The Educational Counselling Service
By its very nature higher education is international and British higher education institutions, particularly the universities have a long and honourable record of admitting students from overseas. Today higher education is more international than ever before, a fact that is reflected not only in the changes in curricula world-wide and the increased number of students studying abroad, but also in the mobility of academic staff and the collaboration in scientific research that exists across national frontiers.
Although most people do not normally associate education with business - except where business itself is a focus of study - education is now a major business world-wide and the UK is one of the leading provider countries, along with the USA, France, Germany, Australia and Canada. In the UK alone there were 198,400 international students on higher education courses in 1996-1997.
One of the key developments in this market for international education has been the increased competition in overseas marketing and recruitment. In this the UK is no exception. During the last 15 years British higher education institutions have engaged in much more pro-active recruitment overseas, much of it carried out under the umbrella of the Education Counselling Service (ECS). This article explains how the ECS came about, what its mission is, the range and level of the services that it offers to its members and the code of practice that it expects member institutions to abide by.
The birth of ECS
ECS was established in 1984 in response to a decline in the number of international students coming to Britain. It came into being as a result of a partnership between British higher education and the British Council. In its foundation year, over 70 universities and polytechnics became members of ECS, the main aim of which was to promote British higher education in important overseas markets.
The partnership is not one that has come about simply because of a desire to share costs. Prior to 1984 the British Council was already operating in almost 100 countries, promoting cultural relations and academic interchange with the UK. Through its network of offices, each with its own extensive list of local contacts, the Council was already in the business of answering educational enquiries. It therefore provided the ideal organisation through which British higher education could be more actively promoted overseas. It was therefore an obvious choice of partner for British higher education in 1984 when the latter decided to step up its recruitment activity.
Following the lead of higher education, the further education sector joined forces with the British Council in 1987 to establish the Education Promotion Service (ESP) for the promotion of British further education overseas.
Higher and further education are complementary to each other and the flow of students from one sector to the other inevitably means that there are areas of common interest. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the interests of the membership of both organisations, merger occurred in 1991. The newly merged organisation retained the name Education Counselling Service and membership of it was then open to all universities in the UK, maintained colleges of higher and further education, and all independent colleges accredited by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education (BACIFHE). Eligibility for membership was subsequently extended to include sixth form colleges and private schools, but only for the promotion of their sixth forms. And from October 1996 membership was opened to ELT institutions under a new pilot programme in the three key ELT markets of Japan, Korea and Thailand.
In late 1996 ECS had a total of 266 members, 140 institutions in higher education, 56 maintained colleges of further education, 32 private colleges and schools, 35 ELT institutions and 3 associate members including UCAS. By September 1997 membership had increased to 283 institutions, the largest increase occurring the further education sector.
The ECS Mission
In 1992 the enlarged ECS adopted a formal mission statement. In order to convey ECS commitment to international education of the highest quality the mission statement is reproduced in full.
ECS was created in the belief that all institutions offering education at post- secondary level are enriched by an international culture.
Operating through a partnership between the British Council and accredited British educational institutions, the aims of ECS are as follows:
1) to assist its members in the development of their overseas activities, including the promotion of opportunities for education and training, and the recruitment of international students.
2) to enhance the high reputation overseas of British post-secondary education, by:
2.1) monitoring and, where appropriate, insuring compliance with the ECS Code of Practice on the student recruitment;
2.2) working in co-operation with the quality auditing bodies, to ensure the needs of international students are taken into account when assessing courses and other services, whether delivered in Britain or overseas.
In pursuit of these aims, ECS will involve its members in agreeing its detailed objectives and development plans, its monitoring role and other aspects of the Service.
The range of ECS Services
In fulfilling its mission ECS provides a whole range of services to its members. In order to provide these services ECS has full time staff operating from British Council Offices in each of the countries in which ECS operates. The number of staff varies from one country to another, the largest numbers being deployed in Malaysia and Hong Kong, the smallest in Cyprus. The work of the overseas offices is backed up and managed by a small team of staff at the British Council’s head quarters in Manchester.
The services that ECS offers subscribing institutions are as follows:
1) The ECS staff in the UK and overseas countries undertake generic promotion of British post-secondary education, targeting potential students and funding agencies, ensuring that a high profile is maintained in these key markets for British education in the face of increasing international competition.
2) Counselling is given to individuals by ECS staff overseas to ensure that the best possible match is made between students’ requirements and the range of courses available in the UK.
3) Overseas exhibitions and missions are arranged for subscribers and charged to participants at cost.
4) Market surveys of existing or potential markets are commissioned which provide a guide for subscribers wishing to expand their marketing activity. Circulation of these surveys is restricted to subscriber institutions.
5) Individual visit programmes can be arranged for subscribers visiting countries where there are ECS offices.
6) Further advice and market information can be provided in response to requests from subscribers.
7) The newsletter ECS Marketing News is issued to subscribers every six weeks.
8) ECS organises an annual collection of subscribers’ promotional material and its distribution to offices in the countries where ECS currently operates.
9) A statistical survey of international students in the UK is compiled annually and distributed to subscribers. Global comparisons with USA, Australia and Canada also undertaken.
10) Updating and training is provided on an annual basis to selected key staff from ECS offices overseas and British Council offices in the other key markets.
The level of activity
The Annual Report for 1996/97 documents the level of activity in the 14 countries in which ECS was fully operational. The full range and volume of activity undertake by ECS abroad during 1996-1997 is indicated below:
Levels of Activity undertaken by ECS abroad, 1996-1997
In house presentations - 540
Promotional visits by ECS Staff - 726
Educational enquiries - 245,051
Counselling Interviews - 47,434
Applications referred - 9,144
Market information queries handled from subscribers - 1026
Provision of counselling/presentational facilities for subscribers - 478
Market briefings given to subscriber representatives 1058
Subscriber visit programmes arranged/marketing assistance given - 487
Contributions to additions of ECS Marketing News - 86
Exhibitions/missions organised by ECS - 45
Participation in external exhibitions - 67
Study tours to the UK 8
Source: Education Counselling Service, Review of the year October 1996 to September 1997
Thus, the 14 overseas offices of the ECS handled almost a quarter of a million educational enquiries, counselled over 47,000 students about study in the UK and eventually referred over 9,000 of these to member institutions in the UK. As the table indicates, the range of activities undertaken is much wider than counselling students and in total represents an extremely large volume of work, most of which would not have been undertaken had ECS not existed. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that because of the existence of ECS information on British higher and further education reached a much wider public than would otherwise had been the case, and that as a result of this the flow of applications to the British institutions increased. Overseas missions and exhibitions are particularly useful in this respect because they enable potential applicants, parents and teachers to come face to face with academics and administrators from many institutions.
Code of Practice
ECS has a Code of Practice that it expects all member institutions to follow in all of their dealings with international students. The first addition of the code relied heavily on two earlier publications, one of which was drawn up by the Association of University International Liaison Officers (AUILO). Thus from the onset the ECS Code reflected best practice that already existed within the University sector.
The Code, which was revised in 1995, deals with such matters as institutional policy towards international students, academic policy issues, marketing, information provision, admissions and support services. The latest edition also includes a new section entitled ‘Working with International Partners’, in recognition of the fact that UK institutions are sometimes providers overseas as well as in Britain. The main points in the Code may be summarised as follows:
All institutions should have a comprehensive and clearly defined policy on international students, and on collaborative links with international partners;
This policy should inform and permeate all other activities within the institution; in particular, it should be taken into account in the academic and financial planning processes;
The policy should take account of all information requirements for international students, from the point in time that they accept the offer of a place up until the time of their departure from the institution;
A senior member of staff should be charged with the overall responsibility for the policy and for ensuring that the policy laid down is actually implemented in a coherent fashion; this person should report directly to someone within the senior management team of the institution;
Staff engaged in international recruitment should be knowledgeable about their institution’s policy;
The admissions requirements for international students should not undermine the institutions academic standards, nor threaten the success rate of international students;
Appropriate training and staff development should be provided for all staff in regular contact with international students;
Institutional policies and provisions should be sensitive to different customs, practices and expectations of students from other cultures;
International partners should have policies that are compatible with the home institution, although responsibility for validated and franchised courses rests with the awarding (home) institution; arrangements for the quality control of collaborative international links should be no less vigorous than for arrangements operating internally in the UK.
Clearly, responsible institutions will already be implementing the policies and practices described above. However, whether this was true several years ago when the Code was first introduced is not so obvious. The importance of the Code - as is probably true of all codes - is that when it was introduced it "shocked" institutions into thinking more systematically about international students and, in doing so, brought those that lagged behind much closer to the "best" or "acceptable" practice. If there are occasional lapses, with departures from "acceptable practice", the very existence of the Code is likely to ensure that such departures are more quickly remedied. And where this does not happen through self-regulation, the Code recommends that complaints be made to the Board of Directors of ECS, with the ultimate sanction being suspension of membership.
When ECS was first established it operated only in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, three of the key markets for UK overseas students. At the time Malaysia was boycotting British goods and services by pursuing a "buy British last" policy and as a consequence of this the number of Malaysian students in the UK had declined. It is not surprising therefore that one of the first UK higher education missions overseas that was organised by ECS was to Malaysia in April 1985. This was a high profile mission that attracted much media attention even before it arrived in Kuala Lumpur. It also followed on very close to another, even more important, mission that was lead by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Her aim was to improve relations between the two countries and woo the Malaysians back into buying British goods and services. In this she succeeded, and through its timing the ECS mission was able to exploit the easing of tension between the two countries to the advantage of British higher education.
Since those early days ECS has expanded its sphere of operations and now has a presence in 14 countries. In addition to the original three countries ECS now operates in Brunei, Cyprus, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Thailand, China and Brazil. Regular missions and/or exhibitions are organised in each country and these are usually backed up by detailed market surveys and briefings. Almost all of these events are for promotion purposes as opposed to direct recruitment. The exceptions to this are the late summer missions to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, which are timed to occur just after A level results are released so as to allow late applicants and those who have not yet found a place an opportunity to do so.
The promotions missions vary enormously in both size and focus. Some are small scale and specialist in nature, with no more than 10 or 12 institutions participating. Others take the form of large scale education exhibitions, with all subscribing members participating. The exhibitions that are held in Malaysia and Hong Kong are examples of the latter, and the official estimates of the number of visitors attending these events is usually in excess of 50 000.
Of course, indicators of activity are not measures of success. While there can be little doubt that through the activities of ECS many students abroad have benefited from counselling and guidance, and will have been able to make more informed decisions about where to study, the extent to which ECS has actually increased the flow of applicants to British institutions, and ultimately lead to more of them coming here, is less certain. The reason for this uncertainty is quite simply that it is not known how many students would have applied and ended up studying in the UK had ECS not been set up. This is a problem that is familiar to all social scientists who are interested in evaluating the impact of a newly established institutions or policy.
Nevertheless it seems fairly safe to assume that for higher education at least, ECS has contributed to the increase in international students coming to the UK since 1983/84, notwithstanding the increased competition in many of these markets from the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Although the promotion of higher education under ECS still requires a considerable additional input of resources from member institutions through their participation in missions, exhibitions, etc., and the total resources committed to promotion and recruitment is probably far higher as a result of ECS. In the absence of ECS the large scale exhibitions would probably not take place. Some of the missions would, but they would probably be fewer in number and smaller in scale because if ECS did not exist all arrangements or such missions would have to be undertaken by the institutions, acting either individually or in consortia. Thus the very existence of ECS has probably given a stimulus to the marketing and promotion of British higher education because they have made it easier for British institutions to engage in both.
Management and Policy
Along with other UK based staff, the Head of ECS is located in Manchester and the Manchester Office is in frequent contact with the other ECS units abroad. As is true of the head of any organisation, the Head of ECS is responsible for the day to day management of the Service. ECS policy is determined by a Board of Directors which is chaired by a Vice-Chancellor, the other members being representative of the varies constituents among the membership, i.e. the universities, colleges of higher and further education, private colleges and the British Council itself.
Once a year, in December, an Annual General Meeting is held to which all subscribing institutions are invited. In addition to receiving the Chairman’s review of the year, there are country reports from each of the ECS offices overseas. Thus, through attendance at the Annual General Meeting, and through their representatives on the Board of Directors, there is an opportunity for member institutions to make an input into policy making.
The fact that over the past twelve years, very few institutions have allowed their membership to lapse suggests that to date members have generally been satisfied with the service that they have received.
The Way Forward
The international environment in higher and further education, as in business and commerce, generally, becomes increasingly competitive. The need for ECS is therefore unlikely to diminish. Over the past few years it has become more business like in its operations, with a rolling business plan and more responsive management structures. It will need to continue to explore new markets and this will require additional resources. In the past such resources have been generated, in part at least, by a broadening of the ECS membership base. The scope for continuing increases in membership must be lower than what it was a few years ago, but whether membership is approaching its limit is uncertain. If it is then ECS will only be able to expand into new areas of the world if it ceases - or slims down - operations in some of its existing countries, or if it is able to finance such expansion by further increases in membership fees.
The Author: Professor J.J. Hughes, Professor of Industrial Economics, University of Kent at Canterbury U.K. Chairman of the Educational Courses in Britain Editorial Steering Committee.
This article first appeared in Educational Courses in Britain