February 2009 issue

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Professional push

The agency industry is professionalising; more agent training schemes are popping up, agencies are taking investment in staff development seriously and educators and trade promotion bodies are seeking to provide first-class training input in an effort to cement business avenues or relationships. Amy Baker reports.

I find it extremely hard to find people for this job as their training takes time and in most cases, they must visit these locations they sell… it is the biggest challenge for me,” relates Josef Kysilka of Information Planet, which has branches in the Czech Republic and Australia.

He touches on a hot topic; that of agent training and the quality of the counselling service that agencies provide. The last few years have seen something of a revolution in this department: more and more agent training schemes have popped up worldwide, being offered by organisations such as the British Council, Education New Zealand and PIER in Australia, which is backed by the Australian government.

Such schemes offer professional training about generic rules and regulations in a particular country, especially as concerns education systems and visas. This is macro-training, giving an agent in-depth knowledge about one country and its education opportunities for internationals. It reflects decisions being made on a policy level about working with education agents to build inbound business to a country.

The other type of training that agents need is specific information relating to individual schools, customised information about the school, its set-up, programmes and location, which is best gained by a visit to a partner school, but unfeasible to guarantee for all agency staff, due to time, and cost constraints. Nevertheless, this is an aim of all professional agencies, as Kysilka underlines. Catherine Van Dale of Centre Easylangues in France concurs, pointing out that the formalised training her agency offers is to take staff “to join me on visits to our partners abroad”.

Aside from agency visits to schools that have always taken place, schools are likely to visit agencies in their own countries to talk through their products, and show pictures and possibly video footage of their school. This is perhaps the next best way, aside from first-hand experience, for agencies to understand the schools they promote. Zach Taylor at the Canadian College of English Language in Vancouver, Canada, acknowledges, “It is hard, with the turnover of frontline staff I see, to always be there training the new staff.” He says using MSN, Skype and Nextel Radio helps keep in touch and enables him to answer questions as soon as they arise.

Some larger agencies seem to be revolutionising their approach to visits from educators and their delivery of training/support, and a notable example is the emerging agency chain, iAE Global, with over 100 branches or partner offices worldwide (including 35 in Korea). Rob Hayes at Cambridge Education Group in the UK details his experience: “Our relationship with iAE Korea and iAE Global in general is relatively new but we have worked extensively with their UK marketing team in Seoul, especially through the web-briefings delivered from their head offices across their network of 35 offices,” he says. One “briefing” delivered by a school will be broadcast simultaneously to all the agency branches in the network.

Hayes continues, “The live video and powerpoint briefings last 45 minutes in general and are accompanied by notes in Korean at the same time highlighting the key points of our centres and programmes. We have also held workshops with the main staff of their key offices to answer their more detailed questions and conduct decision tree workshops to help [staff] counsel the prospective students.”

iAE Global takes its staff training very seriously, attests Mark Lucas, Managing Director. “iAE Korea has a dedicated Education Planner (EP) Academy in Seoul that is now a pre-requisite for new staff to attend prior to working in a recruitment office,” he details. “The course is full-time and covers all key areas of knowledge essential to the role of student counsellor.” To become a full EP (counsellor) takes nearly two years of training. “Twenty per cent of each work day in Korea and other established offices is spent on training and product knowledge.”

Lucas is of the opinion that training practices in the industry in general are not great. “Generally, it is poor as there is a high turnover of staff and lack of real training,” he says. Certainly, a number of companies contacted by Language Travel Magazine did not indicate any standardised training procedures, but a desire for staff to have international experience.

In some countries, however, becoming an education counsellor can be a career job. In Japan, Tatsu Hoshino of Global Partners Education Network wrote a book last year entitled How to become Study Abroad Counselor, because, he says, “this unique career is becoming quite popular here in Japan” (see LTM, June 2008, page 8).

Consistent staff training, might, in fact, negate the risk of a high turnover of staff. That is certainly the opinion of Krister Weidenhielm, Director of ESL – Séjours Linguistiques, a European agency that has offices in Switzerland, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Sweden and Panama, with a new office now opening in Germany.

“Training is the big challenge for us,” he says. “We have initial and continuous training. When we have new staff, they always come to the head office in Montreux in person for a period of time. This allows them to get the culture of the company, and by understanding the culture, they get the know-how of how we do things.” He adds, “It’s very important for them to meet with staff from all departments, it keeps things very human-based.”

On the issue of staff longevity, he says, “We have a few staff now moving into their fifth and sixth year with us. Once the chemistry is there, [the relationship] seems to last.” He underlines that as well as continuous training – with regular visits to the HQ often scheduled for various staff – and a designated “coach” assigned to each new staff member, he organises social activities for staff and seminars from outside speakers on various subjects, all as a strategy for enhancing a common team spirit and camaraderie among staff members.

“One area that I give emphasis to, that I totally consider as part of training,” he notes, “is that we send staff to visit schools and we are quite open in pushing schools to visit us in all our offices. We like to welcome them, so our staff are able to put a face to a name and feel part of the energy that is within our network of partnerships.”

As usual, face-to-face liaison is a highly valued asset in the industry, which explains the popularity of workshops and trade missions popping up around the world. But with even the best strategies in place by agencies and understanding school partners organising regular fam trips and visits, working with a panoply of global partners is always going to be a real challenge for agencies, especially when staff numbers start rising above a handful.

With so much for agencies to learn, it is possibly understandable that Bob Burger at Malaca Instituto in Spain ventures the following information: “What we do see sometimes are big agencies saying they can only work with chains as they cannot train their staff in various different products in a country,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, other large agencies are seeming to be moving away “from their dependence on chains to a more ‘mixed’ approach, favouring the types of school which are Ialc members [owner-operated]”, he recounts.

Whatever the type of school, it is clear that much input is needed in maintaining knowledge levels for agency staff. To this end, many schools have also invested in online resources for their agent partners, with intranets and exclusive web domains offering brochures, news and downloadable pictures at the click of a button.

Lucy Greaves at Study Group notes that “ensuring our partner agents find us easy to work with has always been a key priority”. She nods to the online backup provided by the company’s agent website which complements training organised by a regional office network. “In addition to agent manuals, we offer a wide range of support materials via our agent website including; programme presentations, brochure images, maps, posters, USPs etc,” she says. “We’re proud to say that agent feedback about our support materials has been extremely positive.”  

School chain LAL launched a new agent site this year with “comprehensive information and extensive galleries with high resolution photos for simple download”, says LAL’s Chris Nolan, while Michael Avgousti at Twin Group in the UK says downloadable documents on the company’s extranet are the most frequently used aspect of this site.

Another trend of the last few years, as mentioned earlier, is the delivery of agent “training” programmes by national education export bodies. Training and experience are the two desirable factors that would-be agents can tout, so a certified achievement, linked to the individual, is clearly an appealing prospect for many agents. “Some of our counselors have already undergone some of those [types of training],” says Secil Bakalim of Alternatif Education Counselling Service in Turkey, while Rupesh Duggal, Managing Partner of Cambridge Immigration and Educational Services in India, acknowledges, “Definitely this will help to promote our business. Because this kind of training/certification will leave an impression on our clients that our all staff are well qualified and certified by this training.”

The British Council was the first organisation to initiate an agent training policy, at the same time as it announced a move away from its student placement schemes towards a policy of working with agencies (see LTM, July 2003, page 8). A self-access eight-week course – about the UK education system and benefits of studying in the UK – is offered to interested agents, who then undertake a two-hour exam at a British Council office and receive a certificate upon successful completion.

Denise McGrath at the British Council reveals that since the programme’s launch, around 1,000 agents have successfully completed the training, which is currently available in 25 countries. “We don’t accredit or approve agents but they do receive certification and some use the term ‘British Council-trained’,” she explains. “If any agents have not heard of this programme and are keen to do it, they should contact their local British Council office.” New countries are coming on board all the time, with the training programme now available in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia this year, with support from the British Council Turkey.

PIER, working with Australian Education International (AEI) and Australian immigration, was next to implement such a scheme in 2006, with the launch of the Education Agent Training Course (EATC), although this followed previous “Aussie education specialist” training delivered in-country by AEI. The purpose of the course is to provide agents with generic information about the Australian education system and Australia as a study destination, quality assurance issues and the visa system.

Agents can access and use the online training material at no cost, however, those wishing to become officially qualified complete the assessment mode at a cost of AUS$400 (US$258). Agents can currently take the test in 15 countries.

“There are over 800 people currently listed from 37 countries,” explains Chris Evason, Managing Director of PIER. “We are moving to a model whereby we will promote the benefits of being on this list (ie qualified) and those individuals who are listed will gain access to tools through their listing.” These tools will include a social networking platform for qualified agencies and an English language assessment system. “We expect the LMAP [assessment] product to be the first of many such services introduced over the coming years,” notes Evason.  

He is bullish about the benefits of the EATC for individual agents and the companies that employ them, claiming that a number of institutions are asking for at least one member of an agency’s staff to be qualified before engaging the company as its agent. He explains that the counsellors themselves are very keen to take the training and, “as the word spreads, the number of people taking the EATC is accelerating. Most individuals working as agents want recognition for the work they do – they often are blamed in media reports for any problems within the industry and have very few opportunities to demonstrate that they are professional people with ethics and skills.”

And the latest body to join the agent training bandwagon is PIER’s Antipodean neighbour, Education New Zealand, which launched its Specialist Agent Programme last year. “We launched this initiative for three main reasons,” explains EdNZ’s Stuart Boag. “To give agents more information and understanding about New Zealand; to help institutions and students access agents that are interested in New Zealand; and to support specialist agents by including them on the New Zealand Educated website.”

The programme is delivered in seminar form in various countries, and after a day’s training, agents are invited to sit an hour-long exam and successful candidates are given a certificate and access to a secure agents’ website, http://agents.newzealandeducated.com. Their details are also accessible on a New Zealand student website. “The feedback from agents that have been involved is that this is useful to them and helpful to their clients,” comments Boag. “Students and their parents appreciate some independent confirmation that the agent is both knowledgeable about and recognised by New Zealand.”

US-specific agent training
on the horizon

Education providers in the USA – universities in particular – have notoriously lagged behind providers in other countries in terms of working with agencies to build international enrolments. But there is a new group that was established last year, the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), which aims to build respect for the practice of using agencies through its “professional development curriculum” or training procedure (see LTM, December 2008, page 6).

Working with three founding agency members, AIRC, fronted by Mitch Leventhal of the University of Cincinnati, is developing standards that, if an agency can prove it meets, will result in it achieving AIRC certification (the aim being that US educators will feel secure working with such companies).

Leventhal explains to Language Travel Magazine that, unlike the other training options available, “AIRC will neither train nor certify counsellors. AIRC certification is a certification of the business, the corporate entity.” A quotient of an agency’s staff will have to meet required standards, probably evidenced by an exam pass, and the company will have to undergo a site visit and a self-study analysis.

“AIRC agency certification will involve some demonstration of technical understanding by some percentage of senior management within the company,” points out Leventhal, underlining that US-specific knowledge about the educational system, visa laws, etc, will be an inherent part of this. “This will likely be determined through the administration of an examination [and] it is very possible that one of the several other organisations that specialise in training will take on that role [of assessment],” he says.

As well as an expectation for a core number of agency staff to pass this test, AIRC would require a self-study analysis and a site visit, which will be funded by the applicant agency. This would be carried out by an AIRC member institution and “observe the entire operation”, says Leventhal, who explains that the cost is yet to be decided but “it will be considered a significant investment”. He said various international education groups in the USA have been invited to join AIRC as observers.

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