Meet the agent: Insights into the Omani market
11 April 2018

English UK partner agent Kate Clarke works in Oman, where she has lived for over 30 years. She became a study travel agent in 1991, and her agency, Al Ahlam Training Services, now specialises in English language courses and university placements.

How did you get into being an agent?

I went to Oman 31 years ago for a job. In those days it was much less developed than now and life was very simple. Quality is so important to me. I always want to know class sizes, nationality mix, what the inspection says. These are the things I am looking for.

What do you specialise in?

These days my focus is on English language and university placement, which are in big demand in a developing country. We don't have too many options in country, and there's a good relationship between Oman and the UK. UK education is very highly-prized and anyone offering it sees a distinct advantage over other destinations. I specialise in the UK with a little bit of Ireland, and Malaysia where UK universities have a campus there.

What changes are you seeing in the market?

Local students can access information in a way they never could before. I would tell them about good schools in unusual locations and different places, and wanted to raise the profile of those. With the internet revolution students can find these places themselves but they aren't able to discern and make judgements so are still looking for education advisers.

The second change is growth in what could be described as rogue agents – people with a car, a phone and a bank account set up in business. They're not properly registered even as a commercial concern.

This makes the market very focused on price and agents get into price wars where quality is no longer becomes a concern. I don't want to compete with these people: I respect that my schools hire qualified staff and they treat them well. They don't have high staff turnover and those things are important to me because that's what makes the product as strong as it is.

I would say there should be far more regulation in the industry. For instance, when I work with the universities we are very closely monitored - we have a legal signed agreement, we are very thoroughly vetted and they take references before they deal with us. in the ELT industry, there isn't anything of that sort. Anyone can operate as an agent and I would like to see much heavier regulation of agents and anyone who operates in that way.

What do you think of the Partner Agency Scheme?

It's useful – at the end of the day, so much of what we do based on trust. Students come to see me and they like first of all the fact that I am British, because it gives me a credibility other agents don't have because I know the country and the system. Trust between agent and student is really important and being a member of an agent association gives you that credibility.

What is driving Omani parents?

I would say the market is very buoyant. There is very strong demand, especially for junior programmes in the summer for 15 and 16 year olds. Parents like to send the child for the summer preceding the last year to boost their English language level so they'll get higher marks in those exams. If they are bilingual they do better in other subjects too, so it's a very strong market for that age group.

There is also a a good market for mature students and people working in institutions. One example is judges. These days cases are coming to court involving expatriates - they speak English so judges need to as well. We have a new airport opening later this year so staff need to upgrade their skills, and the refinery company is expanding and so people in senior and senior technician positions need to upgrade their skills too. In Oman, English is the language of business so it is quite positive.

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