In the loop
Being a member of a language school association certainly has its advantages. Speaking with a unified voice, these associations help regulate the industry and create synergy across the board, promoting quality education, best practice and supporting member schools in all aspects of regulatory advocacy. Nicola Hancox looks at the benefits of being kept in the loop.
||It’s fair to say that language school associations have the interests of the international education industry at heart. These organisations help set the standard in terms of language learning while simultaneously championing and protecting those who fall under their representation.
“Being part of a recognised association is most definitely beneficial especially as the association represents many of the major players in the industry,” pinpoints Isabelle Pace Warrington, Executive Officer of Maltese association, Feltom the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisation in Malta. Johanne Lacombe, National Executive Director at Languages Canada, concurs and says that membership of an association lends a certain amount of credibility to a school. “It gives institutions the recognition that they are fully supported by a national organisation and recognised as being a professional and accredited institution,” she outlines.
The number of representative organisations out there is extensive to say the least, and each specialises in a specific sector of the market, whether that be safeguarding smaller institutions the remit of the Association of British Language Schools (Abls) focusing on cross-border relationships like pan-European body Eaquals, or concentrating on marketing and brand promotion as outlined by international language school grouping, Quality English (QE).
However, many of these organisations do share several defining characteristics; most run agent fam trips to showcase member schools, a majority hold annual AGM’s whereby member schools and board members air their opinions and share ideas and, perhaps more importantly, almost all hold conferences which help develop new business avenues.
Association awareness is certainly on the up it seems, with many of the organisations profiled for this piece reporting a rise in membership numbers. According to Annie Wright, Deputy Chief Executive of Business Services at English UK, there has been a 13 per cent increase in the number of language centres signing up in the last 12 months. The new T4 visa system is one clear reason for an uptake in membership, as all schools are now required to obtain accreditation in order to accept visa national students (although accreditation is distinct from membership; but English UK membership is only available to accredited schools).
On top of this fact, Wright attributes more members to three core activities and initiatives being undertaken at the assocition; namely communicating with non-accredited schools in the run-up to the new accreditation-linked visa system, pro-active recruitment activities; and a reduction in the association’s subscription fee, encouraging smaller institutions to climb aboard the English UK flagship.
Canadian association, Languages Canada, has also seen a boost in organisation enrolees (they recently welcomed 13 new members into the fold) and Lacombe notes that a revised accreditation infrastructure has helped no end. “The team has worked very hard to move forward with its accreditation process which had a positive impact towards membership,” she relates.
However, Jan Capper, Executive Director of the International Association of Language Centres (Ialc) a worldwide network of schools observes that gaining new members is not easy. “Finding new members takes time, because an Ialc school has to meet specific requirements in terms of quality standards and a pro-agent business model, and then go through a full inspection,” she says.
Ialc is keen to explore new languages and new destinations and Capper relates that this is a sure fire-way to expand membership, not to mention garner agent interest. “We look for destinations and schools that will enhance Ialc and make the Ialc workshop, website and other publicity media popular and useful places for agents to find new, quality products,” she notes, adding that they are currently in the process of researching potential members among Arabic schools in North Africa and the Middle East.
Other organisations place less emphasis on increased membership as Mariela Tort from the Asociación Argentina de Centros de Español como Lengua Extranjera (AACELE) affirms. “As academic and service quality is a great concern for us, we do not really care too much about recruiting a great quantity of centres, but to recruiting the best Spanish schools in Argentina,” she notes.
Founded in 2007, Tort relates that prior to the association’s inception there wasn’t a regulatory body that dealt exclusively with the Spanish teaching market in Argentina. After witnessing the industry’s continued growth and subsequent potential, the Argentine Ministry of Tourism intervened and recommended that Spanish language schools in the country found an associate body. “That is why the owners of four Spanish schools (Mundo Español, Buenos Aires Spanish School, Finis Terrae and Masters Idiomas) founded AACELE,” she regales. Today the association boasts 15 members.
Working with the government
Government support is crucial to industry development and intense lobbying on behalf of association members is all part of the process. Many are in talks with government officials over areas such as visa issuance, provision for minors and in the case of Italian Association, Italian in Italy, working towards the implementation of a register for all privately accredited Italian language schools. Alongside fellow association, Asils, Giuseppina Foti, Chairperson of Italian in Italy, explains. “We have met twice with the Italian Ministry of Education (MIUR) in order to have a register of private Italian schools belonging to Italian in Italy and Asils accredited to the MIUR and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE).”
Foti hopes such a scheme will help further the aims of their member schools and the education travel industry in general. However, Matteo Savini, National Secretary of Asils, is not so optimistic and he relates that progress is slow. “We feel that the lack of coordination by the MAE is causing a huge loss of business. Italy, if well promoted, can have a huge growth but education here is not felt [to be] an industry and almost not even as a business, so the attention given by the authorities is very low and they do not seem able to understand the enormous potential we have,” he says.
Visa complications are yet another challenge associations face, and Foti relates that stringent ruling frequently prevents international students from entering the country for study purposes it is reported some Italian embassies will only grant visas to students with A2/B1 competency levels (see LTM, December 2008, page 10). Consequently, lobbying for visa reform is high on the association agenda for 2009/2010. “Our strategy is to continue to lobby the ministries mainly for visa problems, which has not been resolved as yet,” states Foti.
Since joining the Schengen Zone in 2008, Pace Warrington notes they have encountered a few visa problems of their own. “The procedure for the issuing of visas totally changed,” she states. “This has caused some uncertainty in particular markets and we are working with the government to ensure that clear information is provided to agents and students and that procedures are user-friendly.” She adds that these talks are crucial should members wish to tap into markets outside of the EU.
Elsewhere, Rob McKay, Chairperson of English New Zealand, is hopeful that a new government will bring about some much needed reform for New Zealand’s ELT providers. Having been at loggerheads with the previous administration over immigration laws and student work rights, McKay signals an air of optimism. “The recent change in government has created a new positive environment for our sector. We are currently working with the new government to improve immigration policies and processes,” he asserts. In fact, just before going to press, Immigration New Zealand announced that as of this month, certain visa holders will no longer be limited to one course of study for up to three months and will instead be allowed to study for up to six months while on a Working Holiday visa.
Meanwhile, Tort in Argentina stresses the importance of working with regional governments as well as national. “We have been working with the Argentine Ministry of Tourism and the Buenos Aires government in order to improve the ELE [Spanish as a foreign language] promotion in Argentina and the implementation of ELE policies,” she says.
Cross-promotional work with a regional or national tourist board is a tried and tested way to stimulate global (and local) interest. Pace Warrington notes that they are currently working in collaboration with the Malta Tourism Authority to raise not only the country’s profile but that of the EFL industry in general. “We are working with the Malta Tourism Authority to increase its marketing of Malta in Asia, the Middle East and South America,” she relates.
Several localised campaigns are also underway: “At a local level we have been carrying out a public relations campaign to increase awareness about the importance of the EFL industry and the benefits of choosing a career in quality language schools,” she observes. And a second campaign aimed at attracting a new wave of host families is also planned for 2009 (see page 11).
In South Africa, the focus is very much on promoting the country as an alternative English language destination within the global range of choices. This certainly seems to be the remit of national association, EduSA, which rebranded from its former moniker of Eltasa last year. Craig Leith, Chairperson of the board, states that the association is committed to developing relationships with various tourism organisations. “We are starting to work more closely with other tourism organisations in South Africa in order to create and improve the awareness of EduSA, edutourism and language travel locally,” he relates. He adds that over the last few months EduSA has also been in discussions with the government to “create awareness of the industry locally (in Cape Town) and nationally, and to show the economic benefits to the regions within which language centres operate.”
Last summer, English UK, along with several pillar organisations including the British Council, UK Trade & Investment and VisitBritain Britain’s national tourism agency formed the English Language Promotion Group (ELPG); an update to the Strategic Promotions Group that formerly existed. “English UK has been working with the ELPG towards a more coordinated approach to the promotion of the English language among the membership of the group,” explains Wright. The group plans to work on several key areas this year including the promotion of specific course types and the endorsement of the UK accreditation scheme. It also organises events that enable its members to meet with agents overseas, such as the recent Al Ain Fair (see page 6).
A question of quality
Accreditation or quality assurance is another primary focus for language school associations. The accreditation schemes available often independently delivered but with close links to a membership group exist to evaluate the services and operations of an educational institution and determine whether minimum standards are being met. In the UK, Accreditation UK delivers the accreditation service, which is managed in partnership between English UK and the British Council.
Meanwhile, the Association of British Language Schools (ABLS) has a sister body, ABLS Accreditation, which delivers the assessment service. Diana Lowe at ABLS explains that this accreditation is now approved by government (UKBA) as acceptable for British schools applying for an accreditation qualification. “ABLS Accreditation made a submission to Ofsted earlier this year,” relates Chief Executive, Lowe. “This was successful and so now ABLS Accreditation is a UKBA approved accrediting body for the purpose of accrediting private education providers that wish to apply for licences as Tier 4 sponsors under the new points based system. ABLS is pleased to be working with the UKBA and the other approved bodies,” she enthuses.
Other organisations have their own certification processes in place. Eaquals, for example, has a set of criteria schools must meet in order to qualify for membership and according to Chief Executive, Richard Rossner, this has just been revised. “We have streamlined our four charters and made them more transparent and are just finishing version six of our inspection scheme, with the aim of making it more focused and the outcomes of greater benefit to accredited members, for example through meaningful publishable statements,” he notes.
Feltom, meanwhile, devised its own accreditation scheme that goes above and beyond the compulsory Ministry of Education requirements that all schools have to meet in order to be able to operate.
According to Pace Warrington, interest was modest to begin with in this additional quality process. “Members approved the scheme back in 2005 but it was only two years later that a significant number of members applied for accreditation,” she says. Today more than half of Feltom’s members have gained accreditation, with the remaining members now in the final stages of certification. “In some cases members have had to make significant investment to comply with the requirements of the Feltom Accreditation Scheme,” she notes.
Although belonging to an association is not an industry requirement with some schools operating independently and successfully Leith highlights a few of the obvious shortcomings. “Schools who do not belong to such a body literally do their own thing: the quality of their teachers, premises, resources and methodologies cannot be vouched for or ascertained and [students] will have no recourse if they are not happy with the service they receive,” he says.
Indeed, much can be said for these industry consortiums. They provide safeguards for members and consumers and serve to incentivise members, rallying the troops to build better business conditions.
Associations displaying their teeth
While most language schools are genuine members of a national or international association or grouping, there are some that can and will abuse the system by falsely displaying or claiming membership status. Although instances are rare, it is important associations act on brand misuse should this arise. This is just one example of issues of contention that might need to be dealt with.
“It has happened twice in my seven years with EA and the logo was removed from the offending websites as soon as I requested it,” notes Sue Blundell, Chief Executive from English Australia (EA).
Indeed, cases in Australia are few and far between owing to the fact that all schools must conform to a set of guidelines outlined by the Australian Education International (AEI), says Blundell. As the international arm of the Australian government’s education department, it stipulates that; 1) all schools ensure marketing information and practices are professional and ethical, 2) information and advice given to students is not false or misleading and 3) the registered provider’s name and Cricos provider code be clearly identifiable on all material used to market the provider and its courses to students.
Blundell also recommends students identify whether a school has been endorsed by national accrediting body, Neas. “We recommend that students/agents look for the Neas logo as an indicator of meeting minimum Neas ELT standards and then look for the EA logo as an indicator of a commitment to higher standards,” she says.
Jan Capper at Ialc cites one case of a European school falsely displaying their logo. “We demanded that they withdraw the brochure and threatened legal action,” she says. “This is an ethical matter. It is wrong to mislead agents and students into thinking your school is accredited when it is not.” She also suggests that students check with Ialc directly if they are suspicious for any reason; “some already do”.
It is true to say that a certain amount of the responsibility rests with the student, asserts Craig Leith, Chairperson of EduSA. “I strongly recommend that students check to see if a school is affiliated with [EduSA], as they will then be assured that they will be attending a quality school in South Africa,” he says.
Some school associations also have to deal with student complaints about a member school, and usually have an ombudsman that will look into issues and make a judgment forcing a refund if the situation so deserves. Sulaksana Kanchana complained to LTM earlier this year that English UK had not been able to intervene in a complaint they had about a member school’s payment policy English UK indicates that it only gets involved with student complaints. “We have no powers to mediate or arbitrate between an agency and a member centre,” a spokesperson for English UK confirmed.
Student “poaching” by schools is yet another problem some associations have to face. Students can be seduced by offers of cheaper accommodation, discounted tuition and in one case an all expenses paid trip abroad! Members are increasingly looking to associations for help and advice to stop this happening. Rob McKay from English New Zealand notes that they are working on “ensuring that the recruitment work of our offshore partners is protected from damaging provider swapping” in 2009/2010.
In Australia, the AEI rules that providers must not knowingly enrol a student wishing to transfer within six months of their course. Although not entirely foolproof, any “teeth-baring” tactics will garner respect for enforcing industry standard ideals.
UCIEP established 1967
MEI established 1969
English Australia established 1983
Ialc established 1983
English New Zealand established 1986
AAIEP established 1988
Feltom established 1989
Asils established 1991
Eaquals established 1991
Acpet established 1992
ABLS established 1993
FLE.fr established 1993
Italian in Italy established 1997
Alto established 1998
Fedele established 1999
Ailia established 2003
Quality English established 2003
EduSA established 2004 (as Eltasa)
English UK established 2004 following the union of Arels (established in 1960) and Baselt (established in 1983)
AMIE establish 2005
AACELE established 2007
Languages Canada established 2008 following the amalgamation of Capls (established in 1997) and CLC (established in 1979)
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