April 2011 issue

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Australia’s challenges

The Australian English language teaching sector is facing tough operating conditions at the moment with visa changes and currency fluctuations putting many students off, particularly those from Asia. Bethan Norris reports.

The decline of Australia’s international education industry over the past 12 months has received lots of press coverage of late and certainly, some language schools in the country report that they have been noticing a decline in student numbers.

“Embassy has experienced a decrease in terms of enrolment to Australia,” says Emma Khan from Embassy CES, which has schools in Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast. “This trend goes in line with the overall decrease of students choosing Australia as an education destination. These changes can be attributed to the high value of the Australian dollar as well as recent changes to immigration policies.”

Fiona Davidson from Ability Education, which has language schools in Melbourne and Sydney, agrees that changes to immigration legislation, as well as the growing strength of the Australian dollar, have contributed to 2010 being a rocky year. However, she observes that 2010 was far from being all doom and gloom. “Our numbers plateaued in the past year compared with 2009,” says Davidson. “In terms of enrolments, 2010 was a rollercoaster of a year. There were steep declines in some markets and strong increases in others. We saw a huge increase in [students from Western European countries] in 2010, especially students travelling on working holiday visas.”

Some areas of business certainly continued to grow last year. David Hurford from Port Douglas English Language Centre in Port Douglas, QLD, which specialises in exam preparation and executive business courses, relates that student numbers doubled at the school in 2010. Top nationalities include western Europeans (German, Swiss, Italian, French) and some eastern Europeans (Polish, Russian and Estonian). “We’ve consolidated our existing courses and upgraded the resources, rather than introducing new courses,” he says.

At Byron Bay English Language School in Byron Bay, NSW, Michael O’Grady also reports that European student numbers are holding firm and puts this down to the school’s location and quality programmes. “Europeans have always enjoyed good schools at beach locations – Swiss, Spanish, German, Italian,” he says. “French numbers are down, possibly due to the weak euro,” he adds.

However, for schools relying on Asian student markets, the last 12 months have proved testing. “[We] experienced a significant drop in student numbers from China, Korea and Japan,” says Davidson. “The change in Australian government legislation affected the Chinese markets. The strength of the Australian dollar has driven students from Korea and Japan to the relatively more affordable US and Canadian schools.”

She adds, “Changes in the Saudi King Abdullah Scholarship programme, which no longer applies to stand-alone Elicos providers, also negatively impacted our numbers.”

Khan from Embassy CES also reports a decline from Asia. “We have experienced a decline from the Vietnamese market. This can be attributed to recent changes on their assessment level for the vocational sector. Vietnam is predominantly an academic market, few students actually come to Australia on a stand-alone English visa,” she says. “We have also identified a decline from the Chinese market which goes in line with the national trend.”

In hard times, providing a quality experience is more important than ever. Davidson says that they have invested heavily in their teachers’ professional development. “As a result, we have a strong team of teachers with a long-term commitment to the college. We believe this is the main reason we have seen an increase in students choosing to extend their courses.”

Academic intentions

With competition between language schools increasing, those determined to ride out the storm in Australia are increasingly looking at how they can tailor their programmes to appeal to established as well as new markets.

Academic programmes appear to be high on the list of wants for study abroad students and consequently providers are boosting their academic prep and academic pathway portfolios, as Emma Khan from Embassy CES reveals. “At Embassy we have been working hard in developing academic pathways into colleges and university to strengthen our academic programmes. We have also expanded our exam preparation offering with new dates and locations. This initiative has proven to be successful particularly in markets that have a strong academic focus such as Colombia and Europe – in particular Cambridge exam preparation courses.”

At Ability Education in Melbourne and Sydney, Fiona Davidson observes that academic programmes have also been receiving a lot of attention. “In 2010, we introduced a new stream for general English to personally cater for the more ambitious English students with focused study goals. It has been extremely popular. Our aim is to cater to different learning styles so students improve as quickly as possible,” she relates.

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