|In an industry largely devoid of national regulations, language travel agency associations take on an important role; that is to ensure the high standard of members'; services and make them stand out in the marketplace as quality providers.
This is particularly true of the younger associations. In Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Education Consultants'; Association (HKIECA) was launched in November 2004. Catherine Lau, the association';s outgoing Chairperson, explains why it was set up. "The establishment of our association is an important milestone towards enhancing the professionalism of our industry and moving towards an effective self-regulatory system," she says. "As education has become an important [export] industry of many overseas countries, and the number of agents in Hong Kong has increased greatly in the last few years, quality control has become an issue."
Indonesian agency association, Ikatan Konsultan Pendidikan Internasional Indonesia (IKPII) was launched in March 2004 for similar reasons. Sumarjono Suwito at the association says that the Indonesian market has experienced increased competition among agencies and through the proliferation of offshore twining programmes in Indonesia. "Increased competition is good if it can… make the industry players become more mature and therefore compete in a professional way," he comments. "However, there is a tendency for unprofessional competition arising out of this situation and membership of an association can help [deter this]."
Even established associations keep their eyes firmly on quality. According to Ana María Iglesias of Spanish agency association Aseproce (which was formed 18 years ago), its main role remains the same as it was when it launched: "to promote the quality and professionalism of language and education travel consultants and the programmes offered to the Spanish market, and to protect the student';s interests".
The Association of Language Travel Organisations (Alto) was founded in 1998 as a sub-group of the Federation of International Youth Travel Organisations (Fiyto). It has 185 members that include both agents and schools as well as other relevant suppliers, and quality assurance is one of its main goals, says Melodie Karlson at Fiyto. Alto';s aims include "to promote high standards of ethical behaviour and excellence in language learning and language travel".
Like Alto, most agency associations are self-regulating and strive to ensure standards among members through codes of practice or conduct. Brazil';s Belta, which was founded in 1992, has its own code of conduct as well as a committee dedicated to ensuring the "correct application" of the code and encouraging "its systematic improvement", according to Tatiana Mendes, Belta';s President.
However, French association, Unosel, which was established in 1978 and has 46 members that are schools and agencies, expects members to adhere to the Afnor standard, a national quality seal. Independent experts are employed to inspect all potential new members, and then additional inspections take place every three years. "Because we observe [the Afnor] standard, which can be inspected and is indeed inspected at any time by relevant professional bodies, Unosel and its members have opted out of the system of self-regulation still practised by the rest of the profession," explains Unosel';s Sylviane Halphen.
National agency associations can also become a member of the international federation, Felca, which has its own code of practice. Paolo Barilari of Ialca says, "We have a code of practice, and we also have the Felca code of practice as a guideline."
Another move towards introducing international standards is through the "norme" quality standard for the European language travel industry, which has now been approved by the industry peer group overseen by Centre Europeen de Normalisation (CEN), details of which are to be released soon. German agency association FDSV has been instrumental in its development.
Other ways in which associations can help members develop good quality services is through training. "UED provides some training programmes for its members both within its own structure and together with international [organisations] such as the British Council, CEC Network, New Zealand Trade Commission and the Australian Embassy," relates Gulcan Islam at the Turkish association UED, which has 26 members. According to Elizabeth Sung, Vice President of Kosa, the Korean association organises at least two training sessions every year with "various embassy and government-related staff members to provide updated and informative sessions to our members". Kosa, like many other agency associations, also arranges familiarisation trips usually in collaboration with national education organisations.
Italian association Ialca, which was established in 1997, is to develop a training programme for members next year. "An agenda with three meetings every year, with seminars and forums on the recent developments of our industry, will be very helpful to improve the competitiveness and professionalism of our members. Experts from Italy and from schools and schools'; associations will be invited at these meetings," says President, Paolo Barilari. Newcomer HKIECA has also identified training as an important part of its remit, according to Lau. A survey of members revealed the following desired areas of training: counselling skills; matching students'; needs with suitable institutions; and the attitude and ethics of counsellors.
Taking training a step further, Jaos in Japan has recently launched its Certified Study Abroad Counsellors certificate. Distance learning sessions will be organised by Jaos, in collaboration with the publisher of the Japanese Study Abroad Magazine. The first certified test is to be set in early 2006.
There are many other benefits of being part of an agency association, although these depend on the group, its maturity and the country in which it is operating. Aseproce, for example, offers its members legal advice and special prices for medical and civil liability insurance and, according to Iglesias, "an exclusive cancellation insurance especially developed for the industry".
Tosa in Taiwan, meanwhile which was instrumental in lobbying government to legalise overseas study centres in 1994 offers its members other services such as investigating illegal competition, reviewing the effectiveness of governmental policies and "forming campaigns to advocate governmental decisions favouring the development of the industry", says Christy Chang at Tosa.
As to the services offered to students, this differs greatly between associations. At one end of the scale are some such as AAEAC in Argentina that do not offer students any services, while at the other end are associations that provide contact names and other advice to potential clients.
Aseproce seeks to inform potential language travellers through its cheap-rate telephone line that provides expert advice on study programmes and destinations to clients, while Belta has a website with a search facility and a free magazine, called EI! Educação Internacional, of which 50,000 copies are distributed throughout Brazil.
At Tosa, Chang explains, "We try to offer as much information as we can to students and agents and help them if they meet problems." Chang strongly believes it is part of their role to help clients, as well as agencies. "We offer students overseas studies information by holding education exhibitions, [publishing] newsletters and so on, to protect the rights of students studying overseas and to improve the image of the overseas study industry. Students and parents trust us and ask us for help."
It is no good assuring the quality of members if no one in your country knows about the association and its values. This is why so many agent associations work hard to raise their profiles nationally. "Making the association well known in our country is our number-one challenge," confirms Ana María Iglesias of Aseproce, "although our budget for advertisements is limited." PR, therefore, plays an important role. "We provide information to the press, magazines, radio and TV, answering all requests, giving interviews and participating in forums about the industry," says Iglesias.
UED in Turkey is also very active in its home market. Gulcan Islam at the association comments, "UED ensures that it is well known by issuing newletters, organising education fairs and joining campaigns with non-profit organisations in educational matters."
Another highly effective way to increase an association';s profile is to organise education fairs. This also provides valuable business opportunities for members. It is no wonder then that more agency associations are entering the events-organising arena.
Aseproce is one of the most recent recruits to the exhibition circuit. "Aseproce decided to organise its own education fair, Salon de los Idiomas, because the general education fairs at which our members traditionally participated were simply not focused enough," says Iglesias. Its inaugural 2004 events were held in three cities in Spain and were attended by about half of their members. This year, the events were held in six cities in total and 65 per cent of members attended.
One of the biggest and most established events is ExpoBelta. According to Belta';s President, Tatiana Mendes, in 2005 it attracted over 14,000 visitors. In Korea, Kosa is one of the sponsors of the Korea Student Fair, which according to Elizabeth Sung is the largest educational student fair in Korea. This provides Kosa with an invaluable PR opportunity. "During this event, a Kosa representative conducts seminars to the public to present Kosa';s role and activities," explains Sung.
Tieca in Thailand also organises a major education fair in the country. "The Thai International Fair is one of Thailand';s largest and best annual international exhibitions of educational opportunities abroad," claims Saijai Srijayanta, Tieca Manager. According to Srijayanta, the Tieca fair enjoys the patronage of HRH Princess Sirindhorn, as Tieca works with overseas institutions to arrange scholarships for members of the palace staff.