Perception and reality – my humbling experience of agents’ work in China

I left INTO at the beginning of 2013 to study Mandarin Chinese full time in Kunming, China. My reasons for doing this and my experiences ‘on the other side’, as an international student, are for another day.

But, with an eye to the future, I wanted to continue some kind of association with INTO, so I approached the recruitment team in Guangzhou to see if I could assist in any way.  Despite my very basic language skills I was fortunate enough to be asked to help Tyler Nusbaum and the team with some agent events. Here I got to experience first hand the reality of the job that agents do to support students.

I want to start by making a full and honest disclosure. Like a lot of joint venture/centre-based staff I had never seen agents at work before. Most of my interaction with agents had been dealing with problems or complaints via email or socially at agent dinners. I had never seen the work they did first-hand before and my perception of their work had been influenced by the UK press’ portrayal of education agents. Here, like most issues surrounding international students, the headlines are sensationalistic.  At worst, agents are portrayed as mercenaries, caring nothing for the student and just for the bottom line of their bank sheet. What I actually found couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The first thing that really struck me was how involved the agents were with the students’ academic careers. Some agent offices are more like miniature INTO centres than offices. They have private counselling rooms, language labs for English language development, printed and e-resources for students to use and, most importantly, staff who care about the students. Staff at many of the agents used by INTO do not simply perform the function of providing students with guidance and advice on overseas study. They also support the development of their skills and prepare them for life in a new country with a different culture.

The second thing that surprised me was how invested individual staff were in individual students.  I had always suspected that once the commission payment had been made the agent would see the student as something of a nuisance. But staff maintained regular contact with students through Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat, as well as by email and Skype. There appeared to be a relationship closer to a personal friendship than the purely service-based relationship I had expected.

There also seemed to be a strong relationship built between the parents and the agent, something vitally important in a family orientated society like China’s. The parents put their trust in the agent to look after their child in the same way as they place that trust in INTO. So there is a real moral responsibility on the agent to ensure that the student is looked after properly when in the UK or US.

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Bestway, a fantastic agent operating out of Kunming. Speaking to the founder, Jiesi Chen one evening, I asked her how she felt about some specific INTO centres. She told me about her experiences when visiting centres and how she felt able to personally recommend some centres to children of her friends and family based on her experiences seeing them. She even gave me names of individual staff in centres who she had come to know and who she trusted to look after her students. I was really moved by how deeply she cared about the students who went to study at various INTO centres, and also extremely impressed by how this personal interaction could help persuade parents to look past the league tables and to find a suitable environment for their child to study overseas, not just a high ranking institution.

The final shock I had came while attending an anniversary celebration, also for Kunming Bestway. At this event, students who had long since graduated and returned to China were invited along and given awards for their academic achievements. There were performances from the students and testimonials and displays of the students’ achievements, academic and non-academic. At the end of the event I watched the interaction between students and Bestway staff and could see how personal this was.

Of course my experience is a limited one and, as in all walks of life, I would be naïve to think there were not some ‘坏蛋’ (bad eggs) out there. I have had an interaction with only a handful of agents and of course it will be difficult for some of the larger agents to have such a personal relationship with each and every student.

But a lot of my pre-conceptions of agents were completely wrong and my experiences here have drastically changed my understanding of the work that is done in student recruitment. I wanted to share my experiences of this, which I think could be of particular interest to other staff who don’t get to see agents work first hand themselves.

Matt Cartwright

Author: Matt Cartwright

Matt Cartwright was Head of Student Services for INTO UEA London and INTO City University, from 2011 until January this year. Previous to joining INTO he worked for City University for 8 years. Early this year Matt left INTO to study Mandarin Chinese full time in Kunming, China and has recently moved to Chongqing to continue his studies. Matt remains involved with INTO, occasionally assisting the regional offices staff at events in southwest China. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @carts13

4 thoughts on “Perception and reality – my humbling experience of agents’ work in China

  1. This pays tribute to the fantastic education agents INTO work with but I wonder whether agents are tarnished because other organisations might not seek the same level of professionalism when they use agents to recruit students?

  2. HI Matt, Great article written from the heart. The above is the sort of experience we get from the overwhelming majority of INTO agents. Like INTO they know that the student experience is very important and once they give them that, the extra business from word of mouth referrals flows naturally. Cheers Tom RD East Asia

  3. Thanks, Matt! Highly informative and useful article. My students have recently been discussing the role of agents in their ongoing educational success, so your article also happened to be particularly timely for me.

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