July 2003 issue

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Sars impacts on industry

The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in certain parts of the world has impacted on language travel bookings although, according to agencies and schools, the effect on many has been minimal so far. However, agencies in the Asian region have felt the squeeze the most, with a number of agents reporting a downturn in business, and some schools were bracing themselves for a further drop in numbers as the summer season approached.
'Business has slackened off considerably with Sars,' reported Elizabeth Walmsey, Managing Director at AECC International in Taiwan. 'We just don't know when it will pick up. It looks like the summer vacation, short-term student will be hard to find this year.' At Alliance Academic in China, Cindy Li also predicted that business would be affected until at least August.

Brian Hockertz of Taiwanese agency, Oh Canada, said, 'Initially, the Sars panic had some direct impact on bookings and [there were] some cancellations.' However, Hockertz was optimistic about an upturn. 'I believe things should go back to normal,' he said. 'Some notable exceptions will be in market segments that are sensitive about health issues - seniors and young kids with worrisome parents.'

In Indonesia, Kian Hwa of UCPA agency noted that some of his clients were postponing travelling to Asian countries to study. Schools in English language-speaking countries were also losing business. Walmsey in Taiwan pointed out that students were worried about the possibility of being quarantined on arrival at a language school overseas, a precaution that many schools put into place earlier this year.

Kathleen McKenzie, of Cambridge College in Hurstville, Australia, commented that the restrictions imposed by the Australian health authorities were quite stringent. 'Many of the private high schools are not accepting students straight back into their classes if they have been to one of the affected areas, even if they are not sick,' she said. 'They are making the student stay home, in Australia, for 10 days before they return to school.' Similar situations occurred in other countries, including New Zealand and the USA.

In the USA, the popular University of California at Berkeley imposed a ban on admitting students from affected areas into its summer programme, and then later relented to say 80 of its 500 accepted students would still be offered a place, and it would monitor the situation with a view to further relaxing the rule.

US study abroad programmes to Asian countries were also affected by concern about Sars. Many universities cancelled or postponed planned study abroad semesters or field trips to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, while some US students already on exchange trips returned home early.

In China, the decision by the government to ban public gatherings above a certain size also affected the market, as Ielts and Toefl examinations were both put on hold. Many students need to gain a Toefl or Ielts qualification in order to satisfy school entry requirements or, in particular, immigration criteria for entry into Australia. 'Sars is [an] issue for everyone here,' said Sue Blundell of English Australia. 'The cancellation of Ielts testing in China for April and May is going to have an impact on Chinese students being able to get visas, and of course there is the general reluctance to travel as well as the potential long-term effects on the economies of the region.'

Industry events were cancelled when the outbreak seemed to be at its height, amid concerns about travelling overseas. The Distance & Open Learning fairs in Singapore and Hong Kong, organised by Nexus and scheduled for late May/early June, were postponed to a later date. One school closure was also partly blamed on Sars (see below left).

New Zealand hits rocky times

Operating conditions for language schools in New Zealand have taken a turn for the worse, with factors such as increased price competition from Australia and the impact of Sars on Chinese enrolments slowing bookings.

One language school has already declared bankruptcy this year and there are fears that more schools will fold. Barbara Takase, Chairperson of the Association of Private Providers of English Language (Appel), said many schools were noticing a decline in bookings and have had to lay off staff. Susan McAllister, Director of Aspect ILA in Christchurch, said forward bookings were down by 30 per cent at her school in May.

Planet English in Waikato was the first school to suffer, closing its doors to students in May. 'The severe market situation did have an impact,' said Owner, Luke Watson, in a newspaper interview. At the time of going to press, there were hopes that the school would reopen, following 'strong interest from other parties', according to the Waikato Times. Students were taught in classes at Waikato's University language institute following the school's closure but their future remained uncertain.

A Christchurch relief-teaching agency, Select Education, confirmed that it was signing up teachers who had been made redundant by local language schools. 'There are lots of reasons for the drop, not just Sars,' commented Erena Rowe, Director of Trafalgar English School in Nelson, speaking to the Nelson Mail. 'The kiwi dollar is so high at the moment that we are competing with Australia for students and the Korean economy is taking a dive.'

Adding to the problems facing language schools in the country is the perceived ineptness of the Education Ministry. One school director is furious that the Education Minister, Trevor Mallard, has asked language schools to alert government officials if two or more foreign students are living together in rented accommodation. In a letter written to the New Zealand Herald, he questioned the ministry's effectiveness in helping education providers in the current business environment.

'Are we to waste our precious management time dobbing in our well-behaved adult Japanese and Koreans for the crime of living together in flats?' wrote James Upton, Director of Nelson English Centre. 'Korean numbers are down 50 per cent, Chinese down 30 per cent and 10 per cent of English schools are likely to declare bankruptcy this year. New Zealand's success story looks a little shaky.' Upton called on the minister to apologise and address the real issues - or resign.

Mallard made the request following a scandal surrounding Japanese students who were living in a boarding establishment that called itself an academy. A group of students is charged with the murder of another member of the group. Takase said Mallard believed 'requiring schools to report the whereabouts of students is going to solve the problem'.

Another reason for the sudden deflation in the market could be the rapid rise in the number of language schools in the last year (see Language Travel Magazine, February 2003, page 4). The Press reported that there are still schools waiting to receive approval from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority to open and that the total number of language schools in the country stood at 141, up from 125 in February.

Bold plans for cross-sector group in Canada

The Council of Second Language Programmes in Canada (CSLPC) has bold plans to enlarge and become a truly national association representing both public and private language schools in Canada.

Having overhauled its standards, the association - which has represented university and college language programmes for 25 years - has decided to invite private language schools to join.

Jay Jamieson, Executive Director of CSLPC, said, 'Our goal is to create one national organisation representing standards and excellence in English and French language training.'

At the time of going to press, language schools were being contacted by the Council with invitations of membership and other Canadian language school associations were in dialogue with CSLPC about their plans.

Work rights in South Africa

Provisional changes in the immigration system for South Africa have been announced, with the likely outcome being that students will be allowed to work part-time during their studies, providing that they are enrolled on a course that is longer than three months in duration.

Students will also be required to enter the country on a study permit, not on a holiday permit as has been the case in the past, if they are studying for more than three months. According to Jens von Wichtingen at South African language school, Cape Studies, the changes may possibly attract more students and should not negatively affect the ease of entry to the country.

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