By Matthew Knott, News Editor of Study Travel Magazine

Continuing on from the currency-related theme of my column last week, today we have a news story focussing on the travails of agents in the Eurozone, who are struggling with the most unfavourable exchange rates against the pound and the dollar for some years.

Agents featured in the article were appealing for assistance and support, with appeals to schools of discounted course prices and commission offers on accommodation. Given how many students the Eurozone covers as a singular market, this may or may not be realistic for some schools.

But language schools in the UK would do well to take notice. Despite the widely reported economic struggles of Italy and Spain over recent years, they are invariably the UK’s two largest recruitment markets, and this is once again borne out in our forthcoming analysis of UK language schools in the May issue of StudyTravel Magazine.

The problem for the UK is that its most obvious and nearest competitor, Ireland, has nowhere near the same capacity but crucially it operates within the Eurozone, eliminating unfavourable exchange rates. As one agent, a Board member at Felca, said in the article, it is difficult to justify the price differential between the UK and Ireland (and Malta for that matter). We have seen evidence of some schools supporting their European partners already, and it will be interesting to see how the summer shapes up.

Elsewhere in the news over the last week, our staff journalist Claire Twyman filed a news report that possibly made uncomfortable reading for another sector of the UK’s international education industry. Delegates at the Universities UK conference were told how the sector risks losing its competitive edge as other countries increase marketing and international student recruitment efforts and roll out a more comprehensive international welcome (another topic that will be covered in the May issue of STM in the a UK university report).

Seemingly backing up assertions made at the conference, and indeed echoing respective national data we have reported in STM over the last year, was an enrolment report from the Northern Hemisphere Universities Program division of global provider Navitas. While 2015 first semester enrolments surged forward nicely in Canada (+16 per cent) and the US (+15), the UK flat-lined with an increase of just one per cent.

The reduction of the Tier 4 student visa refusal rate for sponsors to 10 per cent was cited by Navitas as affecting the UK. Although the company didn’t elaborate further on this point, it is likely that their partner universities and Navitas themselves are being cautious in certain recruitment markets with a history of refusals, and the recent suspension of a UK university for breaching the 10 per cent limit will have reverberated across the sector no doubt.

All of which brings us back to the use of agents. There is never a guarantee of a successful visa application, especially with the subjective approach that the UK has adopted with interviews of applicants. But a recent investigation that I conducted based on a freedom of information request from the Home Office in relation to student visa data from Turkey found that students that had used the services of a UED member agency were at least ten per cent more likely to successfully receive a visa. In 2013 for example, 95 per cent UED clients received a visa, compared to the overall country success rate of 85 per cent.

Should an institution risk letting an applicant directly navigate the UK’s byzantine and constantly evolving visa system at the risk of refusal, or enlist agents to provide an extra layer of screening on the suitability of candidates and then guide the appropriate applicants through the procedures? The role of the agent would seem more integral than ever.


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