A former international student himself, Gautam Chhokar knows first-hand how valuable good education consulting can be. Now with an agency almost 20 years old, he talks about standing out in India’s crowded agency marketplace, why he’s looking at Ireland for the first time and what the next generation of Indian students want.
GC: When I came to Australia as an international student myself I probably contacted about 20 so-called consultants and nobody gave me correct advice. I realised that good students were coming to average or not-so-good institutions, and not-so-good students were coming to very good institutions. It was not a structured industry, and there were not many overseas alumni who came and started their own company like me.
GC: I started in the year 2000.
GC: It was not easy because there were very few agents. And then too I was an Australian at that time and moving back to India with a very limited amount of money. It was a little difficult to start up your own operations. And when you compete with the bigger agents it’s not easy. But since I started small, I had my fundamentals right, and it was a good learning exercise.
GC: Giving the right advice, doing your homework, going to the university websites, reading the course content. I had a lot of time to talk to my students, understanding what their requirements were, what their background was. So when you do all your research and you put yourself in the students’ shoes, then it gives you a bit more. You can give about an hour to each student, discuss their strengths and weaknesses and then suggest two or three options that might suit them.
GC: This is a good question, but what I also feel is because India is so big and the data is so big, invariably we will have discrepancies. But if I look at the overall stats there may not be so many.
In India most of the cream of the crop go to Harvard, people with perfect GRE and GMAT scores. So it’s like an ocean, you need to understand where you fish from.
“When you do all your research and you put yourself in the students’ shoes, it gives you a bit more”
When you counsel students for the first time, you generally get to know about their credentials. Somebody who’s got a 90% mark and comes from a service background and is looking for a good university then probably the situation is good. But if you are looking at a student who has barely managed to scrape through, getting by on very limited English and then with a not-so-good family background they don’t have any clear purpose, then obviously it’s questionable.
It’s quite easy to work out and as a counsellor, it should be. As long as your fundamentals and your ethics are clear it takes one minute to find out how genuine the student is.
GC: It was recently, about a year ago. I’ve never been out of the Australia and New Zealand shell but I’ve just been to Canada, and I really think there’s a lot of similarities between Australia and New Zealand, and Canada. We’re focusing on Ireland too because of Brexit. Ireland might be the only English speaking country in the EU. So it might be a good idea to target that.
GC: I would say that not many students have a long-term plan; they have dreams. But most of the students generally do not have strategies. What I’m trying to differentiate is that there is no harm in having dreams, when students take an international education they normally dream about getting a good career outcome anywhere in the world.
“I’ve never been out of the Australia and New Zealand shell but I’ve just been to Canada”
People want a good education so that they can be happy, they can use it wisely and be well settled in life. But I understand that the migration outcome can be important because when they study a good degree they want to get some good practical experience and want to be absorbed in a society as soon as possible. That’s when the return on the satisfaction is higher.
So I would say for a few migrating is the only goal, but as a consultant, we need to filter out those ones. As long as they are genuine students and they meet the requirements validly, there are absolutely no issues.
GC: I feel that most of the people should be into education consultancy; it should not be a business of student recruitment. When the fundamentals are well-defined, you want to give good solutions as an education consultancy, then it’s a good thing. But generally the problem is when people think it’s a business of sending students abroad to any ABC college. That’s where people can get it wrong.
GC: In India there might be about 5,000, 6,000, or maybe even 10,000 agents. I wouldn’t be surprised, but how many of them are good quality agents? You could probably count on your fingertips. Maybe in Delhi for Australia there would only be about 15, 20, 25 good agents on the higher side.
GC: It is important that you have professional qualifications and especially in this industry like QEAC and ITAC, are a registered immigration adviser, and that you’re a part of professional associations like AAERI or MIA. But what also matters is how strong and how good your ethics are. I believe the main thing is that your team members and counselors have their ethics right and they’re giving advice in good faith all the time.
GC: I understand that a few years ago the UK was probably right up there along with the US. But most students look at not only the return on investment but also the return on their efforts and time. If they go to the UK for a one year course and then they have to come back without any chance of getting some practical experiences it can create negativity or a question mark in the kid’s future.
“The problem is when people think it’s a business of sending students abroad to any ABC college”
GC: There is a whole cohort of upper-middle class Indian students who generally come from good families, are very well-educated, global citizens. They are really good in their academics as well. They want to experience studying in world class institutions. At the same time they work hard and they play hard. They want to have a good quality of life as well.
Affording an overseas degree will probably not be in issue for them but still some of them don’t get a visa for the US or UK for some reason. But these are amazing, good quality students. These are the next generation of students.
A few things that have changed in the last few years is the five-day culture. People tend to take off Saturdays and Sundays now. A weekend culture is coming up. A lot of people are holidaying. I’ve seen people in their mid-30s or even late 30s, couples or with a kid, who are thinking of doing double degrees or master’s in the US, UK or Canada.
GC: About 500 at least out of India, and a couple of hundred from onshore in Melbourne.
GC: A lot of students who come to Australia generally continue but then obviously there will always be 10-15% of students who will flip for any reason, be it that they fail or their career choices change. There could be a hundred and ten reasons for it.
Let’s not blame only the students though. It could be not proper advice given or sometimes the institutions need to look after their students so that they retain them.
GC: No it’s not the institution’s fault. What I’m trying to say is that after the recruitment process, once a student has been enrolled, then they probably need to ensure that the student has been counselled well and is happy.