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Kenichi Ikeno, Founder, UTS, Japan

Kenichi Ikeno founded UTS in the 1970s, after studying as a PhD student in Sweden. He talked to The PIE News about his roles with the Japanese Council for Safety of Overseas Students and why he has remained in the study travel industry since graduating himself.

The PIE: How did you first get involved in the study abroad industry?

Kenichi Ikeno: By the strong proposal by a SIS German director at the Student International Society, based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Four years later EF started their operations in the same city, Gothenburg. SIS and EF are very strong competitors. If SIS produces a colour brochure, next year they follow – always they imitate what SIS did.

The PIE: So SIS was a real pioneer?

KI: Yes, that’s right. As a credit entity and there is a sharp contrast between SIS management style and EF. SIS bought the school in England called Torquay International School. It is still around. Kind of EF destroyed SIS and then it was purchased by the secretary of the principal. I think she is still around.

“I think the business pattern of language travel business in Japan is really fossilised”

The PIE: How did you meet the director of SIS?

KI: When I was a university student, I was a tourist guide as a part-time job. We happened to know each other through the business. His subject was sociology. We discussed Max Weber and Karl Marx, those politicians and socialists. After two or three hours of talking, he said “what about working with us?”

I said, “What? I am a university student, I can’t do that.” I got the PHD [while] working. He said that was possible and I could do that.

At the time, Japan had a very strict foreign exchange monetary policy. Tourists were only allowed to bring $500 per tour. A very small amount, so I assumed that we couldn’t do that. SIS offered a very low rate – maybe [it was] half of the ordinary European tour at that time.

First year 1972, we got 70 students – an astonishing record. University students organised the program and we got a  very big number.

The PIE: What was your company called at this point?

KI: I borrowed the name SIS Japan. We could borrow a small amount of money from Swedish head office then I could do that by myself.

The next year, they saw the business chance. Even a kid could collect 70 students.

My salary was guaranteed but two years later, there was an internal dispute among the managers. We decided to start a new operation called the UTS – United Transfer School.

The PIE: How did the company develop at that time?

“When I started the business, every Japanese youth had an interest in studying abroad”

KI: When I was director of SIS Japan, my salary was guaranteed. Everything was fantastic, but I had to collect money by myself. It was a very hard time.

In 1973, there was an oil crisis. Six European countries and Japan started together, so that’s why it’s called United Transworld.

Except Germany, everybody unfortunately left. They gave up because they couldn’t see the future.

They couldn’t see the future of language travel. The German SIS director and I were left, so we shrunk the school size. Then we restarted under the concept of Japan and Germany collaboration.

The PIE: When did you expand to be offering lots of different countries?

KI: We had the UK operation and it was very small. To be able to maintain our business, we [needed to] be a language travel agency, as well as running the school in the UK. There were no other choices.

At that time, the knowledge of the study abroad in Japan was not really appreciated. Gradually we built up the language travel reputation, as well as running the program in Oxford.

The PIE: Tell me about getting involved in JAOS?

KI: Two or three years after JAOS was set up [1991], the founders asked me to join JAOS. If they say so, I will join.

The PIE: What was your experience running JAOS?

KI: As a board member, I kept saying we should have contact with the Ministry of Education and more public bodies. I don’t want to criticise very much because I was a board member, but my opinion was always treated as a minority. Eventually, it took 20 years or so, I left.

UTS became a member of Council of International Education and Language Travel Japan – part of JATA, Japan Association of Travel Agencies. The reason I thought that was important was that it was accredited by the tourism agency. If you speak to the bureaucrats, [I assumed] you should have some ground, legally admitted.

The PIE: Anecdotal reports recently suggest that the study abroad market in Japan is declining. Do you think that is true?

KI: It depends. There are some successful agents, some are not.

I think the business pattern of language travel business in Japan is really fossilised. I started the business in 1971. Every concept, no change. The original products are in overseas countries, [agents are] just selling, [they’re] the retailer.

If you do education business, you must know the background. Otherwise we cannot introduce those agencies or those schools.

The PIE: Over your career, how have you seen student expectations change in Japan? Why do Japanese study abroad?

“Gradually we built up the language travel reputation, as well as running the program in Oxford”

KI: When I started the business, every Japanese youth had an interest in studying abroad. Agents or the go-between [could be] very fruitful. Stimulating the student’s career, that is very important. We must focus on bringing up the youth to be the international player in the world society. I was raised by that principle.

The director of the organisation should also be international. Although my organisation is very small,  I used to attend the NAFSA conference, ALTO, English UK.

The PIE: What are you doing now with the Japanese Council for Safety of Overseas Students?

KI: That is linked with my Oxford operation – College of International Education Oxford. About 20 years ago, I used to have many risks to be able to run the school. I thought about how Japanese universities and schools manage crisis management.

At that time the schools had no idea about crisis management. Maybe I [was] the first speaker of talking about crisis management for the school. That developed and now we have 158 schools as members, which is recognised by the Ministry of Education. From last year, our seminars are sponsored by MoE.

The PIE: Do those schools organise their own study tours?

KI: We implement our member universities safety management scheme on top of the program. Last year, we got 22,000 – 20% of the total [outbound] university market.

The PIE: Do you have different nationalities other than Japanese?

KI: 30 nationalities.

The PIE: What do you like best about working in the international education industry?

KI: The things that are very simple. How much our work can be appreciated by benefactors. For example, [I accepted] a wealthy company executive’s son. He was not recorded as a very good university graduate. But when I interviewed him, I saw his motivation. Four years later, he got an MA at Imperial College. Everything is possible. The parents and students are very appreciative to UTS. That is my pride and that lets us continue the business.

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