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Till Gins, Owner, OISE Group

Till Gins is the owner of the OISE Group of schools and many other independently-marketed brands of language school that form part of the Gins Alliance. He spoke with The PIE about how his empire has evolved, how he runs his ELT businesses and his thoughts on increasing private equity in the sector.

The PIE: What made you start OISE?

"Language teaching is not all about knowledge, it’s about performance, and therefore if groups are too large, students are not going to be able to get enough practical training"

TG: I founded the Oxford Intensive School of English as I was starting my PhD in order to support me through the rest of my studies. Inspired by the university tutorial system, all the courses were conducted entirely by means of individual tuition. I wasn’t worried that it forced me to charge a lot more than other schools because I was so convinced that educationally it was the right approach to help students achieve their ambition to master the language fluently.

The PIE: How did you recruit students?

TG: At the time I did not know that most schools recruited their students through educational agents, so I launched an advertising campaign directly in the most important European markets.

The PIE: So then how did you expand?

“I was so convinced that educationally it was the right approach”

TG: When the number of students from France started to increase I opened an office in Paris and then in other parts of Europe. This strategy forced me to develop the range of courses and open schools in other university cities. I started running summer courses for young learners and that grew quite rapidly: in the late 1970s and 1980s schools were more concerned about keeping up with demand. Sales as such, which perversely language specialists called “marketing”, started properly in the mid ’80s.

The PIE: At this point were your clients still mainly European?

TG: In those days the majority of students were European and Japanese, especially when the regime changed in Iran which, until the fall of the Shah, was also a major market.

The PIE: How did you open up from being essentially European-based to global operations?

TG: In the 80’s we all spent a lot of time pioneering in new markets. I remember Brian Heap from Anglo-World opening up the market in Turkey: we thought he was being very adventurous but time proved that he was right and by the early 90’s we all worked with Turkey.

However with Russia and China it all began when the markets opened up: very few students came from the Soviet Union until the early ’90s. After the fall of the Berlin wall, many more students came from Russia and ex-Soviet states.

“Sales as such, which perversely language specialists called “marketing”, started properly in the mid ’80s”

The PIE: How do you see the industry changing in the future?

TG: The educational agency network is fragmenting very rapidly, unlike the schools which are consolidating into larger groups: this makes for a strange combination! The cost of entry as an agent now is very low because all you need to do is to build a website, whereas schools have to become more sophisticated in what they provide. 30 years ago you could just rent premises and buy a whiteboard or blackboard; now you have to give students a far more sophisticated environment which has put up the cost of entry considerably.

The PIE: As the industry has professionalised, do you think the level of teaching quality has progressed?

TG: No, in the ’70s the owners of language schools were extremely committed to their educational offering and very attentive to what happened in the classroom. From the late ’80s onwards it became all about marketing and sales, so the educational side took a back seat. That seems to still be the reality.

“I refuse to compromise the results to please the sales effort”

That’s where I think the group that I’ve built is so different from others: the educational aspect still represents a large part of my work with constant efforts going into further pedagogical developments. I refuse to compromise the results to please the sales effort. I’d rather deliver the right course which might be more difficult to sell than just package standard educational programmes that are easier to sell.

The PIE: How do you try and assure outcomes?

TG: By providing very close learning supervision: all of our study groups have a very low number of students – four or eight; only some schools teach in groups of a maximum of 12 learners. Every time a new school has joined us in the past we have reduced the numbers of students in the class.

Language teaching is not all about knowledge, it’s about performance, and therefore if groups are too large, students are not going to be able to get enough practical training.

The PIE: I’ve heard that when everyone else was having a downturn, you’ve never really witnessed that.
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