February 2005 issue

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Australia's change

Australia's strong currency means that its language teaching industry can no longer market itself as a ''value for money'' destination. Gillian Evans reports on the impact of the high dollar on the market last year.

The Australian English language teaching market is maturing, reflected in the slowing growth rate of enrolment figures in recent years. According to statistics released by Australian Education International (AEI) - which considers only student visas - total Elicos enrolments in the nine months to September 2004 mustered only one per cent growth, compared with the corresponding period in 2003, to total 51,937.

Sue Blundell of industry association, English Australia, says this slowdown in the market was to be expected. ''The industry was well aware that the huge increases in numbers that were experienced by Australia as the Asian markets recovered from the Asian financial crises of the late 1990s were not sustainable,'' she explains. However, she is keen to stress that in global terms, Australia's growth has been positive, particularly in light of its strong currency.

Katrina Papas at the Centre for Applied Linguistics and Languages at Griffith University in Nathan, QLD, attests, ''The Australian market is no longer considered a cheap destination for English language study. Anecdotal evidence indicates many students will choose the USA over Australia if our dollar is of similar value.''

According to Tim Eckenfels at International House Sydney, NSW, many schools in Australia have suffered a 20 per cent drop in enrolments because of the strong dollar. ''Australia has always positioned itself as a 'value for dollar' market and, in 2004, many students realised that it was cheaper to study in Canada and that the US and UK were actually comparable in price,'' he recounts.

While the overall picture is one of sluggishness, individual performances of language centres have been mixed. On the negative side, Ingrid Sulakatku at the Sydney Institute of Tafe's English Centre in Sydney, NSW, reports, ''Our student numbers have decreased by a third this year compared with 2003. They have also decreased by about a half since 2001.'' She puts this down to the high Australian dollar and the visa regulatory changes a few years ago.

In contrast, student numbers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Maroochydore, QLD, were up by almost 20 per cent in 2004, according to Del Childs at the university's language centre, which has been in operation for six years. ''Our 2004 enrolments were the highest to date,'' says Childs. Similarly, Flinders University in Adelaide, SA, had to close its enrolments early in 2004 as it had already reached maximum capacity, according to Bonnie Cothren, Director of the Intensive English Language Institute at the university.

One reason for the mixed results among schools is that cost considerations have made some students favour locations away from the larger expensive cities. ''Students - as are parents who finance their children's studies - are mostly budget conscious, notwithstanding which country they are from and what the state of their economy,'' reports Luke Simon, Principal and Director International at the University of Western Sydney's (UWS) English Language Centre in Campbelltown, NSW. ''UWS English Language Centre is lucky in that it is located' away from the city and therefore avoids the high costs of accommodation,'' he says, estimating that students at UWS save up to 40 per cent on host family accommodation compared with city centre schools.

Similarly, Eckenfels suggests that Sydney is losing students as it has been reported as being one of the world's top-10 most expensive cities. ''Those students that are choosing to come to Australia are now considering Brisbane, Perth and the Gold Coast due to the lower cost of living,'' he explains.

A knock-on effect of the higher costs in Australia, according to Blundell, is shorter courses. ''Anecdotal evidence seems to be pointing to a shortening of courses. Although student numbers remain stable, the average length of stay seems to be shortening.''

The strength of the currency has also affected some nationalities more than others. ''Many of our Asian source countries, for example, Thailand, have become very price-sensitive,'' reports Sulakatku. As a consequence, she say, ''Colleges all around Sydney are discounting their fees overall and for specific markets.''

In such cost-sensitive times, warns David Scott of The English Language Company Australia in Sydney, NSW, ''Australia will remain attractive but some segments of the market need to refocus as well as reconsider pricing strategies''. However, he adds that the industry is ''sufficiently regulated in Australia and we believe the market will continue to strengthen in 2005''.

Visa issuance reviewed

Although the 2000/2001 change in Australia's visa issuance regulations affected some markets badly at the time, subsequent amendments to the regulations have ironed out a number of problems, and Tim Smith at the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (Acpet) believes that now the ''education industry has recovered'' again.

At International House Sydney, Timothy Eckenfels is also upbeat. ''Overall, we have received mostly positive comments from our agents about the acceptance rate and shortening of visa processing times in Brazil, Slovakia, Korea and China.''

Nevertheless, some difficulties remain, hampering market growth from a number of countries. ''Australia has a reputation as being a difficult place to enter for many markets and student visas are expensive and take too long to process,'' claims David Scott of The English Language Company Australia. ''We are losing out to countries such as New Zealand where visa processing is much easier and cheaper. This concerns us, particularly with new Eastern European markets opening up.''

China has also had problems with visas, according to a number of industry sources. ''The [Australian] embassy [in China] seems to time the process so that every student arrives one to two weeks late. The visas aren't denied, but it causes real problems for schools which don't allow late starts,'' says Bonnie Cothren at the Intensive English Language Institute, Flinders University.

However, some changes were introduced last year, which many schools hope will help speed up the visa issuance process in certain countries. Since July, a scheme has been in operation in China, India and Thailand whereby certain education agents can obtain an electronic visa for their clients and bypass the pre-visa assessment requirement (see page 10).

However, problems remain among agents not eligible for this e-visa trial in the designated countries, and Eckenfels adds, ''While Thailand has been selected as an e-visa destination, agents are still complaining that it is taking six-to-eight weeks for a student visa to be issued.''

Cothren adds that the inability of most students to apply for an initial student visa on-shore has been a ''disaster''.  She explains, ''Many students want to come on a visitor's visa and make sure that they have made a good choice of school before committing to the student visa. The result has been that our Korean students study for only two sessions and we have to turn them away even though they would like to study longer.''

On a more positive note, the government has extended working holiday (WH) visas to an increasing number of countries, which will have a positive impact on the industry. Among those countries on the WH visa list are France, Italy, Belgium and most recently, Taiwan. Sue Blundell at English Australia reports, ''Working holiday visas make up 11 per cent of students undertaking English language programmes in Australia. WH visas open up opportunities for a different profile of students.''

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