MK: When Kazakhstan became an independent country, and international education became accessible for our citizens after the Soviet Union collapsed after the early 90s, there were a few agencies – I guess five or six started in the early 90s.
The British Council was quite helpful and quite active at that time and they really wanted us to develop our core market. They wanted us to form this association so in 2005 we decided to do it. Initially it was 11 agencies which wanted to come together. We shared the market between us because there were not many other agencies at that time. We have been quite active for a few years, we did our own fair, with promotion, we visited different countries.
Each agency became stronger and more mature, then the British Council changed its policy completely, instead of helping agencies or associations they became our competitor. They started to recruit and they started to charge for recruitment and they actually started to do their own fair at the same time as we did.
The PIE: How else has the association changed since it began?
“Because Kazakhstan is quite an attractive market, we have British, Turkish, Russian companies coming so the competition is getting stronger”
MK: A couple of years ago we discovered the market was getting really tough. We have more agents now and because Kazakhstan is quite an attractive market for many, we have British, Turkish, Russian companies coming so the competition is getting stronger. We decided to rethink our association and start again. We will try to be more active with promotions within the country so our customers will understand the difference between members and non-members – to explain to them that every member of our association does have 20 plus years of experience.
People have to understand what the differences are and what the benefits are of coming to a member of the association, so that’s why we started again. Every member has two years of presidency, this period is with Intellect, we will pass it on in November – somebody will take over, it is a nice kind of formation at this point.
The PIE: How many members do you have now?
MK: Eight, but I am pretty confident that recent members will carry on working. We have had interest from two new members, so we are in the process now of taking their application.
The PIE: What’s the geographical spread of your agencies?
MK: We all started in Almaty but every member or organisation has an office in Astana now and some have more than two or three offices. The biggest marketing challenge for us is to get rural areas or the eastern part or western part.
It is very personal, our business. We can’t just do a wonderful website, you have to go there – you have to see parents, they have to meet you, they have to trust you. Under these circumstances they would give you the child, the money and the trust and everything so we are travelling a lot around Kazakhstan.
The PIE: Do you find that it’s mainly students in the larger cities who are interested in studying abroad, but in more rural areas there’s less interest, as is the case elsewhere?
“The only difference I have noticed is the level of English. A student from Almaty very rarely goes for languages courses”
MK: I think Kazakhstan was lucky in many ways because as soon as it got independence, the president gave 2,000 scholarships to study abroad, so study abroad became popular widely. Everybody knew about [the Bolashak scholarships], which were accessible for everyone to do A Level, a bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree – now it is only available for master’s and PhD students.
We don’t have this kind of difference in terms of location and mentality. The only difference I have noticed is the level of English. For example, a student from Almaty very rarely goes for languages courses. By the time they have to do GCSEs, A Levels or degrees their level of English is quite good. As for kids from rural areas they normally reach the age of 15-16 and their English is still not there, so they have to spend more time abroad to catch up in comparison to kids from cities.
The PIE: What would you say are the most popular destinations for students?
MK: My agency, Intellect, has been in the market for 20 years and it was always the UK for many years. Two years ago, Canada beat the UK. I think it will be back quite soon but because of the visa regulations, it just doesn’t look as welcoming as it used to be.
A British education was always popular. Even in Soviet times when no one travelled, everybody knew about a British education so as soon as it became available, everybody wanted to send their kids to Britain. But now we may have someone who is 15 years old and this person can travel the world and may say I have been to England four times, and the parents may decide he is ready to go to the US for example, or to Canada.
Psychologically for parents I can understand to send them over the ocean straight away it is not easy, so they prefer to send them to England which for us is a closer destination, even though it is an eight hour flight.
“Two years ago, Canada beat the UK. Because of the visa regulations, it just doesn’t look as welcoming as it used to”
The PIE: Do you see a lot of interest from Kazakh students in going to more nearby countries, like Russia [more than 49,000 studied in Russia in 2014, compared with 1,913 in the US]?
MK: Russia is quite popular, especially for Russian speakers. Kazakhstan has more than 100 nationalities living together, so Russia is quite popular, particularly Moscow and St Petersburg, these locations have fantastic education. Tomsk, which was always famous for sciences and engineering, is quite popular. At some point the Czech Republic was popular, Thailand sometimes.
The PIE: What is it that attracted students to Thailand and the Czech Republic?
MK: It can be the campus of an Australian university or a British university, not a Thai university. Turkish universities are quite popular and they’ve become they active in travelling to Kazakhstan. At some point the United Arab Emirates was quite popular but I think parents who send their kids to those countries, they were not 100% satisfied, particularly with employability. They also realise if you send kids abroad it is not cheap anyway, even Thailand and the Czech Republic. So it is always better to add a little bit more money and get a highly recognised degree to make sure the kids will be employed well.
Over the years we adjust what we offer, discovering new courses, new institutions, but the UK, Canada and the US are always top.
The PIE: How many students do KAEA agencies send overseas?
MK: No one is keen to open their numbers, but I guess every member of our association sends 100-150 students for academics, plus summer students.
Considering all these new agencies and international companies, I would say we probably hold about 70% of the market. This summer wasn’t good at all because the local currency fell dramatically last year so we lost a big proportion of the market.
The PIE: Are you still having problems with the currency being down?
“Parents realise if you send kids abroad it is not cheap, even Thailand. So it is better to add a little bit more money and get a highly recognised degree”
MK: I recently had a situation where one of our students applied for a visa and at the time they applied they had enough money in their bank account in local currency. But by the time the visa was looked at it was £700 less than was necessary. So he got rejected so now the parents put more money in their bank account and tried again, so the fluctuation is still there.
I think we will recover slowly, I personally give my company a couple of years to get the same number that we used to have even in 2015, which was quite good.
The PIE: When students go abroad for English language courses, what are they looking for?
MK: The last five years even the summer market has changed dramatically. We used to have many groups for English plus fun – 15 hours of English in the morning and activities in the afternoon. We can’t sell it anymore. We sell English plus TOEFL, English plus IELTS, English for academic purposes, English plus leadership, English pre-IB, pre-A Level.
Parents don’t want to invest money on just English. I think I can understand parents because when we sent the first groups internationally years ago, we experienced a lack of materials, teachers, everything; now we have got plenty of language schools within the country, a lot of textbooks. If parents think about sending the kids abroad they would give them enough time and support to improve their English whilst they are in Kazakhstan, there is no need to go for them just to go to improve their English anymore.
Although as I said before, in the rural area, parents still have to send their kids for language training before they can do something serious. To work with language schools it is such a pleasure but unfortunately we don’t produce as many students as we used to have, which is a shame. We do more English for executives, English for business, English for law, English for medicine, very specific things, but not general English. General English is the toughest product for us to sell now.