The PIE: Amid current economic and political turmoil, how is the agency business holding up?
Xavier Franquet: It is probably common knowledge that Venezuela is experiencing a deep crisis. But depending on who you talk to in Venezuela, you will realise people have opposing ideas on why we are in this situation. So to avoid any political opinion, let’s focus on the consequences [rather than the causes]. The most remarkable consequence is the hyperinflation, with some sources suggesting 1,000,000% inflation – it’s crazy. In our field, many agencies closed, are closing, or even moving to a different country.
Many of my competitors left Venezuela and moved their agencies. One I know is in Colombia, another is in the US. Many of them started new agencies in different parts of the world. The market has totally changed.
I started in this field 22 years ago and opened my own agency in 2006. I’ve been focusing on European education since the start. We were different from most of the other Venezuelan agencies at the time, as we were the only one focusing on Europe.
Venezuelan students are attracted to English-speaking countries, and the market for North America was previously the biggest. But we specialised in focusing on the UK and slowly moved to more general European education, including Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
“The market has totally changed”
Since I’ve been in the business, we experienced two high selling peak points, one at the 1998-99 and the second almost 12 years after, in 2012-13.
But now, really few people are going out of the country, but in my case, I am still selling some courses.
The PIE: So people are still travelling for study?
XF: It’s not like the past years, the craziness, so many Venezuelans [are leaving]. Maybe your readers remember the growth in study abroad during the 2008-2014 period. Some of them remember a number of international fairs coming to Venezuela in that period or the huge amount of Venezuelans in Ireland at some point in 2014. After that, the market started shrinking and never stopped.
Now we have a few hundred students going out of the country. They are choosing Spain, England, and of course the US, as destinations. Students like Canada, Australia too, because they offer immigration prospects. Malta recently changed its legislation to allow Venezuelans to work [during study] on an English course.
“I have seen a growth in inquiries for South American countries”
When we talk about language courses, many of the candidates express two main reasons to choose a destination: be allowed to work legally and the possibility of staying longer. I see this as a direct consequence of a lack of money, but I’m not aware if they want to remain at the destination, perhaps some people want to stay abroad no matter how.
The PIE: Are there opportunities for people who don’t have savings in foreign currencies?
XF: If you don’t have [other] currency already or you get from some source like family [abroad] or international institutions, is a bit naïve to think you can go abroad. In Venezuela, there are a small number of citizens who have the economic power to go abroad – they are the exception, not the rule.
The possible solution is international scholarships or the agreements between Venezuela’s government and its Chinese or Russian counterparts.
Since 2005 Venezuela has controlled money exchange. We are not allowed to exchange currency without government permission. Between 2005 and 2012, it was quite simple to get that permission, from 2013 until 2015 was difficult but possible. Now the permission is restricted just to medicine and food, as you can imagine its impossible to get currency to study abroad.
“Students like Canada, Australia, because they offer immigration prospects”
Venezuela had this 10-year period where we were allowed to buy certain goods abroad at this regulated rate, it was truly amazing.
The kind of education they got abroad was exceptional if you compare with the Venezuelan education, and for a reasonable price. They could go to Russell Group universities in the UK instead of a regular university in Venezuela for almost the same price.
After so many people took advantage of that, nobody saved money for the future and [now] we are paying the bill. The country is having really hard times, and really few people have the money to go abroad.
The minimum wage is US$30 per month so for the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens, any course abroad is a crazy amount of years working. If your only income is in Venezuelan currency, it’s absolutely impossible to pay tuition abroad. You would need to sell your house to get that sort of money.
The PIE: Are cheaper destinations an alternative for those students?
XF: In recent years I have seen a growth in inquiries for South American countries, and many of our regular students asking for cheaper courses. Many Venezuelans choose Argentina as a destination [where public university courses are often free]. Colombia is expensive and Chile also. Not many know about Peru and Ecuador, so people who want to study a degree or a master’s degree choose Argentina.
People have a special predilection for ‘free’. We have also started promoting China as a value-for-money destination, but I must say Venezuelans don’t see China as a place to study, and in general East Asia is too far away for them.
Despite, the government’s close friendship with China, and the opportunities to go to China, Venezuelan students are looking for Europe, North America or Australia.
The last three years I have made huge efforts promoting China, but it’s hard. We have promoted more uncommon European destinations, like Malta for English courses or Denmark and Finland for university education.
Finland is trying to promote education abroad to bring more students. Instead of trying to promote China, I am looking for more students for different countries in Europe. Spain and England were the main destinations, then Germany Italy and France.
The PIE: When will things improve again?
XF: If I stay here, it is because I definitely believe in a better time. When things will become better is hard to say, maybe not in the near future, but perhaps in three to five years’ time.
We will see the market growing again. My personal bet is 2024 when Venezuela and the US have elections, and that will probably bring fresh air to the relationship between the two countries. For Venezuela, the US is the biggest business partner and at present, the relationship is a bit [difficult].
The economic situation will grow and things will become stable again, and the currency will go up and people again will choose Europe, the US, Canada and the usual destinations for Venezuelans.
My target is to survive to take advantage of that moment.