July 2012 issue

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The lure of the Philippines

Educational tourism is an emerging trend in the Philippines and with a tropical climate, affordable tuition and good educational infrastructure it is easy to see why this is a transitioning ELT sector. Nicola Hancox finds out more.

An archipelago of over 7,000 islands with multiple ethnicities and cultures running throughout, the Philippines is so very different from any of the more established ELT markets.

Colonised by America over a century ago then regaining independence at the end of the World War II, it adopted a public education system, an affinity for western culture and, perhaps more importantly, the English language. According to the 1987 Philippine Constitution, both the Filipino and English languages have a special legal status, and both idioms are used in sectors including government, education and business.

So, what are the main attractions for an international student interested in pursuing an English taught programme in the Philippines? There are many, according to Soyen Sameon at the Cebu Pacific International Language School (CPILS) in Cebu. As well as its multicultural environment, low cost of living, pleasing climate, good standard of education and relative ease when applying for a visa, she also highlights the country’s more natural attributes. “The country prides itself on its natural wonders and treasures, ranging from luscious mountains, white sandy beaches, crystal clear seawater and coral reefs teeming with marine life,” she describes.

As one of the more developed provinces in the Philippines, Cebu is considered a main educational hub. MDL Cebu Language School and Cebu Doctor’s University (CDU) – ESL Center both reside in the city. Yu Soo Hyun (Sheon) at MDL relates that despite its burgeoning population of 2.6 million and counting, international students appreciate the differences between Cebu and the country’s capital, Manila. “It is almost like Manila but with less noise, traffic – an overall more peaceful environment,” he says. “The locals are warm and friendly in nature, so it makes finding your way to any place very easy.”

EIEN Power, a language teaching facility under the management of Japanese agency, EIEN Japan, is based in Ortigas, an important financial and business district in Manila. Kwangho Lee admits, by association of its agent parent, most students are Japanese. However, demand for language competency on a global scale is increasing. “As more and more people experience the Philippines as a place to learn English, the more we see this preconceived notion is not necessarily so, and that people are starting to embrace a new paradigm of English education,” notes Lee. The school, which typically welcomes 40-to-50 students off peak and around 100 during summer peak season, is seeing increasing numbers of Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese clients. Interestingly, he adds, “Japanese students started studying in the Philippines about six years ago, following the trend set by Korean consumers 15 years ago.”

Affordability is, of course, a key consideration. “The sky-rocketing cost of living in industrialised countries has made overseas education an economic burden,” ventures Sameon. However, the lower price tag often associated with ELT provision in the Philippines means students, and indeed agents, particularly from Japan, Korea and China, are keen to take advantage of it. “The cost of living in the Philippines does not put pressure on students’ financial resources. Students are able to live comfortably and conveniently on a very limited budget,” relates Sameon. Currently the school welcomes a large cohort of Asian students – 60 per cent Korean and 25 per cent Japanese – affirms Sameon. However, the remaining 15 per cent comprise Chinese, Taiwanese and European students. “In 2008 we started to expand our market to include countries in Europe like Russia, Belgium and France.”

But it’s not all about money. Lee at EIEN Power emphasises the effectiveness of the education on offer. “Most often Japanese students find themselves studying in the USA or Australia with little progress in their skills. This is due to the large-group nature of classes where students don’t have much speech output, and have a tendency to end up only mingling with other Japanese students.” The most effective way to generate fast results, he adds, is in small groups or one-to-one tuition. “When a student spends a few hours a day with a teacher that only speaks to them in English, he/she has no choice but to respond back in English. Like with anything, the more you do it the better you get at doing it.”

In fact, one-to-one courses are a mainstay programme among ELT providers in the country. MDL offers a comprehensive one-to-one programme, while group classes are capped at eight students for every one teacher. The school also offers students the chance to live with their tutor, allowing for complete immersion. And, adds Hyan, unlike other schools, they have adopted a 50-minute lesson model to “enhance students’ concentration and to maintain intensity of materials lectured in class”.

“One-to-one is actually one of our strengths,” asserts Sameon at CPILS. “The students are able to maximise learning through student-teacher dialogue…this personalised teaching focusses on overcoming students’ weaknesses by developing their strengths among the four language skills: speaking, writing, listening and reading.” CPILS also strictly imposes a ratio of one teacher to eight students per class. Students at the school take one of four course types: one-to-one, one-to-two, one-to-four and one-to-eight general English. CPILS also combines educational benefits of a one-to-one intensive English course with interactive group classes. Students are placed in a programme according to their English proficiency, and benefit from over 27 hours of personalised tuition each week. “Regular tests are administered to students for teachers to monitor their progress,” enthuses Sameon.

Global Standard, a school located on a former US Air Force base in the province of Pampanga, offers specialised courses in grammar, writing, reading, listening, speaking, and pronunciation skills, as well as exam prep courses such as Toefl, Toeic and Ielts. All are popular with international students, notes Andy Kim. The school also has an online academy for students who cannot travel to the Philippines but are keen to learn the language. “The curriculum requires only a few minutes a day as to not disturb the other areas of the student’s daily life. Many of our [former] students utilise the online tutorials for review, upon returning to their respective countries or while studying abroad in another country such as the USA or Canada,” he relates.

So what does the future hold for this ELT destination? Sameon at CPILS relates it is difficult to predict the potential it has. “Nonetheless,” she ventures, “no one can stop us from looking into the future. Assessing the existing trends and a wave of change, we can make a sensible guess that we are moving from simplicity to complexity in order to make a difference in English language teaching.” It is clear study travel advisors should be more attuned to developments within this emergent market.

Visa versatility

Students wishing to enrol on a short-term non-degree course can apply for a temporary visitor’s visa before travelling. However, “The country’s immigration policy allows foreigners to visit for up to 21 days without a visa,” asserts Kwangho Lee of EIEN Power in Manila. This 21-day window, adds Soyen Sameon at Cebu Pacific International Language School in Cebu, is open to Americans, Canadians, some Asians and Western Europeans.

For longer stays, students can combine a 59-day tourist visa with a Special Study Permit (SSP)which they can apply for on arrival, provided they have been accepted on a course at an institution authorised by the Bureau of Immigration. “Obtaining a tourist visa, combined with an SSP, is very easy,” relates Irene Perper at CNN International Language School in Manila. “Students are able to come and study here even if it were a spontaneous decision. At CNN, we have staff who assist students in applying for visa extensions and SSP applications,” she adds.

But the visa application process is not without its challenges, as Juvielyn Nebria at the ESL Center at Cebu Doctor’s University explains. “Some of the challenges we face are mainly visa-related. As of now, public officials are still working on the efficiency in issuing immigration documents.”

Handling criticism

The language barrier in the Philippines is never a problem because most Filipinos speak English fluently,” attests Yu Soo Hyun (Sheon) at MDL Cebu Language School. “The Philippines has one of the highest literacy rates in Asia and the world [it ranks 24th with 95.7 per cent, according to the United Nations Development Programme Report 2011].”

However, a 2009 report in The Economist highlighted declining English proficiency among teaching staff and inaccuracy of government-approved textbooks. But Andy Kim at Global Standards in Pampanga asserts, “Since the Philippine school system uses English as the medium of instruction, teachers solidly understand what they are teaching.”

And at CNN International Language School in Manila, Irene Perper highlights, “We are committed to making the effort of becoming culturally competent in our interaction with people of different nationalities by listening carefully to their needs and adjusting our approach as necessary.”

At MDL, faculty staff and students give feedback on academic tutors. Meanwhile, Juvielyn Nebria at the ESL Center at Cebu Doctor’s University in Cebu stresses that as a member of CHELE (Cebu Hub for English Learning Excellence) – an organisation that nurtures the ELT sector in Cebu – academic staff can further hone their teaching skills via workshops and seminars. Thomas Magee of CHELE expounds the many benefits of belonging to the organisation. “We initiated the first effort to establish articulation agreements with universities outside of the Philippines.” The challenge now, says Magee, is training teachers to be proficient in English to help cater to demand.

Soyen Sameon at Cebu Pacific International Language School in Cebu says trends in the developing ELT sector provide “a glimpse of the pedagogical and technological possibilities”. As such, operators have a responsibility to students that choose the Philippines over more established markets.

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