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Education consultancy: Let the buyer beware

December 15, 2013

Study worldwide, free in-depth counseling, free visa and immigration processing, free scholarship assistance, free IELTS training and testing … Does this all not sound so redundant already?

Yes, just about everything is for free including free tea and biscuits when you are a client that enters through the doors of an education consultancy. However, there is a thin line between guidance and ignorance, which is why there is a kicker in every ‘FREE’ service you avail in any business today. The truth is that business is business and a cup of tea is a cup of tea. The laid-back and spoon-fed clients are usually the ones who find themselves cheated and robbed because they put their trust and fortune in the hands of certified, but not qualified, professionals.

Studying overseas can be a blessing in disguise for anyone and everyone who is unaware about the challenges of living away from home. Foreign degrees, internationally acclaimed and accredited colleges and universities with work experience and exposure are some of the many reasons why students choose to go abroad. However, with the current state of our country where corruption and felony are spreading like the plague, students and parents often fall victim to the mass gimmicks promoted by some educational consultancies.

Sadly, apart from a few, the majority operate for their own vested interest of minting money by any means necessary as they do not have any code of ethics. This gives them the opportunity to benefit from the free market and exploit gimmicks to make money off students and parents who could otherwise deal directly with the higher education institution abroad.

Let’s analyse. Consultants are self-employed professionals who provide solutions to problems in a particular area or specialised field. School counselors, on the other hand, are employed by schools and are qualified and experienced advisors in education planning. In the case of Pakistan, educational consultants have actually redefined the role of academic counselors and immigration consultants by performing similar job functions and more, albeit without legitimate qualification and experience. As a result, what we have is a growing number of educational consultancy firms with little to no quality of service and commitment to the noble field.

Contrary to academic counsellors, who are practitioners bound by school policies and code of conduct, educational consultants are not bound by any particular statutory rules for practitioners or businesses because they are not directly governed by the ministry of education. Below are some hard facts:

• There are beyond 5,000 education consultancy firms currently operating in Pakistan with partner offices in UK, Australia, Canada, Malaysia and the United States that are registered under the same company banner.

• Karachi alone has over 2,500 education consultants and still growing, the example of which can be seen from the many hoardings near Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

• One-fifth of the graduating students are bound to get influenced due to peer pressure or foreign benefits and test the educational consultancy option at least once.

• Ninety per cent of the people will prepare fake bank statements to show affordability for education at foreign universities (collateral/security/sponsor).

• Ten pc of the people will end up being cheated or lose money either because of the cheque being made out to the individual or business and not to the Academic Institution, or because they fail to understand the gimmick behind on-spot admission.

• Under the new student visa rules implemented after April 21, 2011, qualifying IELTS is compulsory for any student to apply overseas for study and work permits. Yet, students will opt for the substandard language teaching provided at most consultancies to achieve a lower band score instead of studying from content experts or professionals.

• Eighty-five pc of parents and students will try to avail the “free lunch” offered by marketing schemes such as IELTS free scholarship, 50pc consultation fees discount, free IELTS, laptops and tablets, and more.

It is no surprise that with so much of deception in our society, one can easily lose their hard-earned fortune instantly. Ever wondered why there is a high number of such businesses including franchises? What makes them more reliable or qualified than bona fide and non-commercial school practitioners? How is it that when a student applies directly to foreign universities, the scholarships available are limited and different than what an education consultancy offers? What is the difference between a bank statement and loan letter for student visa? What are the forms of hidden charges and how are candidates hoaxed via free IELTS training, no consultation and processing fees and so-called non-merit-based scholarships?

In a study conducted in 2010, about 85pc were unregistered consultants of whom a majority were found engaging in ethically dubious practices. Just like the saying ‘there are no free lunches in the world’, one can be sure to pay a heavy cut. One such instance was of a lady who lost $25,000 because she was trying to study for IELTS and apply for a business visa to the UK to launch a tourism business with her husband but the consultant ran off. Here are some guidelines to play smart and avoid scams:

• Always conduct a thorough background check on the educational consultant and the organisation including their affiliated institution. Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) letters that universities issue cannot be given to students directly by any consultant unless they or their firm are authorised and declared by the university as a ‘regional representative’ for that University. You may call or email the academic institution abroad to find out.

• Do not be fooled by large billboards with success rates because they typically range from Rs35,000 to Rs500,000 per month, which may or may not be sponsored by foreign agencies, but this amount is and can be recovered from only a couple of students that spend Rs500,000 or more.

• Remember, education consultants cannot deal with immigration because not only is a law degree required for that but they must be legal practitioners and work with the bar association of the country. Legal practitioners and/or their consultancy and business name can easily be found on the country’s tourism website.

• No consultancy can guarantee visas and this is a common lie found in some firms. Be sure to make bank drafts/money-orders in the name of academic institution applying to or in the name of consulate general who is issuing you a study or business visa.

• Large sums of money is charged in the form of offer letter alone. An ‘on-spot admission’ only guarantees offer letters issued by agents and not the university. Some consultants may ask to submit the letter in the embassy so they can disappear, which is why their address and telephone numbers keep changing.

• Just like the saying, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, involving too many agents is almost a guarantee that one would lose their fortune and so it is advisable to avoid middlemen.

With so many consultancies flooding the country, there is no denying the fact that the field of educational consulting has grown considerably in the past decade. Perhaps, it is the second most lucrative profession after politics, which is a beast all in itself. However, one needs to understand that there are no shortcuts in life.

The writer is a career counsellor and visiting faculty lecturer.