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Sushil Sukhwani, Edwise, India

Sushil Sukhwani, director of Edwise, began recruiting students as a hobby before building the business into one of India’s largest and most successful education agencies. He sheds some light on international education demand in India, changes in the country’s student market, and what to expect in the years to come.

The PIE: Let’s talk a little bit about Edwise. How did you begin?

"Since the UK shut down its post-study work option and it started tightening its belt on institution licensing ... this is making it a little tough"

SS: I was among the first few students who left India to study in Australia. This was in 1990. I did an MBA at Bond University. The experience was excellent and that’s what made me want to go back to spread the word.

I returned to India pondering; this institution is great, the country is welcoming and friendly; why are there not many more students studying from India? So I came back and as an alumnus I started recruiting students for my university. At that stage, the university suggested ‘You have done such wonderful work; why don’t you take a commission?’ And that’s how I became an agent.

The PIE: Where was your first office?

SS: In Mumbai; that’s where I live and where my Head Office is located. Edwise now currently has about 350 employees and 24 offices across India.

The PIE: Would you say that in India, demand differs depending on the region?

SS: Yes. There is some kind of difference in demand for international destinations, depending on which part of India you are in. Specifically, if you are in the north, say Punjab, the number one demand location is Canada. In Andhra Pradesh and Telengana in the south of India, it is the USA.

The main destinations for students out of India are the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore. These are the six top English-speaking destinations where students seek education.

The PIE: There have been quite a few changes in India in the last year, with Prime Minister Modi being elected and an education bill being drafted – how do you feel about the changes?

SS: The former Indian government, as well as the present one, is trying to encourage partnerships between institutions, trying to get some collaborations and even possibly set up some campuses. The Bill is not very easy to comply with, so not many institutions are actively looking at setting up campuses here.

People will continue to go abroad for education, but the numbers may drop if the quality and number of educational institutions increases in India. However currently, there is an increase in students going abroad in the sector of affluent India. The choice of destination depends on the state of the economy of the foreign country and its ability to absorb international talent into the work force.

The PIE: So you’re saying if foreign providers come in, if domestic provision gets stronger, that could possibly even expand the number of students who go abroad from India?

SS: Some institutions might bring in twinning programmes or partnership programmes; thus students may start a degree here and then go abroad. I think one problems is the reservation system and the limited capacity of our universities. Also, we don’t have enough quality institutions; these are other reasons why Indian students go abroad.  A few students also go abroad to find career opportunities and for immigration. So just by setting up additional capacity in India, you cannot meet all the needs.

“The demand for education in the US has increased, and that’s because of better economic conditions”

The PIE: People talk about fraud in agencies and India’s often used as an example of where that happens the most. How do you feel about that?

SS: It is sad that it occurs and it is true that there are certain parts of the country where there is greater fraud. But I think that some destinations are taking active measures to control that with systems to identify fraud. It is very, very challenging and very difficult for consulates to prevent fraud. One needs to work with well established and large agents.

There are good agents and bad. But I would say 90% do not commit fraud. A small percentage of new and small operators are doing this – and they’re not involved with very highly ranked institutions. Where fraud is prevalent, it is happening with institutions that are not very highly ranked.

The PIE: Can you tell me about some of the trends that you see in the market right now?

SS: The demand for education in the US has increased, and that’s because of better economic conditions, and also because the US is seen as becoming more receptive to working with agents like us. Canada is doing well because of its active support towards post-study work and its friendly immigration policy. Australia’s has significant  increase in numbers – it bounced back after its problems and is well on its way up. The United Kingdom is attracting more undergraduate students. due to its three year degrees and the sandwich programme options.

The PIE: Has the UK been hurt that badly because of the lack of post-study work and negative press?

SS: Yes, since the UK shut down its post-study work option and it started tightening its belt on institution licensing and further to that, recently now there’s a problem with limited English testing options for entry requirement. This is making it a little tough.

However, overall numbers have been down but I’ve seen that the UK’s good quality institutions have yet managed to get a large number of students. Our company actively recruits for the UK and we’re doing fairly well. Good institutions and high ranked institutions are yet in demand and sought after and students are going. However, many smaller and weaker agencies have had a big shake out and almost closed down.

The PIE: The world education fairs you organise, are they introducing students to the universities you represent?

SS: Yes. We work with a wide variety of universities and the world education fairs across several countries are predominantly for institutions that are happy to work with us. Let’s say 95% of the people participating are the ones we work with.

Some other international universities are working in what we call a “helicopter strategy” where they enter a market, do a fair and then get out. They’re not taking care of the follow-up; they’re getting their brand exposed but they’re not able to follow it up. That’s when our fairs help, more than many others. We are agents who follow up with students and help to send them to institutions that participate in our fairs. We’ve been doing these fairs now for about seven years, across 13 cities every February, May and September.

The PIE: And who are they targeting?

SS: They’re targeting students for study abroad who are unsure of their destination and institution. The main students that we’re looking at  –  irrespective of the destination they want to go to– are right now looking at September and January intakes. They’re predominantly looking for higher education and degree-granting programmes – not English programmes.

The PIE: What are your views for the Indian market in the next decade? How do you see it evolving?

SS: I think there’s going to be a little bit of a clean-up in the quality of agents. And I feel the market will pretty much be the same, I don’t see a great or very large growth or change happening one way or the other. Destinations and subject demand keep changing – in one season one destination will go up and another will go down, but the volume of students leaving the country does not vary dramatically.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit of a clean-up in the quality of agents”

The PIE: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I actually really love what I do. I started building it as a hobby, and eventually that hobby became my business. Not many people get to live a life making their business out of their hobby. I like guiding students. I feel really happy making careers for them, changing people’s lives, and I feel that an international education, a full programme or even a small study abroad programme, or that exposure abroad, adds a lot to students’ character, and I think it is a must for every young Indian. That belief and that passion keeps me going.

The PIE: If you were giving advice to a university beginning recruitment who wants to recruit Indian students what advice would you give?

SS: I would advise them to watch out for who they work with – be cautious about that. To look for established quality players by checking their references, credentials, accreditations, etc.

I would also like them to come into the market slowly. I don’t suggest that they should dive in and spend a lot of money. To recruit consistently, rather than putting a lot of money in for one or two years, they need to take, like, a three to five year plan and come in with a long term perspective.

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