An international college located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, VGC is one of Canada’s fastest-growing private colleges, offering English courses and International Business programs to students from over 75 nations.
Dominic Walton is Executive Director of VGC International College, and is also the owner of an education consultancy, Fifth Business Education Management. Mr Walton has been on the international education scene since 1993, and has seen the industry from all sides, including management and marketing, after completing an MBA from the University of Warwick in the UK. Mr Walton spoke to The Canadian Business Quarterly recently about the issues faced in marketing Canadian education worldwide, the focus on diversity that gives the college a truly global outlook, and the ways in which the college promises to give back to the global community.
“Originally, [VGC] was a language school,” Mr Walton explains. “It started off in 2003, and we were focusing on language exams – so the TOEFL or the IELTS exam. That’s the test that international students have to take to get into universities.”
By 2009, the focus of the college had changed, and VGC began offering English language courses and pathways into universities. Sometime later, the college also started a School of International Business.
“I actually joined VGC International College in 2012. We were about fifty students at the time, and since then we’ve grown into a base of more than 500 students at one time, and we graduate around about 2,000 students.”
In the fiercely competitive environment of education, there are different expectations placed on private schools, which have an extra level of competition due to the fact that students pay to receive the best possible education.
“We try to really focus in on the academics and the quality of our education, which should be a given, but we’re actually a collection of people from other schools who thought we could do things a bit better.”
The process of hiring different staff from all areas of the education system – from teachers, to marketers and student services staff – gives VGC a competitive advantage over other private schools.
“We really focus on the student experience, whether it be when you’re coming to Canada for the first time, integrating you into the Canadian environment, or we also focus in on the academic experience – on what they get out of the classroom.”
In addition to these basics, VGC takes care to provide extra-curricular activities to support students, such as afternoon study classes for struggling students, workshops on Canadian culture, and writing centers.
“Then we really make sure that those areas are set up to increase the chances for students to network with each other,” Mr Walton says. “A lot of these students are from multiple different backgrounds, so they get the chance to meet people.”
This access to networking with other students from all over the world is paramount, providing an excellent basis for students to develop business opportunities that will serve them well in the future.
“We spend a lot of money on furniture, areas where people can actually sit and have conversations. Student space is really important to us, and this all comes back down to the experience. The failure rate for a student is quite high if they don’t have anyone to relate to.”
As with any international school, the issues faced by having students from a broad range of countries can be significant. Problems surrounding differences in culture and language are always apparent in this kind of environment, but can be easily overcome.
“We’re trying to produce the global citizen. A lot of times we get students that come to Vancouver and it’s the first time that they’ve ever left their country, and it’s the first time that they’ve ever spoken to someone from a different culture.”
This process inevitably involves the bringing of stereotypical ideas about certain cultures and cultural differences. Part of VGC’s role is to help break down these stereotypes and allow people to embrace global ideas.
“People start to see people for what they are,” Mr Walton says. “We’re really no different from each other. We all have our issues in life, and it’s fun just to see how the viewpoints change.”
Commitment to diversity
VGC International College is divided into two schools, the School of English Language and the School of International Business. Mr Walton explains that there are very clear reasons for setting out these two particular learning paths.
“There are a couple of reasons really. My background is in language learning as well as just the studies of English Language, but I also have an MBA, so I know the business and I know the language side. But it’s also a lot based on our students’ needs.”
When students were surveyed about their reasons for attending the college, 54% of them said that they wanted to go into business. The rest of the students said that they would be using the skills they had gained to take back and use in their careers.
“We started to see a clear path to go down, and we felt like that was the missing piece. We also have a lot of people who come in, some have experience and some have no experience, into our international business courses, and it helps them fill the little gap in between their qualifications to get into a public university – they don’t quite have the language.”
This is essential for many international students. By offering a slightly lower language threshold than most public universities, VGC gives people the chance to gain the qualifications and language experience needed to move onto another school.
“It really just comes out of the need of our clients. So we took the School of English Language and International Business and promoted that, and it’s turned out really great for us, a lot of success.”
There are many international factors that affect the business of private education in Canada, and Mr Walton recognizes there is a new global focus on the sector at the moment, for a number of reasons.
“Our favorite things going on in the world at the moment would be Brexit and Donald Trump,” he says. “They work marvels for us. Brexit has scared pretty much everybody in Europe, and they’re all turning to Canada.”
Additionally the work of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen internationally as a beacon in politics, has done wonders for Canada’s status in the international market, further promoting colleges such as VGC.
“Then we have different economies going on. Whenever we have certain economies that are fluctuating, even the Korea and Japan trade war going on right now, that affects us as well in a negative way. We get affected quite easily by all these political uncertainties that happen in the world.”
With a heavy focus on diversity, drops in certain global markets are not always problems for the college, as it can turn to other markets instead. VGC has many partners across the world, businesses that naturally fluctuate within individual markets.
“Our strategy has always been to diversify as much as possible, and we do spend a lot of time in different markets. Last year we went out to 23 different countries. I think this year we’re probably hitting 27 different countries that we’re promoting in. We’ve got alumni from 75 different countries.”
There are naturally certain issues that occur in marketing Canadian education to countries overseas, one of which is the managing of educational agents that act on behalf of students in many foreign economies.
“This is one thing that the Canadians don’t understand, because we don’t have educational agents in Canada, helping you to choose your university. In other countries they [do], and these are our partners that basically go around and promote us and other schools.”
The job of these agents is to present potential students with the best options for choosing their educational establishment, as well as providing individual advice about geographical areas which might suit the student, and helping with the visa application process.
The global experience
Despite a number of international issues that are out of the college’s control, VGC has enjoyed significant success, evidenced by the fact that it has now graduated over 2,000 students, an achievement Mr Walton insists was a real team effort.
“Our biggest success really has been being able to attract the right staff,” he explains. “We’ve got some amazing people here that really know what they’re doing, and they want to work for a school that’s focused on the right things.”
The common factor amongst all the different faculty teams at the college is the willingness to put the students first, which as a competitive business helps make sure that the client is front and center of proceedings.
In the current business environment, the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) continues to grow. CSR is an area Mr Walton knows all about, having written his dissertation at the University of Warwick on the subject.
“When we’re looking at the international field, what we have a tendency of doing is promoting Canadian education, taking the student out of their home country, and with that student comes a heck of a lot of money. We take the money and it’s great for us, as they assimilate into the Canadian culture and then become part of the fabric of society.”
With around $19 billion coming into the Canadian economy from other foreign economies annually, there is a clear sense that a lot of money is being lost from these countries. VGC is aware of this situation and attempts to do something to redress the balance.
“We try to put back money into NGOs in some of these countries that we’re promoting from. We have what’s called Educate for Change and it’s VGC’s program for our Brazilians, our Panamanians, our Thais – for every day that they’re at school, we put a dollar a day back into an educational NGO. It helps us to really keep the focus on what’s important.”
In its ongoing quest to produce global citizens, VGC undertakes programs such as these as a way of further being a part of the global experience, ensuring that it is doing so in a socially responsible way.
For more information on VGC International College visit www.vgc.ca.