Ten great reasons to study in the UK

Carla Stanton, International Manager of UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), sets out her top 10 pointers on why the UK remains a great study destination:

ONE: British higher education and qualifications have an impressive international reputation, with students in the United Kingdom encouraged to develop their potential while enjoying a full social life.

TWO: It’s easy to research the right course for you by visiting the UCAS website. Everyone who goes to UCAS.com has access to the Course Search database containing details of around 38,000 courses from archaeology to zoology.

THREE: Students who register are guided, step-by-step, through the process and use the online application system, Apply. It’s not too late to apply this year – UCAS will still send applications to universities and colleges up until June 30.

FOUR: Studying in the UK will help you develop excellent language skills. The English language is of crucial importance in today’s global business arena. (Most UK universities offer language support to international students but institutions have their own criteria for the level of English that students need to master.)

FIVE: You’ll be in good company. The UK has a long history of welcoming international students to study in its universities and colleges. In Britain last year there were 1.8 million full-time undergraduate students in higher education, which included over 104,000 international students.

SIX: UK universities are inspected regularly to ensure that they uphold the high standards of teaching, learning and research set by the Government. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) is the key body charged with maintaining these standards.

SEVEN: The cultural diversity of life in British higher education is unrivalled. From cosmopolitan cities like London, Cardiff, Belfast and Glasgow, to historic counties like Warwickshire and Yorkshire, the UK is a place of contrasts and culture, where ancient buildings sit alongside contemporary architecture.

EIGHT: Undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the UK tend to be shorter than in other countries which can help to keep the cost of tuition fees and living expenses down. Most undergraduate courses take three years to complete, although in Scotland it would be typically four years and postgraduate courses can be from one year upwards.

NINE: Typically, international students are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time and full-time during holidays. If you are from an EU country, there will be even more flexibility. Full details about the conditions for working are on the UK Border Agency website and also on the UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs) website.

TEN: EU students may be eligible for financial help with tuition fees, and possibly some extra help, depending on family circumstances. Find out here.

Last year over 110,000 people from outside the UK applied through UCAS to study in Britain. UCAS is the central body which has managed admissions to higher education in Britain for over 50 years. Carla Stanton is the International Manager of UCAS. 

Interview visa applicants and let them work

The idea of interviewing the candidates in the countries of their origin is good [to be introduced in Pakistan by UKBA]. This will help, although is not guaranteed, to assess the intentions of the students. The major incentive of interviewing the candidates back home is that the Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) would be able to assess the English language competency of students, especially in the event of many students producing fake IELTS or other SELT (Secured English Language Test) result.

One counter-argument could be that ECOs are not trained or qualified to assess somebody’s English competency. In response to this, I would like to say that even a non-native speaker of proficient English communicating with somebody can assess whether the person in front is able to speak English or not.

Therefore, one does not need a qualification to assess somebody’s English. Ideally, having trained personnel is excellent but not mandatory. If we talk about idealism, one must also be assessed in their English writing capability. Universities do include a section in their application forms which requires the candidate to summarise their profile, past experience and future ambitions. This must help in the assessment but should be taken as an additional step and not the only tool.

Proficiency in English language is vital if you are coming to study in an English-speaking country to study. Once these measures are implemented strictly, there is no harm in providing work opportunities to international students as work experience will help them to enhance their learning.

While on their course of study, students have to submit assignments based on their experiential curve. Work experience can help the students to implement what they have learnt at the workplace in their course work and vice versa. Work is coherent to their studies and international students must not be deprived of that.

Post-study work will help the international students to gain vital experience and apply what they have learnt. They will enrich themselves by learning work practices different from their home countries and will transport the experience back home.

Curtailing work experience and post-study work could be likened to depriving the students from gaining valuable experience which is an integral part of learning process.

What the government can do, in order to discourage the students from staying in UK permanently is to remove the post-study work visa from contributing towards the residency and permanent settlement.

These measures can ensure that only genuine students come to UK to study and work and leave the country after their purpose is achieved.

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. 

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