Vital links in competing for students

June 2010


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MICHELLE WAITZMAN of Education New Zealand discusses the importance of strong relationships with international education agents

New Zealand has been shown to punch far above its weight when it comes to attracting international students. For a small country with a limited capacity for marketing, we enrol more than our share. Part of the reason for this success is we have built strong relationships with education agents in many countries.

Education agents are a vital link between potential students (and their parents) and New Zealand institutions. In a recent survey of English language students in New Zealand, 65 per cent said they booked their study through an agent. A major 2004 study of over 2700 international students in New Zealand in all types of institutions found 60 per cent used education agents to help with their arrangements.

Agents are particularly relied upon in many of our key source regions, such as Asia and India. The recommendation of an agent can make all the difference in where a student decides to study, from the country selection right down to the institution and programme.

A healthy long-term relationship with a good agent can be a real boon to an institution. However, it can be difficult to evaluate the quality or ethics of an agent or agency based overseas. If an agency is unethical, it can destroy the reputation of institutions dealing with them.

This can cause a dilemma for many institutions, particularly those new to recruiting internationally. It can be equally daunting for students and parents overseas faced with selecting someone whose opinion they will trust in one of the most important decisions in their lives.

To address the issue of agent quality, Education New Zealand introduced a New Zealand Specialist Agent accreditation programme. Agents in New Zealand and at various locations around the world are offered special training about New Zealand’s education system, institutions, immigration policies, quality assurance, Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students and other key subjects. They attend a course and receive training materials to help them understand the detailed content.

To become accredited, the agents pass a test on the training materials, pay a registration fee, and present references from three New Zealand institutions who have worked with them. They agree to a code of conduct, and if they breach the code their New Zealand Specialist Agent designation is revoked.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” explains Robert Stevens, chief executive of Education New Zealand. “The institutions in New Zealand win because they have well-informed agents recommending their institutions to students and setting up realistic expectations for them; the agents win because they can market their services as New Zealand specialists, and they receive a certificate from us as well as marketing materials, listings on our website, and special communications keeping them updated; and the students and their parents win because they can easily identify an agent who is knowledgeable and ethical.”

More than 260 agents in 13 countries have already been accredited under this programme, with further training sessions in the pipeline in other markets.

Explaining the reason for Education New Zealand’s recent programme of agent familiarisation visits, Stevens says learning about New Zealand in a classroom in Beijing or Sao Paulo is one thing, “but seeing it for yourself takes things to another level, and agents went back with a new enthusiasm for sending students here”.

A collaboration with Air New Zealand brought around 50 education agents to New Zealand free of charge this year. Groups from Japan, Hong Kong, China, Korea, Germany, the US and Brazil toured the country visiting institutions and experiencing a bit of Kiwi culture.

Margaret Lee, an agent working for Brilliant Overseas Study Centre in Hong Kong, says the visits are valuable for agents. “It gives us a chance to talk face-to-face with schools, to see, to ask, to take photos. When I recommend these schools to parents, I can say ‘I’ve been to the school on a visit’ to make the parents more confident.”

Bryon Bentley, principal of Macleans College in Auckland, says building relationships with agents can make a big difference to an institution’s ability to attract international students. “The opportunity to meet agents and show them around the campus is extremely valuable,” Bentley says.

In a competitive global market, maintaining relationships with good agents is becoming more important. In the past year, institutions in the US have begun using education agents to attract overseas students for the first time as shrinking state funding puts universities on the hunt for new sources of income.

New Zealand will have to work even harder to attract the attention of agents, and encourage them to send students to our shores. n