SS: It was 15 years ago, I started with EF College, I sent a group of teacher training students to Cambridge and I was among them. At that time I was a university teacher and I really got interested in that job [as an agent]. I was actually manager of one English department.
So I set up my company and started with a few students, summer schools and then it grew and grew and grew. Now we send around 250 to 300 students per year.
The PIE: And how did you choose which school partners to work with?
SS: I added them gradually. I added Study Group, Embassy CES college, then I started working with different countries: Canada, UK, USA and then Switzerland… and now I think I have more than 500 contracts with [schools].
“Trudeau is very nice with Iranians”
The PIE: Really?!
SS: Yes, it’s like a large number of universities, colleges and schools.
The PIE: And how have you seen the market change in that time?
SS: The market has been growing ever since, I think, and although Iran is facing lots of political problems, sanctions, still we have a great market – many Iranian students, many families are really interested in education abroad, in a better quality of education, so the market I still believe is growing.
The PIE: And you face visa challenges in some countries..
SS: Yes we do. At the moment we have got a visa ban for the US, so students technically can apply but they wouldn’t get the visa. Let’s say out of every 10 students, only one or two get the visa. So at the moment we’re having problems with USo. Canada is very good, thank god. Trudeau is very nice with Iranians.
I had only one or two refusals last year. So with Canada we’re having a great time. The visas are taking a bit longer, at the beginning it was less than a week, at the moment it’s taking three weeks, four weeks, maximum two months, so the visas are good.
“The government doesn’t like us promoting international education – they want to keep the students”
With the UK, it’s a bit more difficult as compared to 15 years ago. We used to get the visas in one day! They would apply at 8/9am, they used to come out of the Embassy with the visa stamped in their passport. We still get visas but mostly for students who are very qualified, without any educational gap, with good IELTS, for students under 18, those are guaranteed visas. In general, UK visas have become harder.
The PIE: What are the majority of your clients looking for?
SS: Most of our students are undergraduate students looking for a bachelor’s degree and I can say 45% are high school students – we send them to Canada and the UK – 20% are going for postgraduate courses. Pre-master’s or graduate certificates.
The PIE: Are they self-funded?
SS: 100% are self-funded, none of our students are getting scholarships. Actually the government doesn’t like us promoting international education – they want to keep the students so they would never give scholarships. Only to PhD students and to courses and majors which are not offered in the country.
The PIE: Is Canada of interest because Iranians can then stay and work?
SS: Exactly, because of the job prospects. The immigration possibilities… Canada has become the main destination at the moment. All the families are trying to send their kids to Canada for high school, colleges and universities.
The PIE: Tell me about the impact of Trump.
SS: That was the worst thing that ever happened to our country. Actually some people say it’s good that Trump is trying to put some sanctions on the government but this has affected the people, our lives. The currency has collapsed, the last few months. The dollar has tripled or even more.
Even the families who sent their kids two or three years ago are struggling to pay their tuition fees. And the visa ban, from another side. In general, it has really affected the country, the government and the people.
The PIE: That must be a tough time.
SS: It is actually. Some parents have cancelled, some kids are coming back because they can’t afford it any more, because it’s impossible. Imagine, a parent used to pay £50,000 to a college in the UK. Now he or she is paying £150,000 – that’s almost impossible.
The PIE: Do you think you will see other destinations which are offering more affordable education, become more popular?
SS: Actually the Netherlands is an option – I was happy to hear actually that [our partner] Navitas has started there. Holland has become a destination these days although I can’t say it’s very cheap. It’s more or less like UK but the visa is guaranteed, that’s the good part. And they will give the students the work permit called “searching year” so they have a chance to search for work.
The PIE: What about Germany? It doesn’t cost very much.
SS: Yes, Germany is almost free of charge. But the thing is that it’s really hard to get offer letters, the universities are very slow in giving the offer letters. Sometimes it takes nine months. And the worst part of it is in Tehran, the [visa] appointments are released like every year.
“Iranian families put a lot of attention on education. Educational counsellors [will] always have this business”
I don’t do Germany myself, but I’ve heard that that a lot of students who had the offer letter, waited for nine months and they couldn’t get the appointment and they couldn’t apply for a visa. So that’s one thing. And besides that, you need to also have the language to B2 level – you need to speak German if you want to get the visa. Whereas in Holland, you don’t have to learn Dutch. You can study in English in a very high-ranking university.
The PIE: People have always told me that Iran is a very educated country. What would you hope to see happen in your business and in your country in the next 5-10 years?
SS: It is yes. It’s hard to predict [the future] at the moment because we’re really having a very tough time these days. There are a lot of rumours going around that Trump is going to have more sanctions and the thing is, he is affecting other countries like UK, Canada even.
I know that Trump is putting a lot of pressure on Canada, saying “why are you letting so many Iranians in? Why have you been issuing… to all kinds of offer letter: ESL, schools, college bachelor’s… no matter the course is they have been granted the visa?” I think Trump is putting a lot of pressure on other countries.
So I really can’t predict what is going on. But as far as I know, I’ve been in this business for 15 years and always Iranian families put a lot of attention on education. As educational counsellors, we would always have this business. We might have a decrease [at present] in the number of students but we will get back to it again.