October 2006 issue

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Agency service assessed

Why do people book language travel courses through agencies? And what do they think of the service they receive? We interviewed a number of students to find out their views. Gillian Evans takes a look at the results.

Even for a well-seasoned traveller, the prospect of booking a language course overseas can be a bit daunting. As a language course costs a considerable amount of money, most people want to know that they are going to get appropriate and excellent tuition, comfortable accommodation, a good selection of activities and a school that really has their best interests at heart.

Just turning up in Madrid, London or Auckland, for example, and sourcing options, as you might for accommodation, is not really an adequate approach for academic training. So many prospective language travel students turn to the booking experts: language travel agents and educational consultants.

Moreover, the main reason given for booking a course through an agency among the students we interviewed for this article was convenience. For example, 19-year-old Ulrika from Sweden went to an agency to book her four-week course “because I thought it would be easier”, while Prasarn, 23, from Thailand, felt that as her English language skills were rather limited, it was better to go through an agency. “I didn’t have any way to contact the college and I’m not confident to do it by myself,” she admits.

For Marc, aged 18 from Spain, the motivating factor for using an agent was that it gave him someone in his own country to speak to “face to face and make sure it was all OK”. In fact, the security offered by booking through a contact in a student’s own country was highlighted by a number of our respondents. “I wanted to feel safe,” states 26-year-old Luciana from Brazil when asked about her reason for using an agent.

Twenty-three-year-old Adam from Sweden also underlines that booking his course through an agent gave him confidence. He says, “I felt it was a good idea to have an insurance [by booking through an agent in my own country] in case something bad would happen.”

Extra reasons to book

Some agents offered students a financial incentive for a booking. Korean, Mi Ri, aged 22, says, “Because my course was quite expensive, [the agent] gave a discount to me.” For Jeremy, 31, from the USA, added value was also a reason for using an agent: his agency gave “a price-matching guarantee, plus extra travellers’ insurance”.

Many agencies dealt not only with the school booking but also made travel arrangements and helped with visa applications, and this range of services was greatly appreciated by students. One of the advantages of using an agent for 23-year-old Dagmar from the Czech Republic was that they “prepared all my travel to Australia and consulted me with a selection of schools.” In addition, her agency has a branch in Sydney, meaning that agency staff were always on hand to help. This contributed to her being “100 per cent confident with my agency”.

Increasing numbers of agencies are opening overseas branches to ensure the satisfaction of their clients whilst on their study trip, and this appears to be a welcome move by students. Koray, 22, from Sweden suggests that a better service could have been given by his agency if there had been “a person in Tokyo who was assigned to the travel agency in Sweden to help with our problems [in Japan]”.

Mine of information

Apart from these reasons, and the convenience and security of booking through an agency, another important reason for using a study abroad consultancy is for the wealth of information they have at their fingertips and the insider knowledge they can pass on to their clients. As Byung-Gil, 24, from Korea, says, “I needed someone who had lots of information about schools to help me.” Personal consultation from an agent was highly valued by students. “My agent took a lot of time for me and [worked out several] different options,” relates Jae Young Park, 24, from Korea.

Luciana from Brazil felt that she had benefited from her agency’s in-depth knowledge of the industry. “In Sydney, it is easy to find a lot of students from Brazil in English schools. [My agency] told me about a new school which would be better to improve my English [as I would be] away from other Brazilians,” she notes.

The type of information supplied that students valued was also far ranging, from details of the food and customs of the destination to visa entry rules and work regulations. A useful piece of advice given by an agent to 22-year-old Niklas from Sweden was to take a 13-week course because “in Sweden you can [receive a loan] from the state for studying for a minimum of 13 weeks”.

Students also rated being given brochures or extra information about their destination and school, and it seems that they can never have enough relevant information. Byung-Gil received “several booklets” from his agency, but he nevertheless says, “I think they need more detailed information, for example, the weather, food, prices and the exact [nature] of the school.” Ulrika relates that she would have appreciated more details about what her course entailed, and 18-year-old Faisal from Kuwait comments that he would have liked to know more about local transport and his accommodation.

Examples of poor service

The main complaint, however, from our respondents was inaccurate information, which indicates the importance of school/agent dialogue and the value of an agency employee having first-hand experience of their partner schools. Simone, 19, from Sweden, complains that she was not told of the distance from the accommodation to her school. In addition, she says, “My guesthouse didn’t have check-in the day I arrived. The agency should have looked that up.”

Koray said he was disappointed because his class size was much bigger than he had been advised and there were many more of his compatriots in his class. “I was told that a maximum of four-to-five Swedes would attend my class, however, there were 16 Swedes in my class on the first day of school,” he says.

But his main gripe was that he felt his agency had little experience of his study destination, Japan: “The staff had no experience of studying in Japan whatsoever. I would have appreciated speaking to a staff member who had studied or lived in Tokyo/Japan.” For this reason, he says, he would not book through the agency again. “Since no one in the agency had ever visited the city in question, they had a lot of information that was false.”

Other imperatives

Accurate information about visas was also important to students. Mi Ri, in Korea, said her agency informed her of the regulations concerning part-time employment in the UK. This is surely an imperative for any agency, to ensure clients can take advantage of part-time work options once overseas if they are available.

Mi Ri adds, “[The agency] corrected my application form for my student visa and gave some advice about financial assurance for the student visa.” In Luciana’s case, she would have appreciated more detailed information about her visa options once in Australia. She states, “[My agency] could have given me more details about changing the kind of visa I have here, from student to a visa with work permission.” And Adam from Sweden concurs that he would have valued “further information about the different visa types” from his agency.

An agency’s job is increasingly not only about appropriate placement in a school that best suits a client’s needs, but about all-round consultation and orientation – assuring that visa issuance is most likely to be successful and arming clients with information about accommodation, travel, work opportunities, living conditions and leisure options too. This level of attention marks out successful operators.

And Simone from Sweden suggests that agencies should make this sort of information available promptly or on the web. “[The agency] answers every question you give them quickly but it would have been easier just to get all of the information at the beginning or if they had a FAQ at their website,” she relates.

However, overall, our interviewees were satisfied with the service they received from their agencies. We asked them to rate their agencies on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best and one being the worst. The overall average was close to eight, and 92 per cent indicated that they would use an agency again. Over half of our respondents indicated that their agency had been in contact with them while they were overseas on their study abroad trip to see how they were getting on.

One highly satisfied customer was Marc from Spain, who congratulated his agency – Easy Idiomas – for the excellent service it provided. “My study abroad experience is even better than I expected and the school is excellent,” he exclaims. “I’m truly thankful to my agency.”

Agency scores

We asked students to give their agencies a score out of 10 (with one being the lowest score and 10 being the highest) for the service they received and explain their reasons why. Below are some of the answers we received:

8/10 > “They answered my questions quickly and if they didn’t know the answer [to a question] they looked it up.”
Madeleine, Sweden

10/10 > “They have done all they promised me. My experience is just great.”
Marc, Spain

5/10 > “The paperwork was done correctly and efficiently, but the staff had no experience of studying in Japan whatsoever. “
Koray, Sweden

9/10 > “Every problem or question I had my agency investigated it and gave me an answer. Even now, my agency sends me emails to see how I’m doing here.”
Luis Roberto, Mexico

6/10 > “Sometimes I didn’t get an answer fast enough and the travel agent hadn’t actually been to Tokyo, it seemed.”
Niklas, Sweden

8/10 > “They gave me a lot of choices and information for each choice but I had to get the visa by myself. I think it [would have been] better if they had given me some help.”
Prasarn, Thailand

10/10 > “[My agency] provided quick, succinct answers to all of my questions and provided very detailed information about my homestay, airport pickup, etc. There were very few surprises.”
Jeremy, USA

How did you find out about your agency?
Have you used a language travel agency before?
Internet (48%)
Friend/rel. (36%)
Embassy (4%)
At an expo (4%)
Unknown (8%)
Yes (4%)
No (96%)

Would you use a language travel agency again?
Did your agency provide you with further information about your destination?
Yes (92%)
No (8%)
Yes (72%)
No (12%)
Unknown (16%)

Did your agency deal with your travel arrangements?
Did your agency organise your visa
Yes (64%)
No (36%)
Yes (64%)
No (36%)

Did your agency charge you a booking fee?
Has your agency contacted you since you have been overseas?
Yes (44%)
No (40%)
Unknown (16%)
Yes (56%)
No (44%)

Do you think it is the agent's responsibility to check that you are satisfied with your programme while you are overseas?
Yes (84%)
No (16%)

Thank you to the following schools for taking part in this feature:
English Language Company, Sydney, Australia; International Study Institute Chukyo (ISI Chukyo), Gifu, Japan; International Study Institute Tokyo (ISI Tokyo), Tokyo, Japan; ISI Language School, Tokyo, Japan; Global Language Institute, St Paul, MN, USA; Language Schools New Zealand, Christchurch/Queensland, New Zealand; Manchester Academy of English, Manchester, UK; Nagano Language College, Nagano, Japan.
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Education New
       Zealand Trust
English Australia

English Australia

Malta Tourism

InterGlobal Ltd.


Byron Bay English
       Language School
CHEC English
       Language Centre
ELSIS English
       Language School
      in Sydney
English Australia
GEOS Sydney
Global Village
       Sydney (Universal
       English College)
Monash University
Sydney Institute of
University of
University of
       Western Australia

Archer Education
Vancouver English

Mandarin House

Aspect (Australia,
       Canada, England,
       Ireland, Malta,
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Bell International
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LAL Language and
       Leisure (England,
       Malta, South Africa,
Malvern House
       Language School
Oxford Intensive
       School of English
       (OISE) (Australia,
       England, France,
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Queen Ethelburga's
St Giles Colleges
       (Canada, UK, USA)
Study Group
       (Australia, Canada,
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EICAR- Paris
       International Film
SILC - Séjours
       Linguistiques &
       Culturels (England,
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Prolog- International
       House Berlin

Emerald Cultural
High Schools
       International (HSI)
       (England, Australia,
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ISI Language School

EC - English
       Language Centres
       (England, Malta,
       South Africa)
Malta Tourism
NSTS (Head Office)

Education New
       Zealand Trust

Language Link,
Liden & Denz
       Language Centre
Moscow Linguistic

inlingua Singapore


EF Language
       Colleges Ltd
       (Australia, Canada,
       China, Ecuador,
       England, France,
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       Zealand, Russia,
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       Africa, Spain, USA)
       (Australia, Canada,
       England, France,
       Germany, Italy,
       Japan, New
       Zealand, Russia,
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American Language
       Center (ALCC)
Hun School of
       Princeton, The
Kaplan Educational
       Centers (Canada,
       England, USA)
Program for
       American Language
       Studies (PALS)
University of
       California Riverside
University of West
Zoni Language