March 2010 issue

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High schools
and agents

Independent high schools are increasingly looking to attract overseas students, and agents play a crucial role in this. Gillian Evans reports.

For some time, high schools in many countries have acknowledged the value of attracting international students. As Mike Kliman, District Administrator of International Programs in Richmond, BC, Canada – where three per cent of total students are from overseas – says, they “enhance the learning environment for all students by building global networks and creating cultural awareness”. Now, however, many high schools are also looking overseas to bolster domestic student numbers, which have fallen because of the economic downturn.

For all international schools, it is imperative to ensure a good nationality mix, as Natalie Dawe at Bell Bedgebury International School in the UK highlights. “Since 2007, we have welcomed students from over 40 countries,” she says. “It’s extremely important to us that we keep a broad nationality mix as this encourages our students to communicate in English.”

Spread of nationalities
Attracting a good spread of international students can be a daunting and expensive task for high schools that enrol mainly home students as they often have very limited international marketing budgets, and require only relatively low numbers from individual countries to ensure a wide range of nationalities, as Suzanne Rowse, Director of British Boarding Schools Workshop GB, points out. “Many schools may only need to recruit a relatively small number of students each year into key year groups but they need also to obtain a good spread of student nationalities,” she says. “For example, this could mean they only need one or two students from different countries.”

Whether the high school’s enrolment comprises mainly international students or home students, a good network of overseas agents is crucial. Richard Gorst from St Clare’s International College in Cambridge, UK – where 85 per cent of students are from overseas – says the college has a “loyal family of agents from just about every corner of the globe”. Currently 44 different nationalities are enrolled on its International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma course. Therefore, says Gorst, “Marketing the college overseas is an essential part of our promotional activities.”

He says IB is particularly popular in Germany and Russia as well as Poland, Serbia and Albania, but in some countries, such as Italy, Gorst believes agents are not seizing the opportunity of high school placement. “St Clare’s is extremely popular in Italy but Italian agents, with a couple of notable exceptions as far as we are concerned, seem to have missed a trick; being more focused on seasonal short courses.” Meanwhile, Pat Jewitt, Registrar at Queen Ethelburga’s College, York, in the UK reports, “Agents from Russia and indeed now the Russian Federation along with China/Hong Kong are the most active in marketing British boarding schools.”

Agent opportunity
Parents of prospective students often require the services of an agent to ensure they get exactly what they are looking for. “In some of these countries,” asserts Declan Millar at High Schools International, which places students in high schools in Ireland, the UK, Australia, the USA and Canada, “clients do not have the expertise or experience to make good informed choices and depend on agencies for this and for visa guidance. They also depend on local agents for progression guidance to universities.”

Rowse agrees. “A good agent will match candidates to appropriate schools thereby benefiting all parties,” she explains. “Schools have invested a lot in websites to attract overseas students but without the experience of a good agent, dealing with candidates direct and arranging for entrance exams to be supervised can be time-consuming and unproductive.”

Kliman relates that agents create “important linkages and liaisons between the clients and the educational providers”. He continues, “They have knowledge about cultural nuances and perspectives, they have the language base for communication, and they are able to create an environment of trust and confidence for the parents of prospective students.”

Agent know-how
Educatius International places international students in high schools, colleges and universities in the USA mainly, through agents. “ We [work with agents] because we feel it is the best way to make sure we access the highest competence and know-how in each and every market,” asserts Andreas Beyer at the company. In addition, Beyer highlights the valuable market intelligence agents can provide. “We value the input of all our agents and use this information to directly influence our programmes and services to better match what our partners want. This can mean that we add new schools in new destinations or change processes. We try to work very closely with all partners to make sure we do not miss good ideas and input.”

Lana Foster at UK-based Bright World – which, working together with agents, places international students in UK boarding schools as well as providing a guardianship service – agrees. “A good professional agent will save the school registrar hours of wasted time and helps them to ensure that students’ tests and reports are all above board and professionally invigilated,” she says, adding that agents also help schools cope with language barriers, “which irons out a lot of teething problems and also ensures that fees are paid promptly”.

Support materials
To ensure a smooth relationship, however, schools and placement organisations that work with agents must support them. “Developing relationships and providing information and support quickly to agents is imperative,” relates Dawe. As well as printed and Internet material specifically for agents, other useful support includes seminars and training workshops for agency staff, regular

High school agent workshops in the UK

“I am committed to supporting the partnership between schools and agents so I help schools to understand how to build successful business-to-business relationships and how to support their agents, which is new to many school staff,” explains Suzanne Rowse, Director of British Boarding Schools Workshop GB in the UK.

A closed event specifically for UK high school providers and overseas agents, the British Boarding School Workshop (BBSW) was held for the first time in 2006. It was a resounding success, selling out in just two weeks. It now runs two events per year with places for 55 schools and around 70 agents.

While Rowse does not believe that the success of the workshop reflects growing use of agents – as she says, “UK boarding schools have been recruiting from overseas for many years” – she does acknowledge that dwindling numbers of home students have led some schools to look more seriously at their overseas marketing strategies. “Feedback informs us that the BBSW is making it much easier for schools to recruit from overseas as they can meet quality, screened agents under one roof. Plus it makes recruitment accessible to those with small marketing budgets,” she says.

BBSW also runs a consultancy service for schools to help them develop their international marketing strategy, as well as an annual international marketing conference for schools all over the country. According to Rowse, the aims of the conference are to foster professional international marketing in UK schools; maximise the opportunity of having agents available to talk about market developments; and to keep schools up-to-date on relevant issues, such as visas.
Rowse also runs a one-day workshop for preparatory schools that recruit students up to the age of 13. “The market is much smaller than for older pupils so the agents are selected carefully in countries where there are markets for younger boarding pupils,” she explains.

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