December 2005 issue

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Stronger foundations

Visa complications, price awareness and a focus on quality were all issues for most operators in the language travel industry in 2005. While this year was not the best-ever in terms of growth, it was marked out by the cementing of business relationships, updating of marketing strategies and schools trying to get noticed for their targeted, quality education provision. Amy Baker reports.

The biggest change this year, surprisingly, is the way the Canadian Consulate has made it difficult for our students to get a visa,” relates Derlene Calpaccio of Didacta Viagens e Turismo in Brazil. “We have lost precious students to Canada, without a good reason for having their visa denied!”

Calpaccio sums up what continued to be one of the most frustrating problems for language travel agencies and schools this year: complicated visa issuance procedures and a lack of transparency in the visa process. As a result, 2005 was characterised by “sure bet” bookings from students, who only apply to study in a country where they are almost certain to be granted visa entrance.

“We had more students interested in other destinations,” relates Corina Taborga, General Manager of Olympia Travel in Bolivia. “In the past, they used to go to the USA but now they like to go to the UK or Australia. I think this is because in the USA it is very hard to get the student visa and in the UK and Australia they give more work opportunities to students.”

In Turkey, Joseph Taheny, International Liaison Officer of IES-Intervega Education Services, recounts that Malta gained favour this year among their clientele. “With the high visa application requirements for our main traditional destinations of the UK, USA and Canada, destinations with lower visa requirements, such as Malta, are becoming more popular, as both first- and second-choice destinations,” he says.

Amina Jamal of EdCon Pakistan testifies that in her experience, it was the UK that was creating obstacles to genuine students who wanted to study there this year. She relates that many visa refusals indicated that the applicant’s standard of English was not good enough. “Why, like Koreans, Chinese and Japanese, are our students not allowed to take the English language course?” she says.

In contrast, Max Frydman at Profesores Asociados in Bolivia, has helped to ensure that genuine students with the correct documentation do get through the visa process in their country. He says that some students in Bolivia do not intend to return home. “We established a very rigorous and strict interview/screening process,” he relates, “in order to determine if the student is serious in their intention of [studying] overseas. We turned many students away, allowing them to apply directly, in favour of not tarnishing our good name, and that of our partner institutions, with the State Department [in the USA].”

Sticky visa issues

However, for the English language teaching (ELT) sector, there were certainly many problems in 2005 for genuine visa applicants and for the schools hoping to host them. As a result, in the USA, the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP) was involved in a bill that went before the Senate, advocating better conditions specifically for the short-term market. These included enabling short-term visitors to study on a visitor visa and dropping the Sevis fee from US$100 to US$35 (see Language Travel Magazine, June 2005, page 6).

In Ireland, many language schools were frustrated by a perceived lack of success for overseas students trying to get a visa, particularly from Russia and China (see page 18). Brian Burns at Irish language school association, MEI~Relsa, says that they worked hard to improve such problems during the year. “The Embassy in Russia is issuing visas more quickly and members encounter fewer problems with applications [now],” he recounts. “[And] the Embassy in China has reported that they are receiving better quality applications and, as a result, the success rate has increased.” Two further positive changes to the Irish visa system this year have been the recent appointment of a Student Visa Liaison Officer at the Department of Justice and a new system enabling schools to view the status of a visa application online.

In Malta, the government took allegations of impropriety in its visa office in Beijing seriously, following an attempt by students from China to enter Italy illegally (see Language Travel Magazine, October 2005, page 7). The visa issuing channels were reported to be back to normal by August and schools were hoping for more Chinese bookings again after a virtual shutdown in visa issuing activities while the procedures were examined and amended.

In Canada, Linda Auzins of the Canadian Association of Private Language Schools (Capls) reports that they have been collecting visa refusal data this year in an effort to identify particular problems. “We are attempting to track any patterns in demographics with visa refusals that may be developing,” she explains. “Early reports have identified Brazil [as problematic].”

Welcoming students

Burns sums up what many on the educators’ side of the fence feel about the visa situation; they are happy to have a stringent visa system in place as long as it enables genuine students with adequate documentation to get through. For example, in China, where the visa application rate to Ireland has decreased this year, Burns says, “We want to get the message out to Chinese agents that Ireland is still as welcoming as ever to high quality, genuine students.”

With many countries publicly acknowledging their commitment to help the international education industry to evolve, it was with dismay, then, that many UK providers greeted the news that the price of visas and visa renewal for study in the UK were increasing. “The timing could not be more unhelpful at this crucial point in international student recruitment,” said Chief Executive of Universities UK, Baroness Warwick, when the news was announced in the summer (see Education Travel Magazine, July 2005, page 37).

Getting the message out that the USA is still open to international students was something that the country finally got around to doing this year, after the publication of the Open Doors report at the end of 2004, which revealed a decline in international student numbers in both the ELT sector and mainstream education – the first actual decline in mainstream student numbers since 1971 (see Language Travel Magazine, February 2005, page 6). After months of newspaper articles in which college staff bemoaned the strict visa regulations that had put off students from applying to the USA – financially and socially benefiting another campus instead – it was revealed that the US Embassy Consular and Public Affairs section in Beijing, China, had embarked on a demystifying campaign for Chinese students.

The publicity campaign urged that there were no student quotas and all genuine students could get a study visa (see Language Travel Magazine, November 2005, page 6). It also reminded Chinese students of changes to the rules applying to student and exchange visitor visas, including an increase in validity from six months to 12 months and the option for multiple entries. Meanwhile, the Middle East is being eyed as a real growth opportunity for schools in the USA. Alexandra Rowe at AAIEP reports that US language schools are seeing more placements from this region “than we have had since 9/11. And they are getting their visas fairly quickly”.

One country seen to be making efforts to streamline its visa process was Australia – one of the most progressive countries in terms of its transparent visa system, introduced in 2001 with clear rules for each country and study area. Australia expanded its eVisa system this year so that selected agents in Indonesia, as well as Thailand, India and China, could apply via the Internet for their client’s study visa and avoid the embassy entirely (see Language Travel Magazine, November 2005, page 10).

Agencies and technology

Despite the widespread usage of the Internet in the industry, the role of the professional education agent remained important in most outbound markets. However, in Korea, Sooyeon Han of Hansville Academy of English relates that smaller agencies closed due to the difficult operating conditions, which were noted in our Agency Survey of Korea (see Language Travel Magazine, August 2005, page 16). Han says, “More students study abroad by themselves without the help of agencies because they can use information on the Internet. We actually need more specialised education consultants in this field.”

Sungjoo Cho at UhakFocus in Korea agrees that clients are highly Internet-aware. Like Han, he says that agencies must now advertise on the web in order to reach clients. Han lists websites such as Yahoo, Naver (www.naver.com) and Daum (www.daum.net) as important.

This year, to remain competitive, many agencies continued to embrace the Internet. “We have received more new bookings through the Internet than before,” relates John Lin at Welcome Consulting in Taiwan. He has set up a web platform where schools can update their information by themselves “and students can search the information easily”. In Spain, Ana Belen Lazaro at Idiomas4U agrees that web-based bookings are now commonplace. “This is faster and better for everyone,” she says.

Agents testify that their relationships with schools strengthened this year and technology helped facilitate this. Cristiane Pessuti of Melbourne Idiomas in Brazil relates that links with universities helped him to develop a broader profile of institutions. He claims working with overseas partners is now “easier, quicker and more efficient, due to CD-Roms, the Internet, Skype [computer technology that replaces phone], etc”. Fellow Brazilian, Antonio Bacelar Junior of Via Mundo Intercambio Turismo, adds, “I feel that in 2005, some of the old schools that I had lost contact with are now getting in touch again. Maybe they see that an agent is the best way to promote a school, given that we know the difficulties and limits of the local market.”

Technology certainly offers ever-more convenient features for business communication, and this year saw new groundbreaking innovations. As well as Skype becoming quite well known, software companies, such as Infospeed, offered an integrated text messaging system as part of their software package that enabled schools or agencies to send bulk messages to clients. Graham Hacker at Infospeed relates, “There has been such an interest in this, with schools planning on using this service to send a welcome SMS to students on arrival in a UK airport, complete with emergency phone number, for example.”

Business prognosis

While many agents were buoyant about business performance this year, others were more guarded and cited restrictive financial factors that hampered business growth. This, of course, was dependent on an agent’s location, but for some, 2005 was a slow-paced or difficult year, as Han in Korea relates. In Argentina, Hilda E I de Mechura of Heim Servicios en Ingles says, “Business did not change in 2005, but I am optimistic about 2006, as the economic situation in Argentina has been improving recently.”

In Bolivia, Frydman reports that the socioeconomic and political situation had an impact on their business. “Our students found it worthwhile to initiate their ESL training locally in order to shorten their ESL programme overseas,” he relates. “Whereas before, our students would do their full preparation to enter a higher education institute six months prior to starting their programme, they now go for three to four months only.”

Lucia Mellone at Cosmo Educacion in Mexico observes that there was no real change in business speed while another Mexican agent, Pepe Torres from Educatours, says business slowed this year for him because of “the exchange rate, the internal political environment and Chinese immigration affecting local manufacturers, many of whom are my customers”. Mellone adds, “For sure there will be a change next year, as there are presidential elections in July 2006 and the US dollar will go up.”

Other countries had promising news to report. Thomas Meier in Germany, Spokesperson for agency association, FDSV, says, “It looks like bookings are up in Germany for the second consecutive year.” Meanwhile, René Gubler of Swiss Language Club in Switzerland observes “that Swiss students travel abroad more easily” and Ana Carreño of Globus in Spain relates, “We had an increase of 10 per cent in enrolments”. Pablo Martinez de Velasco from Adastra, another agency in Spain, enthuses, “Every year, we are getting bigger and bigger.”

In Chile, Marianela Concha at StudyTours says that due to a strong economy and “the policy motivated by the ministry of education”, there has been a rise in individual and group bookings. In the Dominican Republic, Altagracia Pimentel from ODTE also says business was brisk. “Our sales of language courses have increased this year in numbers of students and weeks,” she confirms.

Changes to the mainstream schooling system in Turkey were also in evidence this year, notes Taheny. He says that the decision to incorporate English language tuition into a 12-year national curriculum, instead of teaching one year of full-time English after 11 years at school, may impact on ease of university access overseas, although currently, Turkish students “may require extra English”.

In Brazil, a number of agents talk of improving business this year. Fernanda Lumberg at Estudo e Turismo no Exterior relates, “2005 has been a good year because the Brazilian currency has appreciated in the market, so it is better for Brazilians to travel abroad.”Emphasising the quality focus that continued to evolve in the industry in 2005 (see above), and the reality of the cost-conscious market, Lumberg adds, “The relationship between schools and [agents] did not change. We always work with quality schools, regardless of the commission they offer. Of course, it is easier to sell the ones that offer promotional packages in the Brazilian market.”

Where and why to study

The already established trend towards language programmes “with a purpose”, be that work related, interest-led learning or language programmes offering an academic pathway, continued this year. Cecilia Galli of Link Viagens Culturais in Brazil says that in her experience, “Very few clients want to go for language only. Clients are asking for professional improvement.”

John Lin at Welcome Consulting in Taiwan and Ana Belen Lazaro of Idiomas4U in Spain add that clients are increasingly likely to look for paid work options while overseas to save on the expense. “We have had to change some of our offers to a wide range of work placements and au pair programmes,” relates Lazaro.

Antonio Becelar Junior of Via Mundo Intercambio Turismo in Brazil also observes this trend. “Therefore, places like Dublin and London” are popular, he says.

London and Dublin, as two international student epicentres, both suffered a setback to their popularity this year, which fortunately proved to be short-lived. Early in the year, the Irish government’s Department of Justice ruled that students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) would not be able to work part-time unless they were studying for more than a year (see Language Travel Magazine, March 2005, page 6). After action from the English language teaching industry, however, the decision was revoked and now students at accredited schools who study for 25 weeks or more can work part-time.

London was sadly the victim of terrorist attacks in July, which sent shockwaves around the world. However, agents were quick to assert that students now recognise that they live in a world where a threat is omnipresent, and the impact of the attacks on business was not too bad for London-based schools. Fernanda Lumberg of Estudo e Turismo no Exterior in Brazil says, “The terrorist attacks in London did not affect people’s interest in the city.”

Work rights in other countries were also on the agenda this year, with both Canada and New Zealand extending the terms and conditions relating to part-time work (see Language Travel Magazine, July 2005, page 6).

There appeared to be a definite trend in 2005 towards “newer” study destinations, as more bookings were registered for Australia, New Zealand, Malta and South Africa, according to agents. Cyprus and the Philippines were also mentioned as new era destinations by a Swiss and Korean agent respectively.

This year was, however, a difficult one for New Zealand, as testified by Angela Oliver at English New Zealand, who says that lower student numbers were just one problem. “Compliance costs [for schools] continued to spiral out of control, [and] expensive airfares, a shortage of airline seats and lack of direct flights from some markets prove a barrier to travel ‘downunder’ for many who are considering shorter English language programmes,” she says.

Quality as important as ever

Quality is not a new concept in the language travel industry; far from it. However, the determination of language schools and agencies to mark themselves out as a quality operator was stronger than ever in 2005. Evidence of this in the agency sector in 2005 was the formation of new agency associations in Chile and Bulgaria, while in the language school sector, many established associations revised or expanded their quality provision.

In Malta, language school association Feltom announced it was revising its own quality standards this year to be among the elite of quality groups (see Language Travel Magazine, November 2005, page 19). In Canada, Capls implemented an accreditation initiative that Linda Auzins at the association says is now finalised, with inspections of all member schools completed. “A new logo, website and corporate image are all part of our promotion of this exciting development,” she explained, adding, “Capls is also still working with Industry Canada on the development of a national standard [for all Canadian schools].”

Quality English, an exclusive grouping of independent English language schools with “a reputation for excellence”, expanded in 2005, welcoming members from New Zealand and Ireland into the group and hoping to achieve a unique selling point. The American Association of Intensive English Programmes (AAIEP) voted to include accreditation as part of its membership requirements (see page 12), while English New Zealand “formally adopted stringent new academic standards for English language learners”.

Ex-Chairperson of English New Zealand, William Neale, explains, “Members believe that all international students below [level] Ielts 6.5, who are effectively language learners, should be protected by specific quality standards that will help them to achieve their academic goals.” The standards go beyond the government’s Code of Practice for the pastoral care of international students by stipulating expectations for classroom teaching, including teacher qualifications, minimum weekly contact hours with a teacher and “provision for effective engagement with New Zealand society and values”.

In order to ensure that member schools comply with the standards, “we are setting up a stringent peer monitoring system and auditing system”, explains Neale.

In Europe, the Comité Europeen de Nationalisation (CEN) announced that its working group had agreed on quality standards for language study tour providers, which are a voluntary set of guidelines that operators in Europe can apply to undertake and commit to (see Language Travel Magazine, November 2005, page 6). Agencies and schools within Europe looking for an additional quality clarification are expected to pay to receive the standards and match up their services to a standardised norm.

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