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Sonya Singh, SIEC, India

“This is where I think universities will have to become not so complacent, that students will keep on coming just because they’re in the English speaking world. Students are a lot savvier and know what they want”
December 29 2015
8 Min Read

Two decades ago, Sonya Singh started a small business in her basement in India, sending students to overseas universities. Now a booming agency with branches across India and Southeast Asia, she talks about how SIEC has grown, and how she has navigated relationships with HE institutions on the way.

The PIE: Can you start by telling me about the origins of SIEC?

Sonya: SIEC was started in 1995 by me in a small basement office, which measured not more than 100sq ft. And it was the passion to actually sell international education, because India at that time was a very alien concept.

I had worked for a travel agency that became an education agent trying to get them contracts, and while I was interacting with universities there, a couple of the top Australian universities invited me to set up my own agency. I had no money, but I had a drive and I was clear about one thing: that I did not want to charge the students any money for my services.

The PIE: Was the idea not to charge students quite unique at the time?

SS: It was, I was the only one, and I got a lot of flack from other agents who thought that I was cutting into their business.

The PIE: So you started in India?

Sonya: Yes. I bought a second-hand typewriter and I would type out my own faxes, because at that time there were no emails. The next morning we would wait for faxes to come through and physically put in applications in envelopes, courier applications, and it was very organic.

“The business has grown in ways which I never envisaged. And I had to do a lot of learning on the go”

I didn’t know what to name my company, and I went to this friend I had in the Australian High Commission, and she said, ‘Look Sonya, the business is not going to grow huge, let’s get real, so just name it after you because people know you’. So I just named it Sonya International Education Center. I had about 10 or 15 students, and then it grew, because people were asking ‘Who did you come through?’ So then I said we have to shift away from Sonya International, and we started using SIEC.

The PIE: How has the business grown?

SS: We have about 120 staff, we’ve got about 30 branches all over India and Southeast Asia – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan. We’re developing Southeast Asia to get into Korea and the Philippines.

To support all that, we’ve got a separate IT support team, our own call centre which does all the follow ups with the students and our own software which manages applications, so the business has grown in various ways which I never envisaged would happen. And I had to do a lot of learning on the go.

I read a book which talks about scaling up. One thing I took away from that book was that it gives an example of this woman who was a wonderful baker and she starts this bakery and there’s a queue outside. Eventually she says ‘Why not grow bigger?’ because she starts getting queries about franchising, but she’s not able to cope and none of the franchises do well. Because she’s so exhausted and she’s not even paying attention to the original business, she ultimately has to sell. The question was: Why did it happen?

“In India, everything is verbal. Promises are verbal, contracts are verbal”

So then he goes on to talk about processes and technology, and the light bulb went off in my head because in India, everything is verbal. Promises are verbal, contracts are verbal. So to set processes, it was the first thing I had to learn when we started expanding.

The PIE: What do you mean by set processes, you had to make it uniform?

SS: Just what would happen in a branch and how we wanted people to report. And what do we want to measure, just numbers? Attitude? All those things came into play eventually, which was a huge learning curve for somebody like me who had never run a business, who had never had any training.

The PIE: How many students do you work with?

SS: Not huge in terms of numbers, because we’re very cautious about quality. On average we would do about 1,500-2,000 a year across all our branches. There is this misconception that because India has a population of a billion people, that there are hoards that are going to come in, but the reality is there are very few who are genuine students.

“There is this misconception that because India has a population of a billion, there are hoards that are going to come in, but very few are genuine students”

A lot of them are using the education path just to get a visa and get out. If you do not demarcate that, you make a lot of money but you get sucked in to a very different game.

The PIE: So how do you find those quality students?

SS: Well students find us now, because by word of mouth, it has gone through that we will not accept any student who has got any fraudulent documents. Anyone we recruit they get it in writing that just for the sake of meeting targets or doing business, you will not sign up a student who you know or suspect is not bone fide. We actually turn away I think five to 10 students a day at most of the offices.

The PIE: How do you sees India as a market evolving in the next five to 10 years?

SS: The middle class, because the middle class has grown up in huge numbers in the last 5-6 years, that’s one thing. The other aspect is that a lot of private universities that have set up in India now, and the third aspect is that Indians are aspirational.

So what’s going to happen is the numbers are definitely going to grow from India but they may not just be coming to the English speaking world. I suspect as soon as China, Korea, and any of the Southeast Asian countries start teaching their courses in English, they’d be a division. And students will want to go there because a lot of them are now going to Germany and that’s not English speaking. They want a different experience. And they know that Europe, especially Germany, is excellent for engineering, technology.

“I suspect as soon as China, Korea start teaching their courses in English, they’d be a division”

So the India that we started with where we had to tell them stuff has changed to them telling us that this is what is happening here and this is where we want to be. That is where I think universities will have to become not so complacent, that students will keep on coming just because they’re there, in the English speaking world. Students are a lot savvier and they know what they want, and they would not take anyone’s word for it.

The PIE: Where does that leave you as an agent? If they’re that savvy, surely they can just apply themselves?

SS: They can’t. Australia tried it, the US has tried it. The problem is the visas, because in Australia, the universities have no way of checking the bona fide of the student. Even if they keep staff in India, they cannot function like agents do. That is why agents have become a necessary evil.

And there’s information overload. So for a student it may be easy to identify a university or a course, but the parents find it very hard to navigate information and parents are the decision makers. Even the master’s students. So even if a kid went and told them this is what I want to do, they still come to us to find out has he made the right choice.

There was a student of ours who was in such a bad accident, he was driving. The parents got a call saying your son is in the hospital and he has to be operated. And they called me up in the middle of the night and it was the weekend. I sent out a mail to the Australian High Commission and I said we want a visa on Monday, these are the hospital records, the boy’s going to undergo surgery, it was 50/50 whether he would survive. They left on Monday. And the universities are too big to bother about such things and too process oriented.

“There’s information overload. Parents find it very hard to navigate information and parents are the decision makers”

The PIE: Can you speak a bit about how universities treat you as an agent?

SS: Initially, like everyone was saying, it was though if you shook hands with a university, that you were going to take away five of their fingers. Everywhere in the beginning that’s how it started because there were a lot of scams and I don’t blame the universities. In fact the Australian came to interview me in 2009, and the heading was ‘An industry in shams and scams’.

Gradually over the years, I think once the industry had become more open, and there was time to pull out the ones who were not doing the right things, the Australians particularly became almost like partners.

The British were excellent, they recognised what the agencies were doing, and the New Zealanders were fantastic.

I still remember the trade commissioner for New Zealand coming into my little basement to talk to me. I was completely amazed. But he came and sat across and said we’re a small country, we cannot afford to go through the learning curve that Australia has gone through. And I thought that was so humble and that was great. Canadians were very standoffish. Now they’re better but the universities still don’t work with agents, but the polytechnics and their other colleges do.

The PIE: So you work with only HE students?

SS: Yes.

The PIE: How is your day-to-day interaction with the universities? How could that be improved?

SS: Especially the young university reps who have been appointed recently, they don’t deal with me anymore, and I deliberately step away because I tend to be very direct, and sometimes rude, because they are adamant. And that’s not country specific. You employ a 27, 28 year old, you make her or him the decision maker to give you feedback about an agency, or to reject or accept a student, you’ve given them power. Which is beyond their capacity.

“Universities need to see feedback from agencies about their recruiters; just because the recruiters are getting them bums on seats that should not be the parameter for that person’s growth”

Universities need to see who the recruiters are, need to see feedback from agencies about the attitudes of their recruiters; just because the recruiters are getting them bums on seats that should not be the parameter for that person’s growth. They should find out how does he behave, the way he talks to counsellors, because otherwise agencies like ours, who’ve got big, will one day just write to institutions and say we do not want this person.

The PIE: Do you think you’re one of the few agencies that actually stands up and demands better treatment?

SS: Absolutely, because otherwise you can just be too humble and then your staff all get walked over. We do that with students as well. The day before yesterday, there was this one particular student wanting to go to the US, and he was hounding the staff, and I knew that they had helped him; he was so rude and I had to step in. I wrote to him and I said thank you for applying through us but I do not think we can match up to your level of expectations because we’ve got a lot of other clients to look after, you were given timelines right at the beginning, I suggest you use another agency.

The PIE: What can we expect from SIEC in the next five to 10 years?

SS: I think what we are exploring is the possibility expansion and recruitment, that’s going to be one part of the business.

We also really want to get into that part of business which gives affordable exposure to students in India who can just come maybe for a semester to the US, just for the experience, and to be able to fund it at least by 50%, even if they can’t spend three years, four years. To start another line which may not earn money, but give something back to the student community, because they have so much potential. There are students who have got a perfect GPA but the parents are poor.

The PIE: Would you be putting forward some money with university partners to fund the students?

SS: Yes. We definitely want to do that.

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