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Vicki Smith, Partner, SI-UK

Vicki Smith (and Dwayne Gallagher, remotely via Skype) form two-thirds of the senior management of SI-UK, an education agency set up in Japan that has become a trailblazer in onshore international student recruitment in the UK and has also expanded into India and Turkey. They spoke with The PIE.

The PIE: Can you tell me how SI-UK came about?

"In India we could operate with the same profit margins per student but with an overhead as little as one tenth the price"

DG: A few years before setting up Commonwealth Education Consultancy (CoEC) I was living in Korea and I met up with some people from the British Council and some universities and we were looking to open a representative office in Korea. They made a proposal to me to start an office there with a small consortium of universities. However, I decided I didn’t want to stay in the country, so the offer was extended to Japan.

That continued for about three years until we decided that we needed to have more people with management and technology experience and certainly more investors. At that point I was associated with Vicki Smith and Orion Judge on a professional level and made a proposal that we get together and start a company in Tokyo called SI-UK.

SI-UK quickly expanded our operations to offer an IELTS preparation centre. A year later, we opened SI-UK Osaka and a year after that we opened our first London office and Vicki relocated to manage it.

The PIE: Vicki, what were you doing when you first set up?

VS: I was working for a management consultancy in London and I moved to Japan shortly after, actually on holiday. I came across CoEC and I approached them for opportunities because of my computer science and marketing background, I felt that I could bring these skills to the company. I basically worked on their website and database in the early stages, which allowed the company to grow.

“We discovered that a market certainly existed in the UK for onshore recruitment, possibly up to 40% of enrolments for some institutions”

The PIE: Why did you move into the UK?

VS: SI-UK saw an opportunity in the UK whilst in Japan. Initially we wanted to support our Japanese students further and also develop our university relations in-country. We carried out extensive market research, and sent our business proposal to a number of UK universities. In 2007 we discovered that a market certainly existed in the UK for onshore recruitment, possibly up to 40% of recruitment for some institutions.

DG: It was surprising when we started looking at statistics because a lot of universities at that time only had a very small international office devoted to UK-based international student recruitment—if they had one at all. Since then there has been major expansion with some but they still seem to have very small budgets for this area compared to budgets they have for the USA, China or India.

The PIE: Where do all the onshore enrolments come from?

VS: They are studying at language schools, boarding schools, FE colleges, or they are in the final year of their degree programme, looking to go onto a Masters.

The PIE: And the ones who are at language schools, why do you think are they not being catered for in terms of onward progression?

After a number of high-level meetings, we were invited to provide consulting and assistance for Turkish government-sponsored students

VS: The language school can look after them in terms of their English preparation but there are so many options for HE studies that the language schools may not have the staff or expertise to consult on these items. This is where SI-UK can assist students who are looking to progress further and walk away with a Bachelors or a Masters degree.

The PIE: And why do you think they work with you?

VS: First of all they find us on the web or through word-of-mouth and secondly we offer a reputation for quality. We have a huge website now with over a thousand pages which is very heavily optimised for SEO. For our university fairs, we conduct an extensive marketing campaign all over London and in surrounding counties. And students use our services because nine times out of ten we’ll have a counselor that understands their language, our service is free, and we are very centrally located.

The PIE: And can you give me a ballpark figures for how many students you’re bringing into the UK a year from everywhere?

DG: It’s a very sensitive question because of the range of people and clients we’re dealing with and obviously their expectations of us. And it’s hard because every other agent in the world is going to read these statistics, but for Japan we would probably be on an equal level with the other major agent and between the two agencies we would do almost 100% of the students that use agents [for HE].

In the UK I would say that we are probably the largest agent to offer international student recruitment. We bring in a few thousand to UK universities each year. Not necessarily from outside the UK because our Manchester and London office only deal with students that are domiciled in the UK. [more>]

The PIE: Do you have competition in the UK?

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