“Italian Embassies have refused the study visa for periods of longer than three months for US, Russian, Mexican, Brazilian, Croatian, Australian and Canadian students,” he says. “ie, students from countries that do not have any particular social, economic or political problem [and therefore pose no risk of overstay].”
Overly stringent visa requirements are certainly having an effect on the nationality spread of language students in Italy as is highlighted by the results of our regular Status Survey of Italy. For example, Japanese students made up 13.5 per cent of the total student body for 2004, while in 2005 this figure dropped by half to 7.5 per cent. Similarly, US students made up 10 per cent of the student body in 2004 and dropped to six per cent in 2005. However, according to national language school association, Asils, it is visas for South American and Asian nationalities that are most problematic (see page 12).
While schools are undoubtedly reeling from the effects of Italy’s student visa policy, some report that they have managed to maintain or even increase overall student numbers by concentrating on markets closer to home. “Compared with the previous years, the declining trend has been stopped in 2006 and there are the first shy signs of increasing business,” says Anja Schultz from Centro Koinè, which has centres throughout Italy. “European students German, Dutch and Austrian are in pole position,” she says. “We are intensifying our marketing activities for 2007, launching a new course location on the Island of Elba and concentrating on new active learning programmes, such as Italian plus sailing.”
Omnilingua in Sanremo is another school that has experienced increasing enrolments in the last year, which Daniel Pietzner at the school says is “thanks to two new agencies one in Switzerland and one in Bulgaria”. Pietzner adds that the school’s location near the beach is a major draw for students, while they have also introduced new courses recently to appeal to new markets. “The most significant new course type has been ‘Standard-Plus’, which means group lessons in the morning plus one lesson face-to-face in the afternoon,” he explains. “We also tried to push our Italian plus cooking and wine courses but the demand is only good in the summer months.”
However, not all European nationalities are performing well. Giorgia Biccelli from Linguaviva, which has schools throughout the country, and Francesco Di Santi from Laboratorio Linguistico in Milazzo, both report that student numbers from Germany current top student provider were down in 2006 and give a variety of reasons for this. Di Santi ventures, “Germany has always been a difficult market and now there may be a greater interest [among German students] for Spanish.” Biccelli, however, lays the blame on a general decline in language learning overseas among students from this country. “Speaking to agents from this country, they too seem to be aware that the numbers of students for language studies are decreasing,” she relates.
Biccelli notes that the Linguaviva group as a whole increased its student numbers in 2006, thanks to good performances from schools in Florence, Lignano and newcomer Siracusa in Sicily, where numbers doubled in the one year since the school opened its doors. She adds, “Sicily is an attractive destination and has an appeal especially for the north European market and our objective is to intensively promote our school in Siracusa and this new destination in Italy.”
The Linguaviva schools also report positive results in all student markets for an internship programme, which points to a new direction in course provision. “We are experiencing an increasing interest in our internship programmes offered in Florence and Milan, where we have students from the USA, Europe and Asia very interested in this programme,” reports Biccelli.
It is programme innovation like this that is likely to shore up Italy’s language teaching industry in the face of continued visa problems. Negotiations are underway between Asils and the Italian government but immediate changes are unlikely. “We do not see any positive changes in visa regulation even with a new government installed since May but we hope that something will change soon,” opines Schultz.
Higher costs and shorter stays
While visa issues pose the biggest challenge for language schools in Italy at the moment, the strengthening of the euro is also having a negative impact, according to schools. “The euro exchange rate does not help and Italy is not as inexpensive as it used to be for foreign students,” says Giorgia Biccelli from Linguaviva.
An increase in living and tuition costs is also decreasing the average length of stay at some schools. “It is evident that our clients have less money and less free time,” says Matteo Savini from Istituto Venezia in Venice, who says the average length of stay is currently 2.7 weeks. To cater for this trend Savini explains that they have recently introduced a new course for the budget-conscious traveller. “[Our] low budget courses in the evening were very successful,” he says. “With Europeans mainly but with Japanese [enrolments] too, the feeling is that there is less money to spend for language instruction.”
Carlo Lipparini from Istituto Il David in Florence has also noticed that students seem to have more limited financial resources than in the past but gives another reason for shorter lengths of stay. “Students are more likely to use their time to visit more cities in the same country,” he says. “[Also] there are more students who attend many short courses in various languages in different countries. This way, they visit more countries and know more languages but just a few of them learn a language at a professional level.”