The evidence from our 2012 student survey indicates that many students compare companies before committing to one agency. While recommendation will always continue to play a major part in determining student choice, Internet research has now become a standard means by which clients find out about the choices available to them, with 44 per cent of those surveyed using the Internet to research agency options (see figure 3).
For many clients agency websites are a valuable tool, not only for selecting agencies but also in narrowing down school choices. As Viviane from Switzerland highlights, “I’ve got all the important information there, in order to get me prepared for the face-to-face consultation at their office.” A total of 67 per cent of respondents scored their agency’s website at least seven out of 10, with 15 per cent awarding the top rating of 10 out of 10. Nevertheless, a significant proportion (13 per cent) mainly among those who based their decision on recommendation claim not to have visited their chosen agency’s website at all and potentially missed out on the wealth of information that can be found.
When asked the reasons for deciding upon their particular agency, 30 per cent of survey respondents went on recommendation, while 24 per cent spoke of the good impression gained at their consultation and 22 per cent highlighted price as a decisive factor (see figure 4). Many students based their decision on two or more factors; Anna from Sweden commented, “Their prices were the best, and they gave a good service. When I called them, they called me back with more [information].” Meanwhile, Carlos from Brazil explained, “They had [fair] prices and they showed confidence, security and experience.”
The majority (57 per cent) undertook a face-to-face consultation, and just 10 per cent relied solely on online/Internet contact (see figure 6). However, the amount of counselling students received from agents varied considerably. While the shortest duration was reported to be 10 minutes, the average was between one and two hours.
Some students received much more extensive help. For example, Aline from Brazil says, “We met about [twice] a week during 1.5 months,” and Gustavo, also from Brazil, says his consultation time amounted to five or six hours. Mohammadhossein from Iran, who reports having had many meetings with his counsellor, relates, “They have very professional counsellors, and their advisors spent a lot of time with me to help me make a decision about my educational trip selection.” Moreover, for one student from Turkey, the consultation process was on-going from before booking until the start of the course.
It is worth noting, on the other hand, that not all students are looking for extensive support or advice. A sizeable proportion (41 per cent) had already decided on their destination country and/or city before consulting their agent, and another 41 per cent had also selected their course without any agent advice.
A substantial majority used their agency to narrow down their options. Pascal from Switzerland, for example, says, “I wanted to study in the USA... in an exciting, warm location,” while Viviane relates, “I knew that I wanted to go to England, but I wasn’t sure about the city.”
In a number of cases, nevertheless, agent advice proved important in informing students of factors they had not previously taken into account that persuaded them to change their minds and opt for a different destination that better met their other needs. Mohammadhossein, for example, was originally set on studying in the UK. However, after his agent explained that he would need level four in general Ielts for his UK visa, he took their advice and opted to go initially to South Africa to get his English up to the required level first.
The kind of information agents provided to help students decide on their exact destination varied according to individual interests and needs. “They said that Cape Town was the city with [fewer] Colombians, and also...I’m a designer and Cape Town is the world capital of design for 2014,” reports Diana from Colombia. For Tais from Brazil, “[The agency] showed me some differences between Canada and France the positives and negatives of each country and I decided to come to Canada.” Other information given to students included ease of obtaining a visa, weather and other location factors, such as beach and activities available. The student nationality profile of the destination city/school was considered an important deciding factor by 13 per cent of respondents.
In terms of course advice, the majority focussed on the most suitable number of weeks’ study and number of hours of study per week needed to achieve the student’s aims. Recommendations also took into account visa factors, such as in the case of a Swiss student studying in Miami, who comments, “The agency advised me very well, because for this standard course I don’t need a visa.” Less commonly, students were advised to enrol on specialist programmes, such as Ielts preparation courses or Cambridge Esol’s First Certificate of English. However, a number of applicants were happy to make the decision themselves, often based on the information gleaned from the agency website.
Given that all students in the survey were reporting their experience of the agency they finally chose, it is unsurprising that not a single student expressed themselves dissatisfied with the range of course options offered to them. However, a small minority were non-committal, including a Saudi Arabian student, who comments, “There were no options offered...; they just suggested [options], according to their experience.” Meanwhile, Mohammadhossein observes that he was satisfied with the choices offered at the time, although after arrival he found that not everything was as he had been led to believe. “For example..., their information about courses, visas and insurance was wrong, and they gave me a visitor visa for three months [for a seven-month course of study], not a student visa, and that’s why I had a lot of problems to extend my visa.”
Regarding accommodation, on the other hand, as many as 16 per cent expressed dissatisfaction with the choices they were offered, while a further five per cent chose to book independently. Cost was a significant factor for Pang-An from Taiwan, leading to a decision to find an apartment independently. Other students felt either that there was insufficient choice provided or that the information given about the different options was inadequate.
Location, location... and recommendation
The eventual decision on the specific course and school was reached on the basis of a wide variety of factors (see figure 7). In 19 per cent of cases, agent recommendation was the deciding factor, with a further five per cent basing their decision on the recommendation of a friend or family member. Location (24 per cent) proved equally persuasive, while the school’s reputation (based either on prior knowledge or agent recommendation) was also cited by 13 per cent of respondents.
In terms of other services, orientation information prior to departure was received by 78 per cent of respondents and was highly valued. Airport pick-up details were by far the most frequently mentioned, followed by provision of maps and school location and weather.
Eighty-three per cent of students said they were given a 24-hour emergency contact number or email address that they could use while abroad. In addition, 51 per cent of respondents reported that their agency had been in touch with them during their course. Others had made contact themselves with the agency. The ability to make contact with their advisor while studying appears to have given considerable reassurance to those students.
Overall, the majority of students were satisfied with the efficiency of their advisor (figure 5) in dealing with their study abroad arrangements, with 18 per cent awarding full marks when asked to assess them. Where they had criticisms, these centred on visa problems, the agent’s insufficient knowledge of the country and/or school and the expense of accommodation offered to them. Some also felt that, in retrospect, they would have liked more information upon which to have based their choice, and one student from the Netherlands would have preferred more visual information concerning accommodation photographs of rooms, bathroom facilities and exterior of the building.
Booking fees were paid by 64 per cent of respondents. While a significant minority said they felt the amount charged was too high, for Russian student, Zifa, “The amount in money, relative to the amount of advice given, was balanced.” Where the fee was stated, this generally ranged between 140 and 1122 (US$49 and US$150), and most agreed that this was fair.
In line with this finding, 89 per cent of respondents said they would recommend their agency to others. Among the remaining 11 per cent, cost was one determining factor, while others either blamed the agency for showing inadequate knowledge or felt that they had not received a good enough service generally.
By contrast, willingness to spend a lot of time explaining and talking through different options was valued by many respondents. Viviane from Switzerland is a typical example, commenting, “The people from the agency are exceptionally friendly and they spend as much time as you want to find the best option for you.” Meanwhile, fellow Swiss student Elisabeth says, “Because they gave enough details, I wasn’t scared to start this trip.”
The quality and accuracy of advice is also commented upon by a number of respondents, including Faisl, who notes, “He advised correctly and [has] got experience.” Furthermore, students were impressed by agencies they felt looked after them throughout the booking process and beyond. “They were very helpful and I could always call them, or they call me,” says Maryory from Colombia.”
The overall positive experience led to two thirds of respondents saying they would use an agency again, while a further 27 per cent were undecided (figure 8). Some felt that, having undertaken one trip, they would now be more confident to book independently in the future. Meanwhile, one student commented that she would make better use of the agency on another occasion by asking more questions. The overall verdict, however, was that booking via an agency had made organising the trip easier than going it alone. “You don’t have to worry about anything,” concludes Johan from Switzerland.
(Due to the complexity of the data, this article is only displayed in the digital issue of Study Travel Magazine)
Language centres: 22 centres in 12 countries
Regional sales offices: four in three countries (Switzerland, France, UK)