Challenges beyond culture: living with a host family

“’Host families come in many shapes and sizes’ is a sort of disclaimer widely stated across study abroad organisations”

Mary Beth Brungardt, a former study abroad student and intern at CIEE, writes about the unexpected challenges that can arise when staying with a homestay family.

“Host families come in many shapes and sizes” is a sort of disclaimer widely stated across study abroad organizations. There is no such thing as a “perfect” host family, nor does one single element dictate the outcome of a student’s experience.

After spending a year abroad in both high school and university, I quickly learned that cultural differences were only a fraction of what made homestays challenging.

How well a student adapts to their host family is the result of various factors. The constant in this equation is the student’s ability to accept and overcome cultural differences; norms that are apparent throughout the society as a whole. The second, more important element, is the student’s ability to adapt and relate to the individual family.

As any other pairing in life, whether it be your freshman roommate or significant other, there are core factors that make the relationship a hit or miss. At the end of the day, there needs to be common ground between both parties such as respect, communication, and mutual agreement.

The first time I studied abroad I went to Spain for my junior year of high school. Upon arriving to Madrid, my host family enthusiastically greeted me with big smiles and positive energy.

Originally from Paraguay, this family moved to Spain in search for better opportunities shortly after the oldest was born. With four host siblings, there were seven of us total in our small flat located in the northern part of the city. Money was tight. It wasn’t until the second or third week that I understood my host father worked the night shift as a janitor, sweeping floors and watching security TVs.

“As time passed, I felt as if I were a financial burden on the family and decided it was best to change”

As time passed, I felt as if I were a financial burden on the family and decided it was best to change. After extensive discussion with the program provider, we decided to wait until after the winter holidays to tell my host family about the move.

I will never forget the conversation I had at the table with my host mother. I had to explain that I needed a family that could go out and show me around town and engage in program activities.

She was disappointed about the news, a bit offended I’m sure. “Not all host families are as happy as us, but if we are not providing you with enough, we support your decision. Whatever you decide, you will always have a family here in this house.”

Her words rang through my head for months after the conversation. In their eyes, I received everything their children received. They were very content with the little they had. Moreover, they were very inclusive during the little time we spent time together.

My second host family lived all the way out in Alicante. I switched schools, left my friends, and started over halfway through the school year.

This placement was very different. On paper, it was the epitome of every exchange student’s dream. I could see the Mediterranean Sea from my bedroom window, lived in a three storey, granite-floored bungalow, and even had a pool in my backyard. I also had a host sister in my grade who was able to introduce me to people my own age.

Shortly after my arrival, my host mother informed me that my host sister was in the final stages of recovery after battling anorexia and anxiety for two years. Little did I know, anorexia is all about controlling your environment. This rubbed off on me when I tried to branch out and make my own friends, talk to new people at school, or do just about anything independently.

There was a lot of fighting between my host parents and sister about anything and everything, such as when she should wash her hair, how much she should be eating, or when and how long she studied which subjects. I went from a fully independent lifestyle in Madrid to one that was micromanaged by my host family.

I was overwhelmed. Never in my life had I felt so little autonomy. I started to wonder if I should have ever switched at all.

“I was overwhelmed. Never in my life had I felt so little autonomy”

I finished the year out in Alicante, and went home rather discouraged. Over 75 students were placed in Spain, yet their host family problems appeared to be much milder than anything I had encountered.

Despite the challenges, I decided to study abroad again during my sophomore year in university. After consulting returnees and advisors, I chose to study abroad with the Council on International Educational Exchange, as they were well-known across the board to carefully vet host families and provide great student support. I was less concerned about my destination, and more concerned about the quality of the academic and host family experience.

This time around things fell into place. During my fall semester in Seville, I had three younger host siblings. And although they fought all the time, I thoroughly enjoyed having them around. In the spring semester following, I lived with a retired couple in Santiago, Chile. Scheduling conflicts prevented us from spending much time together, but I enjoyed the little time I was able to be with them.

Upon returning to Spain, I had 36 hour layover in Madrid. Three of those hours were spent in that same small apartment in northern Madrid, catching up over a fabulous feast that far outdid our Christmas Eve dinner back in 2010.

In a few short weeks, I’ll be heading out to Shanghai, China for one last semester abroad as a senior. Dormitory housing was an option, but I’ll be living with a host family.

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I was a rookie teacher and had no confidence – so I came to London

“I was told I’d love it here and no account to book a return flight. Of course I didn’t listen and had to cancel it a few weeks later!”

Kimberley Poon, a supply teacher in London with Prospero Teaching, writes about making the big move from Australia to England to teach, and why braving the journey to the other side of the world – despite dubious encouragement from some of her friends – was worth it.

“Wow, you’re going to London!”

“If you can teach in London. you can teach anywhere.”

What would a translation app have made of my colleagues’ good wishes? “You’re crazy! You’ll be eaten alive by British kids.” Thanks, guys!

It was a fair point, though. Why was I leaving Australia straight after graduation to put myself at the mercy of the English education system – something I knew almost nothing about?

My last term at university in Melbourne had been a tough one for personal reasons. And in the education faculty, our heads had been filled with warnings about the near-impossibility of achieving a work-life balance in teaching. Burn-out was the risk, we were repeatedly warned: “Sixty per cent of you won’t make it beyond five years in teaching.”

Encouraging. Not.

I’d dreamed of being teacher since I was 13; it was all I had ever wanted to do. And I just knew that I was a prime candidate for burn-out. I would give it my all because, temperamentally, I didn’t know how not to.

I was in line for two full-time teaching jobs back home but decided half-way through my interviews that the right way into the profession for me was to work part-time as a supply teacher.

I needed to take it gently and start by boosting my confidence so I had more faith in my own abilities before I took the plunge in a full-time post.

By chance, I found a flier for a British-based teacher recruitment agency and got in touch. And I know I simply wouldn’t have come to the UK without Paddy, the recruitment consultant they teamed me up with in London.

I can get pretty anxious and at this point I was still dithering about whether or not it was a good idea to come to Britain.

Eventually, with much encouragement and calming of nerves from Patrick, I decided to come over – for three months. Patrick said I’d love it here and told me on no account to book a return flight. Of course I didn’t listen and had to cancel it a few weeks later!

So here I was in London, faced with the prospect of my first teaching post. I was still not feeling at all confident in my abilities – I had only just finished my teacher training, after all, and my final school placement in my last term hadn’t gone particularly well and had shaken what self-belief I had.

But straight away in London, I was already experiencing a new sense of independence and personal growth. Back home I lived with my family; here I was an adult building a new life in an unfamiliar city.

And I think London schools are incredible. It’s quite a shock being in such a complex culture, with so many accents to get used to. At home, the area I come from is not very diverse, so this is a new – and exciting – experience for me.

“At home, the area I come from is not very diverse, so this is a new – and exciting – experience for me”

And the range of school types in Britain is so different to Australia. I have taught in public schools (which are actually fee-paying and not free at all), free schools (part of the state sector but free of local authority control), academies (similar to free schools) and Church of England schools. It has been so interesting to see all the different ways teachers plan their classes and the approaches they take.

And as I acquired so much new experience in such contrasting types of school in a very short space of time, I began to find my feet.

Gradually, I began to feel I was missing out on the continuity of seeing the kids through the learning process. So for the last half term I’ve been doing a job share at a school where I’ve been doing supply cover for a while. And I’m working the rest of the week, too, in supply roles.

With the teacher over-supply situation at home getting worse, a lot of my friends have still not got jobs whereas here there’s as much work as I want.

Some of my friends in Australia are doing supply teaching. But, unlike me, their work isn’t guaranteed. In London, once I’ve said which days I’m available, the agency finds me work – or pays me off. It’s a win-win situation.

I’ve made life-long friends among other Aussies in London working for the same agency. We hang out together a lot. The agency let five of us take time off together to do a tour of the Baltic and Russia. It was fantastic.

So, having cancelled my flight home, I’ve been in the UK for two years. And I want more of it. I’m now looking for ways to stay on here. Any ideas?

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Time to consider higher education during and after violent conflict

“Higher education is very rarely considered a key priority in post-conflict environments; investment in HE is commonly viewed as a luxury that war-torn societies can ill-afford”

Professor Sultan Barakat, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar and Dr Sansom Milton, is research fellow at the University of York’s Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, write about the need to safeguard higher education in conflict regions.

The past two decades have witnessed many failed attempts to reconstruct nations in the aftermath of war. The litany of failures includes the squandering of vast resources in post-2003 Iraq and the inability to stabilise Afghanistan despite spending billions of dollars over more than a decade of intervention.

“War-torn societies have again and again been denied the opportunity to own the reconstruction process”

There are many reasons why this has been the case, but central to explaining this dismal record is the fact that war-torn societies have again and again been denied the opportunity to own the reconstruction process; to play a key role on the ground in terms of planning, designing, and implementing reconstruction policies, programs, and projects; and, most importantly, to hold national and international reconstruction actors to account.

A lack of capacity at all levels of these societies—including a shortage of appropriately qualified graduates combined with rapid deskilling (as a result of lost job opportunities) or displacement—has often provided the international community with an excuse for why the role of local actors in reconstruction is unavoidably limited.

While the skills and capacity gap is now widely acknowledged, conventional “neo-liberal” reconstruction policies—which are partly responsible for the poor record of reconstruction efforts—have not sufficiently realised the importance of higher education for redressing it. Preoccupied by issues of hard security and a multitude of short-term humanitarian challenges, higher education is very rarely considered a key priority in post-conflict environments; rather, investment in higher education is commonly viewed as a luxury that war-torn societies can ill-afford.

“For local societies to occupy the leadership role in the recovery process, a bold and transformative long-term approach to rebuilding is required—one that places HE at the centre of its agenda”

Years of study and experience have led us to conclude that for local societies to occupy the leadership role in the complex recovery process, as is necessary for its success, a bold and transformative long-term approach to rebuilding is required—one that places higher education at the centre of its agenda. Only by investing in domestic capacity building can nations meet the increased demands that emerge in the aftermath of war for skilled workers and advanced knowledge in a wide range of priority sectors for reconstruction and statebuilding, including health, engineering, education, law, and the economy.

In addition, higher education, when approached strategically, has the potential to bring divided societies together—despite their varied ethnic and religious backgrounds—to engage in critical inquiry on open and diverse campuses. Offering an avenue to constructively engage the critical age group of 18-25-year-olds is of particular value when it comes to dealing with the consequences of violent conflict in our times.

To ensure that higher education can begin to contribute towards recovery as discussed above, it is imperative that more is done to protect the sector—its scholars, students, and infrastructure—during and in the immediate aftermath of conflict. Sadly, over the past few years higher education has increasingly been caught in the crossfire of violent conflict. This trend is powerfully illustrated by the recent bombing of universities in Syria, Gaza, and Yemen; the shocking campaign of violence that claimed the lives of up to 1,000 Iraqi academics; and the tragic attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College in April 2015 in which 147 people were killed.

“It is imperative that more is done to protect the sector—its scholars, students, and infrastructure—during and in the immediate aftermath of conflict”

Effective protection is therefore vital to minimise the deleterious impact of conflict on higher education’s human, physical, and institutional resources. Some efforts have been made to protect institutions of higher education including increased physical security through checkpoints and blast-walls and enhanced policing of campuses, while international efforts have focused on rescue schemes that protect displaced and threatened scholars and students. Various global actors have also committed to protecting schools and universities from attack, including as outlined in the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict and the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack.

Protection of higher education is preferable to costly rebuilding efforts that can take a generation to complete. Yet for many societies picking up the pieces in the aftermath of war, rebuilding higher education is a necessity.

In the case of post-invasion Iraq the higher education system was shattered—84% of universities were burned, looted, or destroyed. In extreme examples including Afghanistan and Somalia, entire higher education systems have been brought to the brink of total collapse due to protracted conflict.

“In extreme examples including Afghanistan and Somalia, entire higher education systems have been brought to the brink of total collapse due to protracted conflict”

Higher education systems are complex, multi-faceted institutions that require significant financial and technical resources, even in comparison to national primary and secondary education systems. Rebuilding and revitalising higher education in the aftermath of war is therefore a major challenge that requires a collective effort between a range of national, regional, and international educational actors.

There is a pressing need for creative thinking on how best to respond to the challenges higher education faces in conflict-affected countries and how to harness the capacity of the global sector so it can contribute toward recovery and transition

The aftermath of crises and conflicts can bring about an opportunity to reform and realise improvements during rebuilding, rather than merely restoring flawed social and economic systems. The starting point for such recovery must be a better understanding of the remarkable resilience demonstrated by academic communities throughout conflict.

The need to protect and rebuild higher education was the focus of a meeting in York in the UK jointly hosted by the Brookings Doha Center, the Institute of International Education, and the University of York this month, where leaders from across the world signed the York Accord. Under the Chairmanship of President Jorge Sampaio, participants will engage in a dialogue over how best to protect and rebuild higher education in conflict zones and how to enshrine that critical goal as a collective global responsibility. Read more about the Accord here.

The authors address the protection and rebuilding of higher education at greater length in a recent policy briefing published by the Brookings Doha Center.

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In the classroom or cultural immersion: the best way to learn a language

Helen Wallis writes about different learning styles and offers some guidance on how students can be encouraged to immerse themselves in a new language.

As a language teacher I have had many people pass through my classroom door. Some are just taking their first tentative steps towards learning a language; some are brushing up on their rusty grammar; while others want to take their existing skills to a previously unreached level of fluency.

Although there are now many ways to learn a language including private lessons, online courses and mobile apps, I have found for my own students that the fastest way to fluency is through immersing themselves in the local culture. Being able to send students abroad to live with a native speaking family allows the learning process to move much more quickly, especially if they are able to attend lessons at a local language school.

The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, because they will be speaking the language every day their ability to converse will improve vastly. Out of necessity students will quickly learn how to ask for things, request directions and they will learn to function in society using their newly acquired language. Furthermore, everyday conversation will help to widen the students’ vocabulary considerably.

Secondly, the time in the classroom at a language school will provide students with more structure and importantly it will teach them the rules of grammar. It will also give exposure to the written form of the language they are hearing and speaking every day. It is all very well knowing how to speak a language but to become fluent it is also necessary to learn how to read and write in that language.

The problem that most teachers will have is persuading students to travel abroad to study and not just to go on holiday. However, I find that this is mostly due to a lack of confidence. So the easiest way to get students to undertake study whilst abroad is to inspire confidence through continual praise and recognition of improvement.

There are some additional steps towards language fluency I have found particularly helpful in creating confidence in my own students:

  • Suggest that they should watch television and films in their chosen second language. Being able to apply context will aid learning and allow them to hear the language whilst also being given a visual accompaniment, which will help the meaning fall into place. Watching television is something that people tend to do most days, and can be used as a tool to help with learning and increase exposure to the new language.
  • Ask students to change the language on their mobile phone, tablet or even laptop. This is a method which is becoming increasingly useful as people spend more of their time on the internet and social media. Having to navigate the familiar device in a different language will allow the student to widen their vocabulary, and then apply it to speaking and listening.
  • Students of all levels should be encouraged to read books in their chosen language. Beginners should not be embarrassed to choose books aimed at children; picture books, comics and magazines can be particularly helpful as the images help with the meaning of the text. It can also be quite fun and will quickly build confidence as their vocabulary grows.

When students travel abroad, encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone. Even though this may be especially hard whilst in in a foreign country, it will ensure that they are maximising the time that they spend speaking and listening to a language. Ask students to take up every invitation that comes their way, whether it is attending social gatherings or being the one to speak to staff in a restaurant. Make sure to tell students not to be embarrassed by making mistakes as locals will be extremely appreciative that they are making the effort.

A few years ago I taught a lady who came for her first few lessons before going abroad for work for three months. Before leaving she was just starting out on her journey to learn the language, but, by the time she returned I could hardly believe the improvement in her fluency. Spending three months immersed in the language and the culture of the country she was visiting had allowed for huge improvements to be made.

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Medical English: understanding, intonation and being the bearer of bad news

“The true test of a doctor’s communication skills has to be the delivery of bad news”

In the UK’s recent general election, the National Health Service was a keenly debated issue – in particular, the trend for overseas doctors working in the UK and their language ability. In this blog, cross-posted from The London School of English‘s blog, Ros Wright, who delivered the school’s new English for Medical Professionals course to a group of doctors in the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, writes about the course and the importance of teaching tailored communication skills.

Greeting my trainees at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham with the local colloquialism – ‘Hey-up me duck!’ – I was not entirely surprised by the sea of blank faces. However, as a Nottingham lass myself, I felt duty bound to ensure that each and every one of these new NHS recruits were at least able to respond with a ‘Hi, how are you?’ by the end of the session.

Awareness of patient language (colloquial language, common expressions for medical conditions, etc.) is just one aspect of the new Medical English course – English for Medical Professionals piloted recently as part of a joint partnership with Remedium, specialists in the recruitment of overseas doctors for the NHS. The aim of EMP is to prepare qualified overseas doctors to function effectively in an English-speaking environment.

“Although highly skilled with a minimum of IELTS 7.5, of this group of Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Nigerian and Turkish doctors, fewer than half had followed medical communications courses in their own language”

Although highly skilled with a minimum of IELTS 7.5, of this group of Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Nigerian and Turkish doctors, fewer than half had followed medical communications courses in their own language; a situation that is not uncommon. Aside from an understanding of the local culture, other areas critical for effective doctor-patient communication include pronunciation (particularly word stress) and intonation, as well as an appreciation of the professional culture of the NHS which may differ significantly from their own experience. This two-day pilot course would feature an introduction to the NHS and the development of key skills in English, such as breaking bad news and participating in handovers.

The true test of a doctor’s communication skills has to be the delivery of bad news; a complex task often carried out several times a week. If delivered poorly, the experience remains with the patient long after the initial shock of the news itself. This is further compounded if the doctor needs to do so in a language that is not their own.

Beginning from the premise that ‘Bad news is any information, which adversely and seriously affects an individual’s view of his or her future’ (Baile et al, 2000), Day 2 focused on use of the SPIKES communication model for breaking bad news adapted for the medical English classroom. Trainees spent the morning developing language to: Set the scene, determine the patient’s Perception of their situation, deliver the preferred amount of Information, and Knowledge, while providing Empathy and finally laying out a Strategy for the future. The morning ended with a series of role-plays enabling the trainees to put their enhanced skills into practice.

While sharing a platform with the Medical Director of the QMC was a major coup during the pilot course, the icing on the cake was by far this quote from one of the trainees: ‘This is an excellent course, filling a void with regards to the introduction of overseas doctors to the NHS. The course has the potential to expand, develop and become a staple in trusts across the UK.” Indeed, it is hoped the pilot will result in the adoption of EMP as part of the induction programme for all overseas doctors recruited to work in the Nottingham University Hospitals Trust.

In the meantime, Nottingham’s popular greeting, Hey-up me Doc … sorry … duck, has since been made famous by the likes of Dolly Parton and Angelina Jolie. If you don’t believe me, google it!

Read more about the English for Medical Professionals course on The PIE News.

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Universities, international students and “agents” – the perceptional disconnect

“There is a huge perceptional disconnect that is endemic within university staff at all levels and demonstratively so, when it comes to the role and use of ‘agents’”

In his second entry for The PIE Blog, Naveen Chopra, Chairman of The Chopras, one of India’s top study abroad agencies, once again challenges the definition of and criticisms levelled at “agents” in the international education industry. See his previous blog here.

At the core of the persistent and on-going debate within the wider media and university sector on the use and relevance of “agents” since many years, there is a huge perceptional disconnect that is endemic within university staff at all levels and demonstratively so, when it comes to the role and use of “agents”.

Within universities across the world, there seems to be some deep psychological need for the adamant use of “put down” images and terminology that itself starts with the continued use of the word “agent” for those who form the front line of universities and provide a service and perform tasks that are far removed from the domain of the “agent” except in the mode of payment, a commission. This is in an age of extreme “political” correctness and demands for accuracy in the use of language.

The Raimo-Humfrey-Huang report provides a definition of “agents”, and I quote in abridged form: “The more contemporary and appropriate definition of the agent activity in relation to higher education is provided on the gov.uk website under Export Agents for International Trade and this includes:

  • Help to sell goods abroad
  • Act on the principal’s behalf by introducing him/her to overseas customers
  • Give information and contacts for overseas markets
  • Identify opportunities
  • Cut costs of setting up overseas offices

In all cases, the agent is expected to possess a skill, knowledge, experience or contacts which it is advantageous to the owner or provider of the commodity to utilise…” (For full definition please see the report).

“Does this definition capture what actually happens at Ground Zero? Judge for yourselves”

Does this definition capture what actually happens at Ground Zero? Judge for yourselves.

Band One students are those who are very clear of the career, they wish to pursue and are thoroughly researched. These have spent humongous time to trawl the Internet, compared all the available course options, rankings, costs and all the rest that form their decision parameters. They have consulted the best within their parental social circles that would include high achieving professionals and successful individuals.

Within this band a small number are focused on the one university they wish to study at even though they will apply to, perhaps half dozen. In this band, their mind will already be made up that if an offer comes from that one university. Those who are willing to spend the time are confident of their ability to turn in the best applications, are confident of visa documentation etc. will generally form the “direct” student band to universities. Universities best love these because there is no “commission” cost. The ratio of students falling in this band is relatively small. However, those that do not wish to spend valuable time on the process or are not clear or confident of the visa part of their application are approaching “agents” for help.

Band Two are students who are playing the “what are my options” game, in terms of countries, universities etc; throw in work during or after study, migration aims, scholarships and multiple sources of vocal advice that includes parents, relatives, peer friends and the choice pot is already looking like a rainbow palette. Most students in this band will apply to multiple courses in multiple universities in multiple countries.

This band generally forms the vast majority of student visiting the “agent” for multiple discussions and help in condensing down to what are the best of the enormous options available to them. Within the eastern civilisation, families are often involved with this process along with the “agent” often even at postgraduate levels.

“Many from this band don’t do the right thing and end up applying directly to universities about whom they have achieved clarity with ‘agents’”

Many from this band don’t do the right thing and end up applying directly to universities about whom they have achieved clarity with “agents”. Universities hide behind the Data Protection act to deny “agents” a look in to save commission. The data of students advised belongs to the “agent” in the first place. Is that ethical?

We have on record an average of 17 times for students visiting us over one to three year period for discussions and advice, though we recognise that those students who start planning for undergraduate courses in year 10, 11, or 12 and for postgraduate at year one or two of their degree, are our best clients. A part of the “agent” contribution and functioning that universities often refuse to see or acknowledge as possible.

Band Three are students who are confused, underachievers, emotionally under-mature or who need help just to frame what they should be doing in life. These often need a lot of help over multiple sessions and parents are often in the counseling loop, sometimes themselves requiring counseling. These are on the look out for trusted organisations – those who have a “good” reputation. This group is susceptible to unscrupulous “agents” who sell stories rather than provide consultation and genuine advice.

Band Four are students who are looking to get into a Western country under any pretext, the student visa being a “safe” route, with the view to working full time during their student visa tenure and trying all back door means to gain a foot hold or migration. The group that causes the maximum trouble to everyone and is the root cause of the on-going debate related to “agents” and universities.

“What part of the services or operations of companies who cater to these students fall under the definition of ‘agents’? Is it not about time that the terminology to describe such companies change?”

From Band One to Band Three, I would pose the question from universities and their staff, what part of the services, process or activity or operations of companies who cater to these bands of students fall under the definition of “agents”? Is it not about time that the terminology to describe such companies change?

Those catering to Band four do fall under the “agent” tag and should be banned in any and every way and by all available means to identify and black list such individuals or companies should be taken.

So what terms factually define the work that “agents” catering to Band One to Three performs? Advisor, Consultant, Mentor, Guide, Counselor, Specialist are some that accurately define this work, yet there is extreme resistance to using any terminology other than “agent” within universities and their staff, top down. Is this because universities and their staff insist on viewing the relationship as an up-down relationship where the university staffs are the masters and the “agents” servants? How can anyone talk of “partnership”, the image of which is one of equality, mutual respect and value addition in one breath and then use the term “agent”, whose meaning and mental image we all know is derogatory and demeaning? Perhaps this encapsulates to perfection the underlying argument that I make about the Perceptional Disconnect at universities. Intellectually I take great umbrage at the usage of the term as it neither accurately describes what we do nor denotes respect for our activities.

The managing of “agents” aspect is also exercising the universities’ minds, but requires another article that I shall endeavor to pen, if it helps the cause of arriving at a workable blueprint for both sides.

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‘Australia does it better than most’: leading the way in marketing and recruitment

“A strategic focus on international enrolments is critical if countries want to stay competitive in the international student market”

Denis Whelan, APAC vice president of sales at international education resources, services and technology company Hobsons shares his thoughts on why he believes Australian institutions are so successful attracting students from overseas in comparison to the US, in light of Hobsons’ most recent report.

International students are savvy consumers, looking for the best return on what is often a significant financial investment. While an international education provides the opportunity to become a truly global citizen – building strong networks and leadership skills across borders – what students really want is tangible outcomes from their international degree.

When it comes down to it, the most important factor for international students is being able to get a job upon graduation or continue to advance their academic journey.

Hobsons’ latest research report, The ‘Return on Investment’ of an International Degree: A Survey of Prospective International Students to the USA, reveals that more than half of all international students rate getting a job as the most important factor for a university degree.

When it comes to attracting and converting overseas potential students, Australia does it better than most, leading the way in best-practice international education marketing and recruitment.

“This visa arrangement gives Australian universities a major competitive advantage over competitors like the US and Canada”

Currently in Australia, a post-study work visa gives bachelor degree graduates a two-year visa to stay and work in the country. This visa arrangement gives Australian universities a major competitive advantage over competitors like the United States and Canada.

Australia also provides the opportunity for students to work part-time while studying, which assists with living expenses while also giving them the opportunity to gain professional experience.

When it comes to choosing a university, prospective international students look for quality of education that will guarantee them a job at the end of their study. Universities that can demonstrate strong graduate employment outcomes are highly sought after.

In this respect, while the United States can boast some of the world’s top universities for teaching and research, it struggles to demonstrate solid job opportunities for graduates.

“Students considering studying in the United States are less optimistic about the employment options an overseas degree will provide than students considering Australia”

Hobsons’ research found students considering studying in the United States are less optimistic about the employment options an overseas degree will provide than students considering Australia.

Demonstrating direct pathways to employment after graduation has been an area where rival markets, such as Australia, have consistently outperformed the United States.

A strategic focus on international enrolments is critical if countries want to stay competitive in the international student market. Ultimately, this comes down to understanding what students want from an international education – as well as the factors that make them choose not to study in a particular destination – and marketing themselves accordingly.

There is no doubt, understanding students’ definition of return on investment is the key competitive advantage every university needs, regardless of where it is located.

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What’s wrong with summer study programmes

“There are too many people conducting these programmes and there is no real organisation”

Peng Sang, President of the Beijing Overseas Student Service Association, calls for the Chinese government to do more to ensure summer study programmes serve students well.

The number of students using their holiday break to study abroad is on the increase. The number of students from China participating in summer or winter study programmes has increased from 230,000 in 2013 to 300,000 in 2014, an increase of 30-40%.

According to statistics sourced from Baidu Search Engine, the number of comments regarding holiday study student figures reached 2,120,000 within a one month period. This is an overall increase of 11%. The above mentioned figures show that the number of people wishing to undertake holiday study programs is enormous and will increase in the coming years.

The number of comments on Baidu regarding holiday study student figures reached 2,120,000 within a one month period

The current problem is there are too many people conducting these programmes and there is no real organisation. Secondly, the format of these programmes seems to be all the same, i.e. half day language study/half day outside activities.

There is limited variety in programme structure. These may not help students improve their language level or deeper understand the local culture. Thirdly, there is no regulation on pricing. More often than not the fees are too high, sometimes higher than regular holiday tours of similar content.

For a long period the Chinese government has paid little attention to the development of this industry. This has led to the current situation.

“For a long period the Chinese government has paid little attention to the development of this industry”

The Guide for Study Abroad Programs of Primary and Secondary School Students issued by the Ministry of Education in July 2014 shows that the Chinese Education Department is starting to pay attention to the holiday study industry. This is good news.

Having this new material is much better than having nothing at all. However, the Guide only really represents the government’s attitude, and only shows that the government is participating in the discussion. With no real enforcement and implementation of the content it is difficult to regulate the holiday study industry. In reality this approach will not solve the problem. The biggest problem concerning holiday study programmes is enforcing regulations upon those running these programmes.

BOSSA members are all overseas study service organisations which are jointly supervised by BOSSA and the Chinese government. Any guidance or suggestions made by the government will directly influence their operations. In reality, the Guide will have a limited influence on BOSSA members. As far as I know the requirements for BOSSA members to adhere to the provisions outlined in the Guide are minimal. Our members are already meeting these requirements and in some cases do more than is required of them.

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Fraud: a growing problem in education, and how to guard against it

“UK universities and colleges are in an uncomfortable position at the immigration front line. Due diligence has to be completed to demonstrate to the Home Office auditors that robust systems are in place”

As institutions work to tackle the problem fraud in student applications, Steve Miller of UK NARICthe designated national agency responsible for providing information, advice and expert opinion on qualifications worldwide, shares some pointers on how to spot fake documents.

This certificate was submitted to UK NARIC. Is it real, or a fake? Applying the simple checks given provides the answer. Some fake certificates are easy to detect, others are more difficult.

This certificate was submitted to UK NARIC. Is it real, or a fake? Applying the simple checks given provides the answer. Some fake certificates are easy to detect, others are more difficult.

‘I didn’t know fraud was so common, so widespread’ – that’s the comment UK NARIC hears again and again from the university and college staff who attend its fraud workshops and seminars.

UK NARIC has been running its fraud training for over eight years – so we have trained a lot of staff from HE institutions. And in that time, we have had to develop the training year-on-year, because fraud has definitely become more common, and the fraudulent techniques adopted have become more elaborate.

The rise in numbers of international applications has increased the challenge for admissions staff – there are more applications to be sifted and checked, and from a greater variety of places, so staff have to learn and become familiar with an ever-wider array of qualification certificates and ID documents.

“Staff have to learn and become familiar with an ever-wider array of qualification certificates and ID documents”

UK universities and colleges are in an uncomfortable position at the immigration front line. Due diligence on applications has to be completed, and the evidence and audit trails all have to be there, to justify decisions taken and to demonstrate to the Home Office auditors that robust systems are in place.

Establishing with certainty the identity of an applicant is first base. Fake ID documents are a growing problem, but so too are genuine documents obtained illegally. Check across all documents supplied looking for discrepancies in the name and in age/date of birth. Any changes in name, eg due to marriage, should of course be supported by the necessary further documents – marriage certificates etc.

Be aware that there is a growing trade in fake EU passports – a popular choice as these give entry to any EU country without a visa. You will need to learn passport security features and check that documents have all of these. Some inexpensive equipment will help – most security features can be checked with a magnifying glass and a black light (UV-A lamp).

“Be aware that there is a growing trade in fake EU passports – a popular choice as these give entry to any EU country without a visa”

Social media can be a useful help to you. Check on a person’s ‘web imprint’. Do their Facebook posts match their claimed age and educational history? Do locations match – during their claimed years of study, have they been posting online from the university town you would expect? Facebook and other social media image uploads can also help with checking passport photos.

When it comes to qualifications, the first challenge is to check that the issuing institution is fully recognised. With such high numbers of applications coming from India and China, you may well encounter certificates from an unrecognised institution – there are many of them in these huge countries. Those of you who are subscriber members of UK NARIC will know that you can access full listings of recognised institutions in each country using our online data banks.

The next stage is to check if the certificate is genuine. If you are receiving a good number of international applications, you can and should build a library of certificates over time, to act as a live reference base against which incoming certificates can be compared.

Check certificates for all the obvious things first – all spelling should be correct; check all alignment – are type and graphics all properly centred and is everything straight? Check that dates are rendered correctly and that they make sense in terms of the qualification.

A more advanced level of checking would be to examine the signatures on the degree certificate – not only that the signature matches the genuine signature for the person named, but also that the Vice Chancellor or Principal named is correct in terms of the date of issue of the document.

“Print quality is not always a good guide to genuineness”

Print quality is not always a good guide to genuineness. Some recognised and well-established institutions in developing countries issue degree certificates that are not especially ‘well printed’. But type and graphical alignment will still be accurate.

UK NARIC would always advise that you do not rely on the degree certificate alone, but that you also obtain a transcript. This gives you further information to check against – module marks can be checked against the final degree classification; award titles should tally; course duration can be checked against the standards and norms for the country. If you cannot obtain a transcript from the applicant then you can request one direct from the institution.

A good general knowledge of countries’ education systems is a useful asset for anyone doing these sorts of checks.

UK NARIC offers advice and support to universities and colleges in all these areas – visit www.naric.org.uk to find out more.

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Universities, agents and international students: contribution and the controversy

“Let’s get this straight, shall we?”

Naveen Chopra, Chairman of The Chopras, one of India’s top study abroad agencies, takes on some of the criticisms aimed at agents in the international education industry.

Lately, a lot of stories have appeared in the media across the western world currently led by Australia’s newspapers, with headlines such as Gaping cracks open up in the Ivory Towers. Everyone is in on the act, including ABC’s Four Corners TV programme; which tried to demolish the reputation of Australian universities and the “agents” they use.

NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption’s paper points to falling standards at Australian universities and “the increasingly conspicuous role of third-party “agents” in recruiting students as a concerning development.

“‘Agents’ are an easy target and scapegoat”

How agents are responsible for a fall in standards at any university, given that they have absolutely no say in the management or running of any institution they represent, is beyond me. Then again, “agents” are an easy target and scapegoat.

That is not to say that all “agents” are bathed in milk, quite the contrary; many justify the negative perception, but most of those who are the best in the business, the drivers of the student traffic, are providing an essential service to student clients, and indeed in many cases to the universities they work with in helping frame and implement local strategies.

These are front-line, innovative and ethical organisations that do not deserve the “agent” tag by any stretch. They are “agents” only in the mode of payment, a commission.

Over the years I have been noting a lot of similar negative stories appearing in various media across the globe. The PIE News has tracked and published many articles and views from within the industry on these subjects in the past few years. Conscientious objectors to the “agent” factor appear to be led by Mr Vincenzo Raimo from his Nottingham University days to his present position of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Reading.

“He neglects to mention the over £10m per year created for his university without risk and with minimal investment”

Mr Raimo’s core position stems from the stance of “undue” influence that agents have acquired over the student traffic and cost of student acquisition. He points to over £1m that his university paid its agents but neglects to mention the over £10m per year created for his university without risk and with minimal investment.

No one seems to have taken a measure of how much it costs a university to sift through all of the thousands of direct applications before they even get condensed to the lot that prima facie qualify from which selections can be made; or the cost of enrolling students who are not suited to the university. Compare this to the applications that come pre-vetted to meet entry requirements, and pre-counselled over multiple sessions, to the point of the university being one of the best fits for the student.

And what about the “cost” of empty seats in many courses and classrooms across universities?

Within the global education space, the choice matrix for students is so huge in terms of countries, courses and universities and the information overload so baffling that these market dynamics have built the agency brands more than anything else. It certainly did for us at The Chopras.

In today’s fast changing world, where jobs are likely to disappear or be created by the time a student completes a course, the future is hugely uncertain, and making choices as to what course to study and where, is quite an ask and requires in-depth expertise within today’s knowledge economy.

Most sensible universities look out for this class of company.

Moving on to the other wider debate within western societies fuelled by the immigration discourse; let us put aside, for a moment, the huge economic contributions that international students make in different markets: £15bn+ in Britain; AUS$17.5 bn+ in Australia; billions of dollars in the US.

Given the huge supply-demand deficiency for quality education in Asia, the move by western countries and universities to “sell” themselves to international students netted massive numbers of aspiring students from China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh.

Whilst this movement catapulted education to be one of the biggest export earner, it also brought the problems in its wake that are now so much in the news. The question is, what were or are the key factors fuelling the problem?

Let us look at the nature of the international student. Broadly, international students can be stratified into three bands in socio-economic and “intent” terms. The top strata are students from very wealthy families, sort of the creamy layer.

For these, the sole intent of going overseas for an education is to gain the best education that money can buy. These are looking for exposure, a broadening of their mental horizons to prepare for a truly globalised world. This band tends to head back home after graduating or, the top performing ones might land jobs that they will take for a couple of years before heading back.

“These students actively contribute to the larger issues of skill deficiencies in key sectors”

In the second band fall students from middle to upper middle class families who generally have enough money to send their children overseas for their education but, many have some pressure to work while studying to subsidise themselves and for a large percentage of these, migration is the eventual aim. These students actively contribute to the larger issues of skill deficiencies in key sectors. Aging populations and the apparent lack of desire on the part of local populations to take up courses perceived as hard provide fuel to this segment.

The third band generally can be defined as the “grey market” band and comprises students from the lower socio-economic strata whose agenda is to get into the country on a student visa with the intention of working full time during their academic year and somehow finding their way to immigrate. This is the group that causes maximum damage and controversy that tars the entire student community debate.

So wherein lies the problem? It rests squarely within the third, the “grey” market band. Who is responsible? Please consider this; while the window was open, Sikh students from the Punjab in India (who revere their hair and do not cut it) were being dished out visas for hairdressing courses like pancakes at a party.

“Sikh students from the Punjab were being dished out visas for hairdressing courses like pancakes at a party”

Did the visa officers not know this? Of course they did, so why did it happen? Your guess is as good as mine. This is an extreme case but illustrative.

Originally, various governments took responsibility and assessed the quality, intent, financial capacity of applicants. It appears that the sheer volume of applications overwhelmed the system and some bright bureaucrats probably came up with the idea of passing on this responsibility to universities through the current SVP for Australia, and similar approaches elsewhere.

The US is still interviewing each visa applicant prior to granting a visa, and do not have anywhere near the problems that are on display here. On the other end of the spectrum are those “agents” who actively tap into the lucrative “grey” market. Again, for instance, in Punjab, India, the going rate for an Australian, British or other visa ranges from US$15-30,000. Here documents are forged, financial picture padded and case presented.

Various governments expect, indeed have forced, universities to police this. Does that make any sense at all? How are they supposed to have the means to first carry out the sort of background checks required of such “agents” that fuel this phenomenon, and then to monitor them?

“Various governments expect, indeed have forced, universities to police this”

Finally, besides being huge contributors to the western economy, international students are also, in their home countries, the cheapest, self-paid ambassadors and influence peddlers of the country where they study, as these are the future leaders of their countries.

Let’s get real here and lift the contours of the debate by not passing the blame to the one entity, the “agent” that has absolutely no say in university decision making.

Of course, the grey market “agent” has to be identified and barred but is it not about time that the best of these were co-opted in the debate and in framing the right structure while looking after the best interest of the student?

The Chopras is one of India’s largest and most reputed student counselling organisations, helping over 10,000 students each year achieve their international study ambitions. 

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