April 2007 issue

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Home from home

Agencies can play a significant role in ensuring student satisfaction when it comes to their accommodation environment away from home, by making sure their expectations are realistic. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

WIn underlining the importance of securing the right accommodation for clients in contributing to the overall success of a language travel experience, Bulent Peker, Director of Turkish agency, UKLA Abroad, speaks for many. “Whenever [students] are very happy and satisfied with their accommodation, their productivity in [terms of] their education increases rapidly,” he asserts.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that most agencies canvassed for this article said that around 90 per cent of students look to them to help arrange their accommodation. Students may initially try an independent search via the Internet, but, according to Gabriella Perfetti of Auriga Servizi in Italy, “They report [that] there are so many solutions that they cannot decide which one is best for them.”

A minority of schools offer a small commission to agents on accommodation. Skylark School of English in Msida, Malta, for example, offers five per cent. “It is much lower than our commission on tuition,” comments Director of Studies, Pia Zammit, “as profit margins [on accommodation] are very small.” In general, agents have little or no financial interest in the accommodation they sell, but they do focus on finding the best option for each client.

What the best option might be can vary according to a variety of factors. Student age is a key determinant. While host family accommodation is widely acknowledged to “intensify the immersion experience”, as Hamid Kaber, Director of Pura Vida Language Institute (PVLI) in San Jaoquin de Flores, Costa Rica, underlines, its popularity is greater with junior students than with adults. Host families have another advantage for younger and less experienced travellers. “They are very helpful in difficult situations such as when students are ill and have to stay in bed,” relates Perfetti.

For younger students, a shared room in a homestay is preferable to a single room, according to Barbara Struthers-Frost at Sidmouth International School in the UK. “They like to have the company of another student, whereas adults prefer a single room with private bathroom,” she explains. However, there are signs that this is beginning to change, with slightly more students in the 16-to-18 age bracket now requesting single rooms, she notes. Meanwhile, agent Helga Probst of Europe Echanges in Austria agrees that, “Young people like shared apartments or student residences…Adults like studios or student residences with private bathroom,” although, she points out, these are rare to find.

According to Pratik Pradhan of Videsh International Consultants (VIC) in Nepal, his mainly adult clientele is seeking “freedom plus the opportunity to cook [their] own meals”. Personal freedom is also highlighted by Ulli Schmidt of Friedländer-Schule in Berlin, Germany, as a reason for the growing popularity of the school’s youth hostel option.

Budgetary considerations can also be highly influential. However, owing to different levels and quality of supply in study destinations, students on a tight budget will not always make the same choice. At ODTE agency in the Dominican Republic, affordability is often the main criterion leading students to choose host family accommodation. “Sometimes they really prefer the residence accommodation, but they continue choosing the host family [option] because it is cheaper,” says the agency’s Altagracia Pimentel.

This is in contrast to the situation reported by Silvia Carmona at School of the World in Playa Jaco, Costa Rica, where residence accommodation in a double room at the school is included in the cost of programmes, whereas a host family is extra. Shared flats can also be a cost-effective option, says Isabel Tomé of Academia Andaluza in Conil de la Frontera, Spain, with the added benefit of helping students to meet people from other countries.

Student nationality can also be a factor in accommodation choice. Struthers-Frost has noticed that female students from the Far East – especially Japan – prefer single rooms. And cultural factors have traditionally influenced Turkish students to shy away from host family accommodation. However, reflects Peker, globalisation has had an impact on Turkish culture and resulted in changing attitudes over the past three to four years. This effect may also account for the experience of Beata Schmid, Senior Vice-President of Academic Affairs at EF International Language Schools in the USA. She relates that in the past, host family uptake at EF was dominated by Japanese and Korean students, while today many Latin American students are also interested.

Zammit in Malta affirms that she has noted “definite nationality traits”. Students from China, she says, tend to book four initial weeks in a host family, till they find their feet, and then book self-catering apartments. Europeans – with the exception of German businessmen and women, who normally opt for host family accommodation – tend to book self-catering apartments straight away.

In terms of expectations, Saskia van der Ploeg at Tricolore agency in the Netherlands believes that some of her students are verging on spoilt – “going to a world city [such] as Barcelona or Rome, and expecting to be next to the school/city centre; asking for things like a television, ironing board, washing machine [or] cleaning lady”.

Certainly, students are found to be more exacting now. For example, Perfetti reports clients requiring more information at the time of booking than in the past, including details such as: distance between school and accommodation; whether they will have to use public transport and, if so, prices, safety and times of service. Cleanliness and location are also high on a long list of questions, also including full details of the host family and other students in the house.

Perhaps as a result of this greater attention to detail, Zammit has noticed that “host families have had to step up their game more than they would have done, say, 12 years ago”. Ann Molloy of Geos Cairns College of English in Australia agrees. “[Students]…know what they are entitled to, and expect to receive it. Rightly so,” she underlines.

Accommodation standards (see box) are in some cases defined by national legislation and in other countries, various organisations apply their own rules. Where present, these do much to help maintain quality of provision. However, where problems are reported, these do not necessarily happen because of the absence of accommodation regulation. Things can and do go wrong, although it appears that most students are satisfied – at least in the end. As Perfetti relates, “At the beginning, there is always something wrong.”

Examples of typical problems include quantity and quality or variety of food in a host family, rooms that are too small, too many people sharing a bathroom, or too many children. In residential accommodation, problems may include small or dirty rooms, loneliness, and difficulty in socialising. However, because an agency often contacts students on the day after their arrival overseas, says Perfetti, they are able to find out about these problems and discuss them with the school’s accommodation officer. Generally, the problems are not serious, she says, but related to homesickness, so the school can offer psychological support.

There is some evidence that host families are the source of more problems than other accommodation types. This is the experience of Probst, for instance. For Rodrigo Pereira of SIC Travel Agency in Brazil, the problems with host family accommodation tend to stem from specific requests – such as to be accommodated near to the school – being ignored. Meanwhile, the number of students relative to the size of house is a common issue for Pimentel. Cleanliness is another issue raised by several agents.

Annette Duerdoth of Italian agency, Interstudio Viaggi, believes that satisfaction is related to the student’s choice of destination. She is critical of the UK, where she highlights a problem with “families who host for the money and give front door keys to the students”. Probst ventures that Spain has a good variety of accommodation options. “The apartments and studios are usually simply, but sufficiently, furnished,” she comments. Meanwhile, “France has excellent schools, but often very insufficient student residences,” she claims, adding however that, “family lodgings in France are usually satisfying”.

Perfetti argues that lack of variety in food is a problem in both the UK and the USA, while both Pimentel and Peker believe that the UK and USA provide the best accommodation overall, on account of their variety of options. For Duerdoth, New Zealand and Australia are probably the best hosts, as, “students are treated as one of the family, rather than as guests”.

It is not, however, generally constructive to speak in terms of a best or worst country . As Perfetti observes, “The [emphasis should be] on expectations.” Schools can also help orient clients appropriately, and many do so. “We do not have problems reported,” says Tomé in Spain, “because, in advance, we give our students good information about the area and the standard of living.”

Regulatory context

National legislation to regulate student accommodation is currently the exception, rather than the rule, with countries such as New Zealand and Malta setting an example to the rest of the world.

In Malta, host family accommodation is regulated under the Malta Travel and Tourism Services Act. Last updated in 2002, this requires the licensing of all host families. Detailed standards are set out with respect to the size of bedrooms, beds, furniture and comfort, cleaning and bathrooms/sanitary facilities and random inspections are carried out by an inspection team. The European Union (EU) has also been active in this area, providing accommodation standards covering host families, residential accommodation and other types, including hotels and apartments, as part of the 2005 European Standard relating to language study tour providers. The EU Standard (norm) stipulates that certain information shall be made available prior to booking, including location, whether shared or single occupancy, availability of certain facilities and meal plans. There are clear rules regarding standards for bedrooms, with stipulations relating to living space, amount of light, ventilation and heating, windows, change of bed linen and storage space. Homestay hosts are to be “in loco parentis” where a minor is under their care, and host families are to be inspected every two years.

Accommodation providers may also come under some degree of regulation by the association that represents their employers – language schools. In Ireland, Annex 3 of Acels’ regulations covers host family and residential accommodation. This specifies that “the primary requirement is that the student should be well looked after and treated as a member of the family during his/her stay”. General stipulations are made regarding facilities, which are to be checked by the school. According to Jim Ferguson of Acels, accommodation officers are interviewed during inspections and procedures for the recruitment and monitoring of host families are covered.

In the UK, where Accreditation UK lays down criteria for host family and residential accommodation, new, tighter regulations came into force in July 2005 in relation to “private fostering” – defined as when a child under the age of 16 is looked after for 28 days or more by a person who is not a close relative. Meanwhile, UKCosa (Council for International Education) is working on a guide to best practice for accommodation for under-18s, says the organisation’s Beatrice Merrick.

Across the Atlantic in the USA, accreditation bodies Accet and CEA are the main upholders of standards. Accet regulations provide for inspection of both dormitories and host families used by members. CEA also makes on-site visits and reviews provision.

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