|While the symbiotic relationship between language schools and agents has always existed and been recognised, recent research highlights the valuable role agents play in the language travel market and how this value is likely to increase in the future. A recent membership survey by the Association of Language Travel Organisations (Alto) showed that agencies accounted for 68 per cent of enrolments in 2005 across a sample of 48 Alto members, and expanding agent networks in the future was a priority for 70 per cent of the schools in the survey (see Language Travel Magazine, January 2007, page 10).
Similarly, a review of the global market for English language courses commissioned by the British Council last year, and undertaken by JWT Education, indicated that agents were likely to become more important for schools as sources of language students in the future. The study cited the JWT Asian Student of 2005 survey, among others, which revealed that 86 per cent of a sample group of students had used an agency to book their course; up from 51 per cent in 2000.
An increased reliance on agents by schools, however, can only be achieved by an evolving trust in the business relationships formed and agency associations are increasingly playing a role in raising quality standards among members and thereby offering a mark of professionalism that can be trusted by others in the industry.
The majority of agency associations begin life as a way of distinguishing professional agents in a particular country or region from those that may have less stringent business practices. In some student markets where agents are largely unregulated by their own government, this can be particularly important. In Russia, Anna Roubalskaya from the newly formed Russian Association of Education Abroad Agencies (RAIE) says that producing an ethical code of quality standards for members is one of their priorities. “[We have] 19 members now,” she says. “Major criteria of membership are the following education abroad consulting has to be the company’s main activity, the company has to be working for more than three years and it should have more than three staff.”
An ethical code of conduct and robust complaints procedure are usually important components of the work of an agency association and many continually keep these and membership criteria under review (see page 29). One new avenue that established associations are increasingly going down is the provision of agent training either in specific fields such as visa applications or for working practices as a whole. Matilde Esquivel Mesta, President of the Asociacion de Representantes de Educacion e Intercambio Internacional (AREI) in Chile, says that agent training for members is something that they are looking to expand in the future. “We have begun with some training [sessions], especially about visas,” she says. “For 2007, we are planning more, related to all areas [of business]. It is quite important to have agents more educated in all areas of our clients’, partners’ and students’ needs. In this way, we professionalise our industry and mark a difference from other agencies.”
Other associations have teamed up with recognised accreditation bodies in order to add further weight to the training options they provide members. Joanna Leung, Chairperson of the Hong Kong International Education Consultants Association (HKIECA), says that they encourage members to take the “Australian government-endorsed Pier training available for agents recruiting students for Australia”, while Gökhan Islamoglu from UED in Turkey says, “UED provides training programmes for its members both within its own structure and together with some international institutions such as the British Council, Canadian Education Centre Network, New Zealand Trade Commission and related departments of embassies and consulates.” He adds, “We believe that these training activities play a major role for the satisfaction of students and schools represented.”
Sylviane Halphen at the Union Nationale des Organisations de Séjours Educatifs (Unosel) in France, which has both educator and agency members, says that demand for higher quality standards among members is definitely being driven by the market and more and more agents are being forced to devote time and money into gaining a recognised achievement of quality. “Since October 2005, the European norm EN 14804 exists and our members respect it,” says Halphen. “Six French corporations are certified, among which five are members of Unosel and nine of our members are currently building up their applications for this norm.”
Influencing policy makers
As well as ensuring and raising professional standards among members, agency associations play a vital role in influencing government policy regarding their own industry and give a collective voice to common concerns among agents. Most associations point to visa policies as being the principal issue keeping them busy in the last few years, with in-country work restrictions another theme.
Madara Purina, General Director of the Baltic Educational Travel and Work Association (Betwa), which has 14 members in Latvia and Lithuania, says that the association has recently been active in helping to amend a government regulation in Latvia regarding the licensing and supervision of employment agencies. “We are looking forward to amending the regulations No. 44 ‘The regulations of work permits for non-residents in Latvia’,” says Purina. “In the near future some of our members are looking forward to employing guest workers here in Latvia.”
In France too, Halphen reports that Unosel has recently played a key role in pushing through a legal amendment to a ruling that would have affected the ability of certain holiday camp organisers to employ temporary staff. “The amendment was adopted by the French National Assembly and the French Senate at the end of May after one year of negotiation,” said Halphen. “If this had not been the case, hiring permanent staff would have cost too much for corporations, which would have echoed on programme prices and therefore corporations would not have been competitive any longer and they would have had to close down.”
As well as being able to influence government policies, some associations have been concentrating on building links with government bodies on a more personal level. The benefits for members can be immense, particularly when such activities lead to recognition by visa issuing embassies. “We have contacted the US embassy and asked for a meeting to design strategies to jointly promote American cities and towns as educational destinations,” says Nori Salazar from the Asociacion de Consultores Educativos Internacionales de Venezuela (ACEIV) in Venezuela. “We have met the Canadian Embassy, which now recognises ACEIV, and they have placed a link to our web page in the educational section of their website. We have [also] been working closely with the local British Council, with which we are currently programming a special educational fair for our members.”
For all agency associations, raising their international profile with government agencies, educational institutions and students alike is key to their value for members. For new associations, profile raising activities are largely based around Internet resources or organising education fairs for students. Robert Goldmann from NYUSZE (formerly known as Halta), an association of Hungarian agents that was formed in 2002, asserts, “Promotion and more promotion is our major aim. Website development is one of the key development areas and a constant search for European Union grants is another priority.”
Goldmann also points out some of the difficulties involved in getting a new association off the ground and promoting activities to students. “In spring, we organised a roadshow when we visited eight important towns throughout Hungary, held presentations and arranged workshops,” he says. “Visitors were generally pleased but attendance was low. It is terribly hard to work with government or national educational bodies here. We are considered as an aggregation of profit-oriented companies and it is impossible to get involvement in these projects.”
The importance of being recognised and taken seriously by industry organisations and the public cannot be over-emphasised. Unosel in France has recently undertaken a profile-raising initiative that certainly makes the association stand out from the crowd. “We have created a partnership with a humanitarian organisation called ‘La Chaîne de l’Espoir’ [Chain of Hope],” recounts Halphen. “This year, the project we participated in was the construction of a library in the primary school of Tokoin Gbonvie in the north of Lome in Togo. This is a great achievement that has definitely tightened the links within our Unosel membership. We are very proud of this and we believe we are precursors in our field.”
In Thailand, agency association Tieca is well established and is so well connected that it enjoys the patronage of HRH Princess Sirindhorn from Thailand’s Royal Family - she has officially opened some of the regular study abroad expos that the association organises. This helps boost Tieca’s standing within the industry and with the public. Sayamol Nongbunnak, Manager of the association, reports that the last expo, organised in October, attracted 4,000 visitors, 76 institutions and was held in Bangkok’s trendiest new venue of Siam Paragon.
Agent and school crossover
Forging links with other agency and school associations is another activity that has been on the agenda for many associations in the last few years. Members of the Federation of Education and Language Consulting Associations (Felca) attest to the value of constant dialogue with other agency groupings as well as school associations in the form of regular meetings with the Global Alliance of Education and Language Associations (Gaela).
Leung points out that dialogue with other associations is a priority for them now. “To date our work has been focused on getting the association founded and getting ourselves known by the Hong Kong public and authorities,” she says. “Two of our members attended the Alphe Asia workshop [in 2006] and have been given the brief to establish contact with other agents’ groups overseas.”
Islamoglu says that UED is in the process of becoming a member of Felca and says that this will help “to ensure the quality and up-to-date knowledge of our members” in the future. The Turkish association has also started inviting foreign schools to become institutional members in a bid to add value for agent members and also strengthen bonds between agents and schools. “Institutional members benefit from the services such as ads on UED web pages, information about the Turkish market and agents, arrangements of seminars and meetings to meet our members,” he says.
In Chile, Esquivel wants to see greater links between AREI and provider schools in the future as a way of offering greater benefits for members. “Our main goals for 2007 are to get more benefits such as discounts, special agreements with providers etc,” she says.
The development and expanding remit of agency associations is having a significant effect on the industry and enhancing agencies’ roles in the marketplace. It is likely that the majority of agencies operating in the future will be an association member and industry standards and professionalism will continue to improve as a result.
As business trends continue to change, it seems that agency associations may find themselves getting involved in new areas such as dealing with work visa issues and having greater collaboration with schools. Alto Association Manager, Thomas Engsip-Karup, notes, “An increasing number of our members are offering educational travel products beyond language courses and this development is something that Alto will focus on over the next 12 months.”
Attracting new people
While agency associations necessarily want their membership to grow, new members cannot be sought at the sacrifice of membership standards criteria. Gökhan Islamoglu from UED in Turkey says that they have gained two new members in the last 12 months, while many membership applications are being examined. “Even though UED aims to increase the number of its members, we have never thought to soften our membership conditions,” he says. “On the contrary, we have decided to toughen membership conditions related with the years of experience, references and recommendations.”
Membership criteria varies in stringency between agency associations although most demand that members have been operating for a minimum length of time and may require letters of reference from other members or schools. New members of ACEIV in Venezuela must “meet certain requirements such as the updated registry of their company, letters of recommendation from schools and other members of the association and have at least three years in the market”, according to Nori Salazar.
In Hungary, NYUSZE has had no new members in the last 12 months, although the association hopes to increase its membership by 50 per cent in 2007 after processing some of its pending applications. “We encourage established and registered agents to join us,” says Robert Goldmann at the association, who suggests a difficult operating environment. “A small association is expensive to run and the fierce competition between candidates and members does not help any parties either.”
Some associations hand pick the agencies that they would like to join them and ACEIV sends out invitation kits, according to Salazar. “The kits contain a presentation letter, the list of requirements, the registration form and the list of advantages of becoming a member of ACEIV,” she explains. “We also talk to the non-members about our association’s plans and achievements.”
Otherwise, recruitment of new members is mostly reliant on spreading the word about what the association does and the benefits of joining in a collective effort in terms of lobbying and joint marketing opportunities. Matilde Esquivel Mesta, President of AREI in Chile, says that members make personal visits to agents to tell them about AREI. In Latvia and Lithuania, however, Madara Purina of the Baltic Educational Travel and Work Association says that they mainly concentrate on promoting themselves through educational, career and recruitment fairs in Latvia. “In March, Latvia will be the host country of Work Experience Travel Market and IAPA annual conference,” says Purina. “Since February 2006, we have been preparing for organising this event.”
In Turkey, Islamoglu says that the association remains popular and well known among agents, despite its stringent membership criteria, by direct marketing efforts such as “issuing newsletters, organising/supporting education fairs and joining campaigns with some non-profit organisations in education matters”.