July 2004 issue

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USA hit hard

Language schools are increasingly finding that their opportunities for recruiting international students are limited by visa problems and the requirement for visa applicants to attend an interview. Bethan Norris reports on the current market situation.

Last year saw further decreases in international student enrolments in the USA, according to language schools in the country, and many, such as Steve Horowitz, Director of the UESL Program at Central Washington University in Ellensberg, WA, claim that 'US visa restrictions and required interviews' have had the biggest impact on the decline .

'[Our student enrolments have experienced] a decline of 12 per cent over the previous year,' recounts Horowitz. He says the biggest challenge for the future is to create 'new types of programmes that might help overcome resistance to giving individual students from some countries visas'.

Kendee Franklin at the Intensive English Language Center at the University of Nevada at Reno testifies that their student numbers are 30 per cent below normal levels. 'We have noticed a decrease in applications from Korea, Japan and Taiwan,' she relates. 'We feel that students and parents are concerned about safety and visa issues. Many have heard rumours and horror stories - true or not.'

Since the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, the US government has implemented a steady stream of changes to the visa issuing system, including the Sevis student tracking system, increased security checks for some nationalities and, more recently, the requirement that all visa applicants must undergo an interview with an immigration officer.

These changes have all contributed to a contraction in demand for language courses in the USA. Christie Ward, Director of the Intensive English Language Program at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT, explains that enrolment figures at their school hit a low during spring 2003 and 'due to concerns about low enrolment, we cancelled our full-time summer programme in 2003, and have decided to cancel again in 2004'. However, she adds, 'There has been some notable improvement this year. Spring 2004 enrolment is about 30 per cent higher than spring 2003 enrolment.'

Kelly Franklin at Maryville College in Maryville, TN, reports that their student enrolments are still down compared to pre-2001 levels, despite experiencing a slight increase in recent months. He points out that world press stories and an international perception that getting a US visa will be expensive and difficult - whether this is the case or not - are having a harmful effect on some student markets.

'Even in countries such as Japan [where] it's relatively easy to get a visa, many prospective students have been frightened away because they hear such bad stories about unfriendly people at the embassies, long waiting lines and high rejection rates,' he says.

Difficulties in obtaining a visa are a very real problem for students from a number of countries. Des Levin from Talk International in Fort Lauderdale, FL, says that in his experience, 'this is not associated with a particular market,' although he points to Korean and Swiss students as having some success in terms of obtaining a student visa.

Ward says that increased rejections have been noted from Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Pakistan and Turkey. 'Students from South Korea, Taiwan and Japan perform best in terms of visa application success,' she notes. In Reno, Franklin agrees, but adds that these markets are still experiencing more problems than usual.

The result of the visa crisis is that many language schools are confining their recruitment efforts to areas on which they know they can depend. 'Japan, Korea and Taiwan have always been the primary sources of students but we have been doing some web advertising in Latin America recently,' relates Horowitz.

But as Kelly Franklin explains, marketing budgets are often dependent on the amount of revenue being generated through tuition fees, which reinforces a pattern of ever-decreasing activity. 'The challenge is… how to continue recruitment efforts with a much lower budget caused by the low enrolments,' he says. 'It becomes a vicious cycle.'

There are some signs of increasing student numbers, but Ward sums up, 'There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future. We need to deal with unstable enrollment while maintaining programme excellence.'

Hurdles for the short-term sector

'For all [English] schools, the biggest threat is from the government policies making it harder and harder for anyone who is not a traditional four-year undergraduate or graduate student to come to the US,' asserts Kelly Franklin, Director of International Services at Maryville College in Tennessee and President of the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP).

'Short-term visitors and those who want to study as just part of their overall reasons for visiting the US are the hardest hit by the new regulations, fees and tougher screening policies at the airports.'

This view is shared by many in the language teaching sector in the USA and a key concern is the confusion over how visa issuing officers determine the English language ability of students entering the USA - a common reason for a visa refusal.

A directive for consular officers published in March this year by the Department of State asserts, 'Students coming to the United States should have the necessary English language skills in order to successfully perform the intended academic work at a US school.'

However, it makes no mention of how officials should assess English language ability, particularly concerning students with low levels of English coming to the USA to study on a short-term vacation course.

The directive also points out the significant drop in the number of students coming to the USA to study English for academic preparation or business purposes over the past two years and reminds officials that 'full-time study of English for academic or business purposes is often legitimate'.

The implementation of an additional charge to students to fund the Sevis tracking system, due to be implemented this year, will also hit the short-term students hardest. 'A person coming for four years shouldn't mind paying an extra US$100 as a Sevis fee, but someone planning to come for just a few weeks or months can see that US$100 as a big added expense,' says Franklin.

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