At first glance the distribution business I usually talk about and international education consultants may not have a great deal in common. Look again though, with my discussion with Susan Fang, and learn how to build international relationships and do international business from the perspective of an international education consultant.

Introducing Susan Fang

Susan Fang - one of the UK's and Taiwan's top international education consultants

Susan Fang is an expert in the British education system.

For over two decades her company OxBridge Holdings has empowered families worldwide to successfully get their children into the best educational establishments. As the founder of OxBridge, East Asia’s earliest and most successful education consultancy, her company represents 120 U.K. higher-ed institutions & 400 K-12 schools, and her team is in tune with what the schools and universities want in an ideal student. With insider knowledge and expertise, OxBridge helps students get into their desired UK schools and universities with confidence and ease.

How did Susan become an international education consultant?

In short, with the good intention to bridge a knowledge gap.

Susan arrived in the UK in 1988 as a young teen with her family. As Taiwanese, they were an anomaly as the majority of her fellow citizens looked to the US for work and education. Because of her father’s diplomat job, Susan bucked the trend and grew up in London studying all the way into the University of Cambridge.

When she returned to Taiwan in 1998, this background in the UK made her stand out among other Taiwanese who hailed from the Ivy League unis of the US. At the time Susan worked as the senior editor of a major publication in Taiwan and soon enough she realised that she was increasingly known as the go-to person among Taiwanese CEOs and Managing Directors to ask about education, life and business in the UK.

Susan spotted a gap in the market and took the plunge to set up one of the earliest UK education consultancies in Taiwan. Later in 2006 the business expanded to the much larger market of China, as as well as some South East Asian countries.

The importance of education within Asian families and the attitudes to grades and academic achievement – Cultural context

For centuries, education has been regarded by the Chinese as an effective means to race to the top.

The prospect of landing a respectable job, and thereby making a respectable living (where you can support your parents, grandparents etc), very much depends on graduating from a top university. But as we all know, China’s population is huge and there just aren’t enough ‘top’ universities for everyone.

Some figures for context. In 2022, for the “gaokao’ exam, (that is the official university entrance exam in China), there were 11.9 million students fighting for 0.56 million places at top unis – that’s less than a 5% chance! It’s about the same as the admission rate at Harvard University.

Of course, there are many other universities and further education institutions in China but places at the top are limited.

Since competition for these top places is so fierce, parents will do whatever it takes to give their children a leg up while they are young, even if that means very heavy investments & personal sacrifice.

If you want your child to go to a specific kindergarden in Hong Kong or Shanghai, (we’re talking about year old babies here) then chances are you as parents would have to jump through a number of hoops to fulfill requirements, including intensive interviews. There’s no guarantee of being accepted though, so if parents want their children to go to a particular school later, then the efforts to get them in there and on the road to academic success begin right after birth.

Educational Focus is Engrained in the Culture

All of the Confucian societies in Asia (so not only Greater China, but also Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam) have this cultural emphasis on the importance of a good education for getting ahead in life.

From a historical perspective, getting good marks on the Imperial Exams, where the best candidates would be accepted on merit to work for the Emperor, were practically the only route to upward social mobility for the family.

This culture to compete for success through exams still exists till this day.

Secondly, East Asian culture has a distinctively collective nature.

From a very young age, children are taught to respect and listen to their parents, teachers and elders. This collectivist mindset creates a society that is supportive and protective of its members while at the same time sacrificing personal independence.

So when East Asian parents ask their children to strive for excellence, they do so in the honour of family and community.

Thirdly, parents are hardwired to believe ‘we reap what we sow’.

This attitude stems from the agricultural heritage, whereby a good harvest comes only from hard work.

As the saying goes, one cannot achieve glory and wealth without having been through trials and tribulations. In short, no pain, no gain.

By understanding where East Asians parents are coming from, it’s the first step to engaging in a positive conversation to help East Asian students fare better in a Western education setting.

How is this relevant if you are doing international business?

Well firstly, it helps to better understand the cultural background of your business partners. One of the most frequent mistakes in international expansion is to disregard the cultural context of the markets you are looking to engage with.

If you are looking to build international relationships you need to understand what has shaped your business partners as well as what are likely to be their worries and concerns, even if not directly related to your business.

If a business partner tells you of their concern because they have kindergarden interviews coming up, take this seriously. Those discussions can set their children on track for their academic careers so are not to be underestimated.

Same goes of course if someone asks you about education abroad. Many families aspire to send their children to university (or even from age 11) to a foreign country, even if it means huge personal and financial sacrifices, and will search for relevant international education consultants.

What are the Biggest Culture Shocks that Students Experience?

Bear in mind that these culture shocks are almost 1:1 applicable to your business situations too, & if you want to build international relationships, you need to be aware of these points.

Goals vs Process

When Asian students arrive in the UK, they have extremely clear goals – either to graduate from uni or to finish school with top grades to get into the uni of their choice. That sometimes leads to them neglecting the process as that has little to no value in Chinese culture.

eg1 Working through a maths problem. In China it’s important to have the right answer (or you get no credit for that question) whereas in the UK, it’s important to show your train of thought with your workings. Even if you arrive at the wrong answer you would get some credit if your chain of thought was correct. In Asia, you would simply be wrong.

eg2 An art portfolio. An Asian student would likely only include the finished works, rather than any preparatory sketches, yet if you think about it, Da Vinci’s sketches also go for millions today.

It’s important for Asian students to realist that they need to elaborate on their thinking processes and realise that there may be several possible routes to success.

If you are working with Asian teams, you may also need to coach them on this if they haven’t studied abroad. Giving you more details about their thought process in say a project, could lead to valuable insights even if you felt their final conclusion wasn’t correct. Listing all the assumptions made in a planning process can also help retrospectively when you come to analyse how to improve for the next round.

This also goes deeper though. eg Asian students will often head home at the end of the winter term, feeling that they’ve completed their assignments, rather than hanging around to experience Christmas celebrations. This would give them an additional dimension of cultural insight that is extremely valuable in their future careers.

How many of us have also been guilty of this? Dashing home from that business trip as soon as the meetings were finished, perhaps not even staying for dinner, and neglecting to learn about the cultures we’re working with? If you really want to build international relationships that last then you need to invest the extra energy and time.

Communicating

This point also goes back to being part of a collectivist Confucian culture too. It’s hard for Asian students to participate in an open discussion in class as nobody wants to show disrespect for their elders.

That means that if you just ask a question into the classroom, Asian students are unlikely to be the ones with their hands up, without being asked. Directly asking a student (or team member!) gives them permission to contribute.

It’s quite a tough line for educators (& managers) to walk as on the one hand, you need the participation and on the other don’t want anyone to lose face. Easier for teachers who have that status as “elders” than for managers though as probably any international education consultant could attest.

If this is an issue in your team, or with business partners, then you probably at some point need to communicate clearly that you will be asking for everyone’s opinion or contribution. It’s really awkward if you’re in a meeting and nobody wants to say anything because you’re either the boss or the guest.

Don’t underestimate the importance of food (Also one of the frequent mistakes in international expansion!)

Whether you are a school or uni looking to woo overseas students and their families, or an international business development manager looking to swing large deals with an important distribution partner, you shouldn’t underestimate the psychological importance of food.

Food is comfort and the feeling of home, and psychological safety and plays and important role in wellbeing.

It goes beyond the discussion of rice vs potatoes and bread though. Remember that Asians are used to eating copious amounts of green vegetables (in a much wider variety than we Europeans) and that warm meals are the norm for them at home.

If your students (or business partners) haven’t eaten properly because the food that was on offer didn’t suit them then this is just asking for the classes (or meeting) in the afternoon to be less successful when attention levels are simply not there.

Susan Fang, international education consultant reminds us of the important role of food if we want to build international relationships. ignoring this cultural context is one of the frequent mistakes in international business

Business Lessons from International Education Consultants

In addition to the points I’ve highlighted above with the parallels between working with students and business partners, or the cultural questions, Susan also mentioned several other points that are applicable for those of us involved in international business.

Why should anyone buy your service?

However unique you believe you are, there will be other people out there offering a similar product or service so you have to think about what is the need that you will satisfy?

China especially has lots of choices both in terms of international education consultants but also schools and universities, so why are parents and students looking to go abroad?

  • Is it to get a “good” job later in the UK?
  • Is it to ge a good job back at home?

What are the job prospects of the students? Where will the graduates end up? Based on this, you need to reverse engineer your messaging and offers in order to satisfy your gap in the market.

Who are your clients?

This is something that you need to be really clear about even if you have different offers.

For Susan, as an international education consultant, she has a variety of clients that she serves:

  • for masters programmes it is mostly the students who are her direct target
  • for undergrad courses or compulsory age education, it is mainly the parents (although of course students have an opinion) and perhaps the grandparents or other extended family (remember that it’s a huge financial investment that we’re talking about here)
  • on the other hand though, she also partners with schools and universities to find their ideal students

On the other hand though, compared to most of us involved in international business, she has an additional responsibility of care as this is not like selling a high priced product such as a car or piece of real estate. It’s a human’s life and pushing a family into a wrong decision would result in lost opportunities for that young person – after all you can never relive being 18. (And let’s face it, Susan doesn’t need that weight of bad karma!)

To build international relationships recognise also that there are differences between markets

Even if markets speak the same language, you need to tailor your materials and way of selling to them. Across Greater China for example you have to be aware that mainland China and Singapore use simplified characters, whereas Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional Chinese characters. Using the wrong form will alienate prospective clients.

There are also differences in words used across the region (eg potatoes vs peanuts in mainland China vs Taiwan). This of course isn’t unique to Asia, as you have these differences between say Germany and Austria, or between Spain and the various countries of Latin America.

You need to know how to pitch your services to the different markets. In order to do this it’s important to understand their goals and motivation as well as recognising that each market has their own rules and regulations.

eg China, Korea or Taiwan all have their own form of the university entrance exam but don’t assume that all requirements are the same

eg. for goals: mainland Chinese families’ top choice for university programmes would be finance, investment banking or something with economics, whereas the no1 goal for Taiwanese students would be a place to study medicine.

The Full Interview with Susan Fang, International Education Consultant

I hope that you can see that whilst this is quite a different industry to my specialisation, there are many aspects that are universally applicable in international business.

You can find the full interview with Susan here:

You can find more information and contact Susan here:

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