This week we chat with Fergus Brownlee, CEO of Cambridge Education Group, about future plans and what it means to win a Queen’s Award – a UK accolade recognising the organisation's work in bolstering international trade.

It is fair to say that Cambridge Education Group has enjoyed great success in recent years, with revenue increasing from £15m in 2006/07 to £100m in 2014/15. How will CEG ensure future success?

By expanding in continental Europe. We made our first footprint on the continent with our Amsterdam FoundationCampus in The Netherlands, which has been hugely successful. Through new campuses, we will partner with top 50-to-100 world ranked universities in a couple of different countries.  We will aim to launch two partnerships in the UK next year. The US is also a huge potential market. We are planning to expand widely across America in all three product areas from the Midwest to West coast and increase our university partnerships in the country. In Scottish courts they use the term ‘proven’ – if a case can’t be ‘proven’ it is thrown out of court. But we have ‘proven’ what we do in the UK and Netherlands and how we do it so our plan now is to expand into other geographies.

What led to your decision to join CEG after working at Capital One?

When I left Capital One in May 2005, I had retired. My daughter was nine at the time and I had plans to spend more time with her, play golf and tennis and pester my wife. But 18 months into my retirement I got a call from a head hunter who said I don’t think you will be interested in this opportunity with CEG… but here I am today. During the previous 20 years I had lived and worked in Turkey, France, America and South Africa and felt in need of a change but I felt that I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work for CEG as it is such a pioneering company, such an exciting opportunity. I left Capital One in mid-2005 just before the recession hit – I’d like to say this was because I foresaw the recession coming but in fact I was just very lucky.

What has been your proudest moment working at CEG so far?

Winning the Queen’s Award (see grapevine for photos) – it’s an accolade for the business as a whole. Our entire team is important to the business and our success is down to a large team effort. It is a big recognition of what has been achieved. We built the university partnerships division up from scratch – it started from nothing and has since grown to become one of our leading divisions with huge further potential and we started three businesses in Boston, including an exciting English language school.

A majority stake in CEG was sold to Bridgepoint late last year. How has this impacted business?

It is early days, but the sale gave a 14.6 return-on-investment to our previous investors, Palamon Capital Partners. Bridgepoint is bigger than Palamon and has deep pockets, so it should be easy to access funds when needed for our expansion plans.  The nature of private equity investment is that the normal investment cycle is around five years and having had a great experience under Palamon investment, we are delighted that we have another period of growth to manage under Bridgepoint’s investment and guidance.

How do you ensure a good nationality mix?

China is a huge source market, which has its advantages and issues. It’s an issue to have too high a percentage of Chinese students in the classroom, so we have introduced a specific rule to put a 30 per cent cap on any nationality in any one location to avoid receiving too many students from the big sender countries.

What are the nationality trends across the CEG schools?

China, the Arabic countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Korea and Japan are just some of our bigger source markets. Around 50-55 countries are represented in each college and we visit over 90 markets every year.

How selective is CEG in choosing students?

We are non-selective… we don’t go out and try to find straight A students. We look for those students to whom we can add value in what we teach. But to add value to a young person’s education, they must have as a minimum a prescribed set of academic grades and an adequate level of English. We work backwards from what the student needs to have as an IELTS score to enter their chosen higher education course, we know how much we can improve that score over the time we will have with the student and so we know what level of English will be necessary on entry to our course.

How many of your students come through agents and how does CEG continue to support them?

Roughly 85-to-90 per cent of students come through agents at CEG. Agents will continue to be an integral and valuable part of our recruitment efforts. We support them through CEGAS (CEG Accreditation Scheme).

What do you think the biggest threat to CEG’s success could be?

There are many threats that face us all on almost a daily basis: terrorism, pandemics, natural disasters and political intervention affecting student visas. Most of these outweigh our control and would affect life at large for a lot of us. A more balanced approach to allowing us to ‘export’, perhaps even supporting businesses such as CEG, would be welcomed rather than making it as difficult as it has been over the last few years. I believe that we have a much valued education system in the UK and we should be wary of damaging our reputation as being ‘open for business’ to international students.

What is the overall vision you have for CEG?

To meet the requirements of a broad range of students from a wide range of source countries wanting an English-language education. We are building our business in the US and see huge potential to extend the success that we have had in Europe through similar models in the USA.

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