The rise of luxury student accommodation – at a price

An email notification just popped up on my screen from our Directors office. Subject: “Important – Please read”. It was a link to a Tripadvisor rating of a student accommodation and a scandalous, business-harming report on the standards of trading and accommodation offered.

The post was actually written by a new user but just the negativity of the report shone a dark light on the operations of said agency.

There is a plethora of options available to university and language students in terms of living in London – some of which will be as dire as described by the student rating their experience online. Others will be in a different league, as we know from experience.

Private landlords, estate agents, private residences, homestay (accommodation with families), house shares and university halls all have something to offer to suit any budget.

There is however a new deluxe standard of accommodation emerging in London – “luxury student halls”. The rise of this ultra-modern, ultra chic accommodation has caused the cost of studying in London to increase exponentially over the last few years. The introduction of foreign developers, investors and property management companies has allowed the industry to flourish and offer their wares in a competitive market.

I recently went to see a new building in Aldgate that is being built. For a weekly cost of £225.00 a student will get a bed, desk, bathroom and cupboard in an area that is a little bigger than the cells in Alcatraz. Not to say the quality is bad, but the price per square metre is definitely on the increase.

Prices for quality accommodation in London can go from £15,000.00 per year upwards, and with  university fees increasing, students might be facing a cost of over £20,000 per year for their education. Without support from the government to increase jobs and future employment potentials, I do not see many wanting to come out of university with a £60,000.00 debt! Will they end up choosing other UK cities or will the luxury accommodation providers be forced to lower their exorbitant rates? One this is for sure, agencies offering variety rather than single accommodation options will definitely benefit with superstar cross-sellers in their team!

Nikesh Ashar is Groups Coordinator for Britannia Student Services in the UK.

When GPS doesn’t cut it

“Today I was 25 minutes late for an appointment with an agent. I arrived, apologised and clocked my reflection: straggly hair, red face and a sweat moustache – yep, I was rocking my “visiting agents in Bangkok” look. My lateness wasn’t my fault. Well, not really. It was 35 degrees outside and after I stepped out from the icy Skytrain, I was at the mercy of a Google map, my own sense of direction and the elements.

Finding agent’s offices are, for me, often a hit and miss affair, made worse by the fact that I have no sense of direction. If there are two ways to go, I will choose the wrong one. It’s got so bad that I’ve actually started to second guess myself and if my instincts say “left”, I will go right. Admittedly my lack of self-belief hasn’t helped me come to any life-changing conclusions, except that perhaps I spend a bit too much time alone on these trips…

Girl Guide map reading skills aside, it’s the weather that often proves most problematic to many of us, hindering our success in getting to our appointments on time. I have almost face-planted on the icy streets of Seoul, my colleague John has complained of trench-foot schlepping around rainy autumnal Moscow and on one occasion I had to call a Ukrainian agent from a metro station apologising that I couldn’t make the appointment as I couldn’t see the other side of the road because of the blizzard that had descended on Kiev.

Some cities are just not designed for anyone to find any address. Tokyo, for example, foxes even the canniest local due to the lack of visible street names.  But sometimes I visit a city that is dream to get around, where taxis are cheap and plentiful and the cabbie knows where he’s going and doesn’t add a “stupid foreigner tax” to the fare. Where there are logical street patterns, addresses close to metro stations, temperate climates… But where’s the fun in that?

For all this, the often epic quest of finding the agent’s office is very much part of the fun, the challenge of my job. These are the stories I tell my friends to make my job sound like I am an international woman of mystery (or confusion). I regale friends and family with methods of finding the offices, from my ingenious problem solving (“so I remembered the Italian word for ‘church’ and hoped it was similar in Romanian”) to my damn right ballsy  (“so I just opened the unmarked door, hoping I was right…”).

My most recent success in averting the disaster of missing a meeting was in Tokyo.  I had the right building at the right time but hadn’t written down which floor the office was on or (very unusually for me) hadn’t made a note of their phone number.

So I went to the company directory at the front of the building.  Everything was in Japanese.  I tried to pick up my emails on my phone but it wouldn’t sync.  I tried Google on my phone but it wouldn’t work.  I could have gone back to my hotel, booted up my laptop and found their address but it would have made me unforgivably late.  Then it came to me. I walked up to the directory, grabbed a passer by and said the name of the agency in my best Japanese accent while pointing at the directory and shrugging.  The passerby pointed to a company name which had a number “6” by it.  I got the lift to the sixth floor and there was my agent.

When I eventually arrive at an agent’s office after an experience that would test Jason Bourne, I (rather un-coolly) feel the need to explain my journey to my agent, either as an explanation of my lateness, or because I just want to share it with someone. “You asked for a receipt in Mandarin?!”, they say, “You asked a passerby for directions in your elementary Spanish?”, “You found our office which is opposite your hotel, with a map and GPS on your phone? All by yourself?!”  Yes, I did!

One of my agents in Bangkok didn’t even flinch when I exclaimed, ridiculously, “it’s hot out there”. No, I guess I don’t expect a round of applause when I arrive at an agent’s office (it would be great though) but a little appreciation would be nice. Or possibly even a cup of tea and digestive biscuit?

Maybe the challenges we face finding the office makes our meetings more productive? Perhaps. More likely though is that us international marketers love an adventure… and isn’t it all about the journey, not the destination?”

Hannah Alexander works for a UK university and is based in Hong Kong for the moment.

Bringing Hosting Home

At Mackenzie School of English, we are firm believers in the mantra ‘why get someone else to do something that we can do ourselves? Surely we can do it bigger, better and smarter!’

Therefore, this winter we decided to bring the homestay operation in-house. We had found in the past that homestay (living with a family), for some reason, was the part of the business that gave us the most consternation.

Not because we didn’t have good hosts, or because we didn’t approach it with the same attention to detail as we do to other key areas but because the communication never seemed to quite flow. We felt our relationships with the hosts and our capacity for dealing with situations would improve greatly by having a dedicated Accommodation Officer who was based at the school.

Of course there was some concern – where would we find a suitable candidate (or anyone brave enough) for the newly created role of Accommodation Officer? Could we cope with the extra duties involved, would our ‘out of hours’ phone ever stop ringing and would any hosts actually want to work with us?

Thus began our marketing drive – a bout of flyering, a post on an advertising website and an advert on local radio station Leith FM started a slow trickle of interest among local people.

Luckily the good old Scottish ‘gift of the gab’ then took over and we found, to our great delight, that not only was there interest from enthusiastic new recruits but that the fantastic hosts who had hosted for Mackenzie School before were still out there and still interested in working with us. Although this time, they would be working directly with Mackenzie School and that is key to the success of the operation.

The trust and two-way partnership between school and host is invaluable to the student experience and ultimately, to our success. So we make life easier for our hosts. We take away the headache of having to make packed lunches during the week by providing students with lunch at the school.

We prevent students from hanging around bored in the evenings by keeping the school open until 10pm every night. We provide peace of mind by arranging taxis home for our students after evening activities.

And now, we offer the added peace of mind of clear communication with a dedicated person within the school. That is why we are confident that approaching home-stay operations our way – the Mackenzie way – might just be the best way.

Laura Hutchinson on behalf of Mackenzie School of English, Edinburgh, Scotland.

The UK is caught in a ‘perfect storm’

“Having spent the last two years working with leading Australian universities to support their international student recruitment, coming back to the UK to see the challenges being faced by universities here brings a fresh perspective to the issues.

In my experience and that of my colleagues at Hobsons, the feeling within the sector is that the new visa regime recently implemented by the UK Border Agency means that, in effect, UK universities have been closed for business from international students.

This is far from the case but perception counts for a lot and perception amongst the press, foreign agents, prospective international students and indeed within some universities is that the UK is no longer such an attractive proposition.

It’s true, UKBA reforms and the ongoing economic crisis have brought fresh challenges but the fundamental reasons for the UK being the destination of choice for countless thousands of international students and their families over the past half a century have not changed. Institutions need to start focussing on what makes our education system so appealing and stop worrying about what our competitors are doing; especially Australia.

The simple fact is that the implementation of the recommendations from the Knight review in Australia has made the visa process for oversees students more straightforward, it has made the cost of studying financially less burdensome and it has increased potential career opportunities post graduation.

The Australian Government has risen to the challenge of promoting openness and you can be sure that the universities will hold up their end of the bargain; maximising the opportunities created through responsible recruitment. In the meantime, the UK is caught in a ‘perfect storm’ – and one that is partially of our own making.

We cannot control what other countries do however we haven’t done enough to affect those elements within our control: our brand, our offering, our message. We need to manage perception otherwise someone else, with a very different agenda to our own, will do it for us.

Putting aside perception for a minute, the reality for UK universities is that we provide a world class education system in one of the most culturally diverse and welcoming countries in the world. This reality is at risk of getting lost amongst the negative press surrounding student fees, English language requirements and opportunity to work; it is the responsibility of the sector as a whole to address this disparity between perception and reality.

There is a logic behind the UK visa reforms, even if the government has taken a rather heavy handed approach to the solution for the existing gaps in the system. It is up to us to work within this changing landscape and re-focus our efforts. Universities must get specific; they must use what they know of their current and past international student cohorts to determine what message they need to get to market and then they must ensure that message is received loud and clear.

As a sector and as individual institutions, we need to make sure that we are absolutely clear about our aim, our message and our medium. You cannot buy what is unique about British higher education – its history, quality and prestige. You certainly cannot buy what is unique about your institution. In an increasingly competitive market, the universities that thrive will be those that are able to differentiate themselves.”

Duncan Findlater, Head of Client Services at Hobsons, has recently returned from Australia. Find out more about Hobsons: http://www.hobsons.com/europe/

 

Strip Clubs of Beijing

“I have a confession to make. This article is not about strip clubs of Beijing. I have never been to a strip club in Beijing, or anywhere else for that matter. No, the reason for the title is not to shine a light on the seedier side of the Chinese capital but to discuss the main difference between what male and female traveling marketeers are sometimes expected to do overseas to bond with our agents.

I know I’m lucky. Being a woman in this industry means that I don’t have those horror stories that so many of you men have, when an agent winks at you and says “I want to take you to a club,” and you know what sort of club and you don’t fancy it but you’re worried that if you refuse you may offend. Us ladies don’t even have to drink our own body weight in vodka with agents to prove friendship. (We don’t HAVE to…) No, we have something that I consider much scarier than all that. We have female agents offering to take us shopping.

It sounds harmless. Nice even. But just as men are judged by other men by the amount of drinks they can handle, when an agent takes us shopping, we are also on trial. Now I love shopping. I love shopping alone. Shopping with an agent is a completely different experience. My house is strewn with jade bangles and ill-fitting shirts that I bought in a panic with an agent. Do I try stuff on? What should I look for? How long should we shop for? Do I have to buy something or can I just browse? What if I hate what she’s recommending?

It’s not that these agents aren’t lovely and that the gesture of spending their own non-work time with an overseas visitor isn’t touching, I’ve just had too many bad experiences. From a shop in Santiago where my agent got the exchange rate wrong and I ended up spending £250 on a blanket, to a clothes shop in Thailand where my agent translated the exclamation of the shop keeper as we walked in as “we have nothing here in HER size.”

Recently when a Chinese agent said “I’m going to take you to the Pearl Market tomorrow,” I panicked. I asked a colleague working out in Beijing. His advice? “I always buy a belt. It’s quick, easy, inexpensive.” Brilliant, I thought. So when my agent picked me up in the morning and greeted me with “What are you going to buy?” I confidently replied “a belt”. I may as well have said “a drill bit” by the withering look she gave me. A look that told me that I had betrayed my sex and didn’t get this shopping trip. “Or pearls,” I said hopefully.

I did buy pearls and a pair of Converse for a fiver. I never did get that belt.

So dear men of the industry, next time you are feeling sorry for yourselves as you are bullied into going to that club, or poured your eighth vodka shot and all you want to do is crawl into your hotel room and watch “Click”, on BBC World, remember that somewhere out there, your female counterpart is shopping, with an agent, in a night market, sober.”

Hannah Alexander – woman of the world but based in the UK.

UK colleges that DO tarnish the system: the alternate view

“There has been much rhetoric in the press recently regarding the strict UK student visa policies’ impact on the higher education sector, nobody denies that.

No matter how much we all need our jobs, how much we are desperate to avoid the unemployment figures rising in this country, we cannot deny one hard fact. Some of these private colleges were acting as retail outlets and selling UK student visas to those who wished to come to UK to earn money. The majority of the students studying in these colleges were, and are, in the UK not with the intention to study, but only to work.

These private colleges were aware of these facts but, in order to make easy money, were recruiting disingenuous students from overseas, especially countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria etc. As people from these countries are desperate to come to the UK to earn money due to poverty at home, therefore, they are exploited by the colleges and the recruiting agents who advise them to use the student visa route to enter UK.

All these private colleges form a sub-prime academic world where the quality of education is defenestrated and the focus is on passing the students and making money out of them. Many of these colleges exploited the Post-Study work route as well.

Their unscrupulous activity is not limited to the students but the staff working in these colleges are ill-treated and have to work in a sweat-shop kind of an environment. Owners of these colleges pressurise the staff to commit shenanigans and are threatened of their job if instructions are not followed.

Staff members under pressure commit all these shenanigans under the instructions of the owners of the colleges.  At the time of a UKBA or media raid, owners of the college deny their involvement and flee from UK with huge sum of money using the staff members as the scapegoats. In addition, the staff members of most of these colleges are demoralised due to non-conducive working environment and that is why many of these colleges face a high employee turnover.

Marketing activities in these colleges are not managed by qualified marketing experts but the owners of the colleges themselves. These marketing quacks create links with dubious recruiting agents in their home countries who supply them with the students (so-called) who wish to come to UK.

A few years back, when the UK student visa immigration rules were relaxed, many people without educational background entered this industry to make quick money.  I believe many of these private independent colleges are the hubs of poor governance, dubious marketing strategies, ignorance of academic knowledge and they have left no stone unturned in contaminating the UK higher education industry.

UKBA is making reasonable amendments in order to curtail all these shenanigans but unfortunately these new laws are affecting the genuine educational providers as well.

Murad Ali.

Murad Ali works as an Operations Manager for a private independent college in the UK.  He has been in this industry for five years and started as a lecturer. 

Indian students: where do they go?

Guest blogger: Jessica Guiver

“A couple of weeks ago I wrote that anecdotal evidence suggests this year fewer Indian students are applying to study in the UK than in the recent past.  I partially blamed the discontinuation of the Post Study Work scheme, but I realize that’s too simplistic.

Last week heralded the annual event eagerly anticipated by international educators the world over; IIE’s Open Doors Report was published.  The report declared that Indian student enrolment in the USA was down 1% from last year.  This prompted extremist headlines which ranged from “Minor drop in number of Indians studying in the US” to “Are Indian Students Shunning America?”

What I’m wondering is: if they aren’t coming here to study, and they aren’t going to the USA to study, where are they going?

News reports this summer suggested that interest in Canada as a study destination is gaining.  The New York Times reported a “Surge in Number of Indian Students Heading to Canadian Colleges”, although when you look at the actual numbers they are still quite small (12,000) compared to the number of Indians who chose the USA (104,000) in 2010.

And after several years of declining numbers, Australia is once again seeing an increase in visa applications from Indian students, thanks in part to the more relaxed immigration policies, although university enrolment numbers have yet to reflect this.  (as reported by Australian newspaper The Age, “Indian students returning to Australia”)

I think it all comes down to market share and ‘education hubs’.  The USA, the UK and Australia are seeing their market share of Indian students slowly being chipped away because of the proliferation of education hubs around the world.  No longer does a student who wants to study overseas have to go to one of those three countries to get the kind of education they’ve been dreaming of.

Australian, American and British universities are opening branch campuses worldwide.  Universities across Asia are opening branches in other countries.  Governments everywhere are investing in higher education in order to make their nation the desired education destination. Everyone wants students from anywhere.  The flow isn’t just East to West anymore; it’s now East to West, West to East, North to South, vice versa and diagonally.  So Indian students (and all students) have more choice now than ever before of where they can go to study.

Of course the USA, the UK and Australia will always attract great numbers of students, but the option to go elsewhere is viable and compelling.  It’s an exciting time to work in international higher education.”

Jessica Guiver is an international development officer for a UK university and a blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/intlrecruiter

Political pendulum

The UK’s English language teaching industry really has been treated horribly by its government…  The Home Office has continually changed the visa rules so that education agencies around the world report that they now prefer doing business with other countries where they at least know what the visa issuing confines are. It has ruled that international students cannot work part-time while enrolled at private language colleges, even though they can do so at state institutions. And it has elbowed out the long-standing industry-specific accreditation systems – such as Accreditation UK (the British Council-backed scheme) or ABLS – decreeing that institutions who wish to operate under Tier 4 of the visa regime and recruit General Student visa holders must now pay four-times as much and undergo a quality inspection by an accreditation body that has no track record of working with language training organisations.

Does it sound as if I am making it up? If only… but it gets worse. Two weeks ago, the Home Office issued a statement in which it trumpeted that “over 400 colleges have lost their right to recruit international students”… failing to clarify that many of these colleges chose to lose their right to recruit under Tier 4, but are still quality-accredited by sector-specific organisations and can recruit under a separate visa category. This statement got translated by the press as over 400 colleges being banned –  and sections of the press actually printed the names of some of those colleges. Legal action is ensuing – and you can read more about this story and all the background on our site.

I am sure the political pendulum in the UK will swing the other way in time, and steps will be taken to help bolster the education export industry while maintaining safeguards against visa fraud. The industry was unchecked for too long and then the government crushed some of the smaller operators in the sector while trying to stamp out visa fraud and reduce immigration. Stamping out visa fraud is of course an essential remit of any government; but trying to reduce immigrant numbers to an unrealistic pledge of tens of thousands, and counting temporary students as migrants in the first place, is not such a noble political pursuit in my opinion.

Amy Baker is Director and Editor-in-Chief at The PIE. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amybakerThePIE

Guest blogger: Nick Jordan

In August this year the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a raft of legislative proposals that would form another front in the Government’s campaign to reduce the total number of immigrants entering the UK. The current administration has pledged itself to reducing migration into Britain, ‘from the hundreds of thousands, to the tens of thousands’. It’s one of those pledges – catchy and somewhat vague – that are made when there is an election to be won; a promise made with fingers firmly crossed.

In this instance, the Government and its agencies are taking aim at the estimated 340,000 international, non-EU students who come to Britain every year to study at schools and colleges. The stated intention of the Home Office is to reduce the number of student visas issued every year by 70,000-80,000: the equivalent of a 25% fall.

Now, any government worth the name knows that for every single immigrant entering the country there are at least 100,000 members of the voting public expressing serious concerns about immigration levels. And if this statistic seems somehow dubious to you, confected perhaps by the writer in order to make a wider point, then a) you’d be right, I just made it up and b) if you think that’s bad, read on to see how poorly the Government uses immigration numbers to frame policies that have an enormous bearing on the both the success of the British economy, and our wider standing in international affairs.

According to a recent report on Student Visas by a Home Affairs Select Committee, ‘The international student market, estimated to be worth £40 billion to the UK economy is a significant growth market and the UK is the second most popular destination in the world for international students.’ So, in these much-lamented days of recession and austerity, we have an industry bringing a whopping £40 billion into the UK economy. It is, by any account a fantastic commercial success story – and yet the current Government (in line with the previous) seems hell-bent on bringing this industry to its knees, by employing legislation that the Committee report says will have ‘a calamitous impact’ on business.

Within the industry itself, the situation is widely understood to be farcical. Tony Millns, Chief Executive of industry-body English UK points out the obvious (someone needs to), when he says:

“The Government’s economic strategy and its immigration policy are completely at odds with each other in the area of international students. We should be making the most of the fact that our international reputation for quality in education is so high that students want to come here [to study]. Instead, the message which has gone out round the world is that Britain no longer wants students to come here.”

As I have suggested, the ‘problem’ here is immigration, with the Government currently classifying international students who come to study on a visa as ‘migrants’. But this is surely ridiculous. Whilst the public are, rightly or otherwise, concerned about immigration levels, do most people honestly think that foreign students visiting Britain on temporary visas, should be classified as immigrants? Even Migration Watch UK, a hard-line organisation dedicated to drastic reductions in immigration levels, has no problem with foreign students coming to study in the UK, as long as they leave again.

But the Government stubbornly refuse to make the distinction between immigrants and student visitors. They are, to all intents and purposes, the same thing. For MP Julian Huppert, who sat on the Select Committee for Student Visas, the situation is absurd:

“Students are clearly not migrants in any real sense, assuming they leave after their studies; if we had exit checks at the borders, we would know who was still here and who wasn’t, and have more sensible policies.”

And it is here that we come to real nonsense of this situation, indeed of the immigration question as a whole. Huppert says: ‘if we had exit checks at the borders’. What he means is simple and terrifyingly absurd: the UK authorities only measure the number of immigrants coming into the country, not the number leaving. This would be similar to measuring the population of a country by taking into account its birth rate, and not its death rate. Is this really the way to ‘restore sanity’ to the student visa system, as Theresa May claimed? If that isn’t a broken system, then it’s hard to know what is, and yet it is being used to help inform and frame government policy towards this vital and enormously successful British service industry.

Politicians and their pledges come and go, but the reality and impact of commerce resonates in a very immediate way, affecting real people in real time. As a result of these changes, thousands of jobs will be lost, and millions of pounds lost to UK revenue at a time when jobs are desperately needed and the Exchequer is crying out for revenue. Where is the sense in that? Furthermore, the English language is Britain’s great gift to the world. It is the vital language of commerce, diplomacy and human understanding, and it will stand long after the vote-grabbers have been forgotten.

I would contend, that the best place to learn our great language is in Britain, here and now. Sadly, and for the basest of reasons, the British Government which should represent this nation’s interests, stands committed to making it as hard as possible for the world to learn the English language.

Nick Jordan is a marketing manger and journalist, working in the international education sector. He has written for a wide variety of business and lifestyle publications, and currently works for a tutorial college in Cambridge. Follow Nick Jordan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NickJordan