the third country in terms of international mobility in Latin America, and as the first country in terms of numbers of Latin American students in Australia.

That said, in some countries this trend was massively led by language studies, while in other countries growth was in higher education programs.

Canada, on another note, continued with a progressive growth in study opportunities, especially pathways, colleges and universities.

Europe in general was more aggressive in showing its advantages and opportunities, especially in England, beginning to lead the way in undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

Finally, the US remained one of the top destinations for Latin Americans.

At the beginning of 2020, we saw the same trend of a great number of enrolments until the arrival of Covid-19 and the closure of the borders.

Since August, trends have begun to revive and students have not only started requesting information but began to enrol in “great numbers” compared to the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’re excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are hoping for some stability”

Obviously, we haven’t gone back to where our curve was in the past, but we’re excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are hoping for some stability in our industry.

The PIE: How have things changed this year due to Covid-19, both in Colombia and Latin America more generally?

JAO: Now, more than ever, every lead is considered a treasure.

Recruiting and convincing students became more difficult. We are dedicating three or four times more effort to try to get at least the same results as the previous year.

We were forced to adapt and train ourselves in all the challenges of new online realities, which I personally consider an advantage and a great learning outcome that this pandemic leaves us with.

Most students failed to travel on time and had to postpone their projects. These deferrals created financial difficulties and challenges that made it more difficult to maintain the same structure of previous years for both agencies and educational institutions.

One of the issues shown to us by this health crisis was the lack of solidarity of some (non-widespread) institutions from both higher education and language schools, which opted for the alternative of direct recruitment rather than relying on their local partners.

The PIE: With so many universities looking to diversify their international student cohort, many are looking to recruiting from Latin America. What do they need to know about the region in terms of making themselves appealing to students?

JAO: The Latin American market is very particular and different to the Asian, European and African markets.

It is very price-sensitive and a region where the decision to study a particular career is almost a family decision where the whole family is often involved.

The educational systems and their dates are also different in Latin America. There are school calendars that start for example in February and end in December, as well as those that start in August or September and end in June.

There are education systems up to grade 11 in certain cities and countries or up to grade 12 in others, and there are a fairly significant number of private schools compared to public schools in other countries. Some schools are also considered international with applied pedagogic systems from other countries or other methodologies, the IB for example.

However, the very large economic and social inequalities do not allow everyone equal access to national and international study opportunities.

“Very large economic and social inequalities do not allow everyone equal access to national and international study opportunities”

The PIE: How do you see the market developing after Covid-19?

JAO: With the announcements of future Covid-19 vaccines, we all look forward to starting all the program processes of students already enrolled but now on hold. They are eager to travel and start their life experiences and studies abroad.

A few months ago, students who were self-funded didn’t want to start online classes at first because they felt it was too much money to get lessons virtually.

We are now seeing more people considering starting their studies in person, but also a growth in online program options, not only in higher education but also high schools and languages.

Expectations for 2021 will not be the same as those of previous years, excluding 2020 of course. We all expect a good rebound of opportunities for the years 2021 and 2022 especially, and that confidence in vaccines will begin to clear physical boundaries so that the limits of our students’ knowledge can grow.

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