Plans are underway among reputable agencies in Hong Kong to establish an agency association - making Hong Kong the latest in a number of countries that have witnessed the formation of a quality-based association due to the professional intentions of agents.
Catherine Lau, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Overseas Education Consultants Association (HKOECA), explained that one motivation for the establishment of HKOECA - due to be formalised in October - has been the influx of new agencies into the marketplace. 'With a very large number of companies joining the industry in Hong Kong over the last four years, the group felt there was a need to establish a self-disciplining body to uphold professionalism and regulate the industry,' she explained.
The group currently has six members on a steering committee and is working on establishing the association's membership criteria, code of practice, code of ethics, mission and objectives. 'At an appropriate time, the steering committee will be disbanded and an executive committee will be elected,' said Lau.
'Once the association is officially formed, it is our objective to foster good relationships with local and overseas government bodies related to our work and similar organisations overseas. We will also promote the association through the local media so students and their parents will be able to select their [HKOECA] consultant with confidence.'
Lau explained that many of the new agencies operating in the marketplace had little in-depth knowledge about student recruitment, visa requirements or where to find out this information, while at the same time, visa regulations were getting more complicated as governments revamped rules relating to overseas students. 'In the current Hong Kong situation, students and their parents have been increasingly confused by the claims of education consultant companies and have been finding it difficult to identify reliable ones they can trust and use.'
New members of HKOECA will be required to meet standards relating to their business practice as well as undergo an initial associate membership period, when their professionalism and ethics are monitored. 'Our vision is to create an association of self-disciplined educational counselling and consulting professionals whose members adhere to the highest ethical and business standards,' said Lau. She estimated that there are 90 education agencies active in Hong Kong, offering to place students overseas in schools, colleges, universities and language schools.
Progress for European quality standards
Quality guidelines for the language travel industry in Europe, under the auspices of a 'norme' (quality standard), are progressing and a meeting in Vienna in May has taken the negotiation process one stage further. The meeting was held to consider all the comments received by the various parties involved in discussions about a pan-European standard and move forward to draft firm guidelines.
Holger Muehlbauer, Secretary of the European Working Group, said this goal was not achieved, due to 'extensive discussion on topics like the qualification of teaching staff, information obligations of the provider etc'. But a second meeting, when the guidelines are expected to be finalised, is scheduled for October this year.
Provisional guidelines for the norme have been circulated among members of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN). Members are the national standards bodies of Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK, which liaise with industry groups.
The norme is expected to cover all aspects of a language travel stay and the guidelines will be applicable to both language travel agencies and language schools selling these products (see Language Travel Magazine, October 2001, page 12).
As Muehlbauer explained, that norme will be a voluntary set of guidelines and adherence to it will be seen as a sign of good practice. 'The main achievement of the standard is that it reflects for the first time a European consensus among providers, consumers and other parties involved,' he said. At present, there are hopes that agreement can be reached in October about the exact nature of the guidelines, after which a final vote will take place and the norme can be published and set up by the end of 2005.
'Despite the difficult meeting in Vienna I am optimistic that we will finalise the project in 2005 and that the market will react positively,' said Muehlbauer.
The guidelines are wide-ranging, relating to areas such as teaching, accommodation, information provision, welfare, leisure, premises and group leaders.
Chilean and Argentinean agents visit NZ
The Alphe USA Workshop, which has been held in Las Vegas for the last three years, moved to Miami this year and organisers report that the new venue went down well with delegates.
'The change of venue proved a success and it increased the number of Latin American agents attending,' said Matthew Northover, Alphe Organiser. There were 43 agents at the workshop from a total of 23 countries. Twenty-seven education institutions also attended.
'It was a well-organised event, centrally located for educators and agents with good airfares to and from Miami,' commented Mia Anzola of Business Projects agency in Colombia. Katharine Renpenning, of Mexico-based agency Keers Representaciones Asesoría y Servicios Turíst, added, 'All my meetings at Alphe USA were good.'
Jens von Wichtingen of Cape Studies in South Africa said that he found the workshop to be a 'perfect size'.
Industry issues - agents speak out
Q Do you receive commission on accommodation?
Olcay Erten, HIT International Education, Turkey
'Yes, we do on package offers only and these are summer school bookings with dormitory options. It seems to be summer schools in the UK and USA [that are more likely to offer this]. This is because they either rent or own the residences for the summer season, so they can offer more attractive prices. I don't believe the industry will move towards this practice [of paying commission], except for short-term summer schools. Commission is given [in this case] as part of the package. There is a trend among schools towards buying or renting property for accommodion to offer alternative options for their students.'
Gobinda Saha, Seven Seas, India
'Generally, we don't get commission for accommodation of students. Some higher education providers in Singapore and the USA do offer it but rates are very low. Some boarding schools in the UK and New Zealand also offer commission but again, the rate is similarly low. My opinion is that institutions should offer a fair rate of commission to agents for accommodation as they are earning from it and agents are spending time organising it. Students always have alternatives for accommodation and cheaper options are also there. It is the role of agents to convince them about a particular type of accommodation and they should be paid for it.'
Audrey Jones Montali, Indirizzo Inghilterra, Italy
'Very few schools offer commission on accommodation, and if they do it usually evens out with the [overall] commission rate. For example, [one school in Malta] pays a far lower rate of commission, but this is calculated on the whole package, which includes social activities and trips. On residential junior programmes, and sometimes on junior homestay programmes, the price is usually inclusive and, therefore, commission on accommodation is covered. Again, this is often 15 per cent and not 20 per cent. I am personally happy with this arrangement and don't see why a school like International House Newcastle, for example, should pay me commission on something they sell at cost price, or more probably something which costs them a lot in terms of work hours and effort. The trend appears to be that some schools, particularly in London, are using specialist suppliers to find accommodation and, as long as the personal checking and quality doesn't suffer, I am quite in agreement with this. I wouldn't like to see it happening, however, in Portsmouth or Shrewsbury, for example. The issue does arise when dealing with London, where Italians often ask for an accommodation-only package. London Solutions offers me the booking fee of UK£40 (US$73), I believe, if the booking is for at least four weeks.'
Canan Sulac, Ekdil, Turkey
'We receive commission for accommodation from [some] schools. Some schools have their own campus accommodation and they sell packages - tuition and accommodation - and they give the commission on the package price. In some countries, such as Italy and Spain, many schools give commission on accommodation. Some students like to arrange their [own] accommodation and if the school gives commission we can arrange everything and we give a very good service to our students. We do not receive any payment from our students and, therefore, I think this model is very useful for us. But we cannot negotiate about this subject with any schools.'
Agency of the month
In a new series to appear in Language Travel Magazine, we will be asking a different language teaching institution each month to nominate one of their preferred agencies or agent partners, and to explain why this person/company is worthy of their nomination.
This month, Institute of English Language Studies in Malta nominates Langues Vivantes in Belgium.
John Dimech, General Manager at the school, explains his decision:
'Langues Vivantes is one of the main foreign language study organisations based in Brussels, Belgium. The company has been in business since 1992, offering an extensive choice of destinations and focusing on quality at an affordable price. Following a visit to our school last winter, Laurent Potier and Alain Bertholet at the company showed that they were professional in their approach and we are very pleased to tap into the Belgian market and partner with Langues Vivantes.
Our cooperation [with this agency] is very important for us, as we have finally managed to penetrate the Belgian market after a number of attempts. There are around 25,000 Belgians who come to Malta for their holidays annually and only a couple of hundred enrol for English language courses. Langues Vivantes has already shown its potential in the first few months of our cooperation and this augurs well for the future.'
On the move
Laura Muresan is the new Secretary General of the European Association for Quality Language Services (Eaquals), taking over from Frank Heyworth, who is now Eaquals Special Adviser. Ms Muresan has been involved with Eaquals for a number of years as Chair of Quest Romania, an associate member of Eaquals. She is Director of Prosper-Ase Language Centre in Bucharest, Romania, and has been actively involved in the Council of Europe projects on quality management in language education.
Lucy Wilkins has recently been appointed to the position of Marketing Communications Manager at Bell International and is based at the head office in Cambridge, UK. She is responsible for coordinating brand communication internationally through the production and distribution of all brochures, publicity and advertising material, and the development of web and multimedia communications.
Having worked for EF Education for over 12 years, Gary Julian (left) has recently moved from Boston in the USA to join the worldwide agents' team in Luzern in Switzerland. Mr Julian will be working with many of the former Eastern bloc countries, as well as Greece and Iceland. Mark Kantor (centre) has been appointed Regional Sales Director for EF International Language Schools in Luzern and will work with agent sales in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern Europe. Paul Duffy (right) has also joined the team in Luzern as Regional Sales Director, working with agency sales in the Middle East and North Africa.
ALC International is a newly established agency in Japan, headed up by Director Tatsu Hoshino. The company is a division of ALC Press Inc. 'We will provide counselling and placement services to privately sponsored Japanese students who wish to study at all levels of educational institutions outside of Japan,' explained Hoshino.