||One aspect of association membership that tends to be valued highly is what Gokhan Islamoglu of Turkish association, UED, refers to as “sectoral solidarity and mutual support”. At a practical level, most associations offer a package of practical support and services. Regular familiarisation (fam) trips to overseas schools, group participation in workshops and fairs, along with group brochures and websites are just some of the advantages that members can expect. Some also offer training events on a variety of topics.
At Spanish agents’ association, Aseproce, support services extend to a mediation and conciliation service to help resolve any disputes between members and their clients, and use of a specialised law firm.
However, above and beyond all this, of key importance for General Secretary, Marta Galea, is the fact that the association also provides “a meeting point for reflection and exchange of information”. Sylviane Halphen of French association, Unosel, similarly appreciates highly the benefit of “having advice to help one progress in one’s job and to not feel isolated”.
An equally important function for Halphen is the role of promoting the industry, both to consumers and to the authorities. As Galea points out, the association acts as “the visible face of the industry”, through its press office both promoting and providing information about the advantages of learning languages abroad, and defending the interests of its members before government, the media and others.
Through this kind of activity, associations also have a major responsibility for the industry’s reputation. As Brazilian association (Belta) spokesperson, Maura Leão, observes, Belta brings credibility in the local market as well as providing “a stronger voice when trying to find new paths and solutions on behalf of the market”.
Over the past two years, industry promotion and the reinforcing of its quality credentials have been core priorities for a number of agent associations worldwide. The promotional role is a perennial one, but, as Islamoglu points out, in times of economic difficulty, this takes on a greater significance.
Such was the situation, for example, in Turkey last year, and UED has responded by increasing its promotional focus, in order to reach larger numbers of Turkish students. It launched a new association magazine in summer 2010, has participated in a number of fairs and has also arranged fam trips to different countries to help members create new partnerships with schools in new destinations.
Similarly, at Belta, a new national media campaign has been drawn up, and work is on-going to provide a new association website, incorporating new features targeting students. Online market research is also being undertaken.
The value of promotion is, of course, greatly enhanced by the work simultaneously engaged in to ensure that quality standards in member schools are, and remain, high. This, in turn, brings a further benefit to those that are accepted into membership: “I can proudly say that UED membership gives member agents a sectoral prestige [both] in and outside Turkey,” states Islamoglu.
Moreover, in the current regulatory climate, the quality standards upheld by agent associations could prove crucial to future recruitment of visa students. In a world where national governments are seeking new ways of approaching the problem of how to curb the number of bogus students entering their countries (see box overleaf), the perception of agent quality is certain to take on a greater importance in the future than it has up to now.
For many agent associations, their quality function entails continued attention to refining standards that have been established over years of operation. UED, for example, has had a code of practice, an ethics code and a complaints procedure in place from its very early days of existence. Nevertheless, comments Islamoglu, “We are still working to strengthen the code and complaints procedure, and make it more effective.”
Unosel, meanwhile, having been instrumental in creating the French standard for language courses in 1999, introduced a new Unosel quality label in January 2011, comprising a 10-point pledge on standards. “We believe that clients are demanding more and more seriousness and quality on the part of our profession, and in exacting these standards we believe we are a long way in advance of the rest of the European market,” Halphen comments.
Unosel has also undertaken an audit of its members’ websites and brochures, in order, where necessary, to help bring them into line with the tourism and consumer codes. Having also reviewed its audit checklists to incorporate these requirements, Unosel is now helping to improve industry practice in Spain by sharing information with colleagues at Aseproce.
Currently, Aseproce is developing its own quality code, based upon the European standard. By enhancing the professionalism of its members, comments Galea, Aseproce aims to help them to retain customer satisfaction in a market where competition is constantly increasing. “Our members look for excellence, and have increasingly higher levels of quality and they are the aspects that separate us from the competition.”
At Belta, too, Leão reports that the board is continuing the work begun in 2009 to improve processes, and strengthen the image of the association and its members within the Brazilian market.
With visa difficulties being one of the most frequently cited frustrations of the agent’s work, training in visa requirements and procedures is a valuable service for members, and one in which Belta has invested a good deal of effort of late, having developed a strong relationship with a number of consulates and embassies, including those of the USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Spain. In particular, she says, the US and UK consulates work very closely with the association when there is a need to explain major changes in their visa processes.
As a result of this relationship, US-bound students who make their arrangements through a member agency are able to schedule a time with the American Consulate when they are processing their visa, explains Leão. She adds that working together with the US consulate in Brazil has helped both parties to promote the US as a destination for education. And the relationship is very much two-sided, as “The visa authorities count on Belta members’ support for enrolling genuine students. For this reason, the relationship has become stronger,” she observes.
Associations’ agent training also extends into other areas. For example, Islamoglu reports that UED arranges various training events, including both personal and professional development seminars given by professional educators and trainers on topics such as social and emotional intelligence, time management, customer relations, sales management and telemarketing. It also arranges briefings on recent market developments, country and/or programme-based topics, as well as visas. These, he notes, are sometimes jointly organised with the visa sections of foreign embassies or bodies like Study in Estonia.
At Unosel, Halphen is also keen to underline the importance of on-going training. Here, session topics have included proposals, lobbying and crisis management. Belta members, meanwhile, can attend lectures before the association’s annual fair, which, explains Leão, are designed to improve the relationship between agent and customer. In 2011, Belta hosted two agent lectures one, given by the Spanish consul, on how to apply for a student visa to Spain and the second given by an English UK representative.
From the above, it is clear that, for individual agencies, the benefits of being part of a nationwide representative organisation are manifold. With indications that governments could eventually deal only with “approved” agencies (see box) as witnessed already in the language school sector the advantages can only be increased. Great challenges are ahead for education agents, and strong industry associations have a key role to play.
The value of sharing information and ideas is often quoted as one of the core benefits of membership of national industry associations. This ethos is represented par excellence by the Federation of Education and Language Consultant Associations (Felca). Composed of 12 national agent associations spanning three continents, Felca not only brings together agents from around the world, but also serves as interlocutor for the international language schools’ association, Gaela.
Felca’s aim, according to association president, Juan Elizalde, is to become the benchmark for quality agents worldwide. Quality issues have grown in importance around the world over recent years, and Felca accreditation, he believes, is “a must”.
While there has been a recent upsurge of interest from both governments and private bodies such as AIRC (the American International Recruitment Council) and Qisan (Quality International Study Abroad Network) in providing accreditation and training for study travel advisors, Elizalde is adamant that agent accreditation must remain firmly in the hands of the industry.
The importance of providing strong quality credentials is put into clear relief by two developments, which could have important consequences for the education advice sector. First is the revelation that the Australian government is considering legislation that would require its language schools to recruit only through agencies that belong to a professional association (where one exists) and where certain minimum training requirements have been met.
If other markets were to follow suit, there is a concern that this could lead to individual advisors being required to meet separate criteria for sending students to different countries a situation that would prove time-consuming, expensive and impractical.
The urgency of this matter is further underlined by the fact that Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC Canada) has made it illegal for agencies to offer visa advice to students wishing to study there (see STM, Sep 2011, page 6). If the industry is unable to convince governments of its professional credentials, then it will be at risk of having its wings severely clipped.
Clearly, the time is right for concerted action by the industry to demonstrate its professionalism, and Felca, with its transnational representation and quality credentials, is well placed to take a lead. In the context of these developments, “Felca will be seeking to boost the awareness of the quality of its members and accreditation,” says Felca coordinator, Hothouse Media’s Scott Wade. Felca will make it a priority to ensure that governments are aware of the high standards it represents, with the aim of obviating the need for additional, separate accreditation. According to Wade, the aim will be to work with Gaela to achieve this, particularly where members’ home governments are concerned.