The past decade has seen many changes within our industry, and not least of these has been in terms of what the students are seeking from their language learning experience.
“Ten years ago,” observes Jeff Romonko, Director of Studies at International House (IH) Vancouver in Canada, “the majority of our students were in general English or test preparation, and would study at the school on average for about six months. Now,” he says, “students come with much more specific targets and goals… For example, we see more complex registrations, such as general English plus Tesol, English for Hospitality with an internship, or University Foundation Programme with a joint acceptance to a university partner.”
Educators are also finding that their clients’ aims have become more specific, but, at the same time, it seems that they are often less willing/able than in the past to spend long periods acquiring the skills they require. According to Timothy Blake, Managing Director at the London School of English in the UK, “People tend to be more results-driven than they used to be, and many come for shorter courses. Courses must, therefore, be ever more practical,” he comments. “People want value for money, so they need to feel that every minute counts. Also, as with most things in life, people expect more and take higher standards for granted.”
As a result, we are seeing a greater focus upon language study that is both more practical and more focused on career objectives.“ There is a move towards a real language experience, rather than just simply learning the language,” claims Kim Edwards, Director of Australian-based SEA Academy. “Students want language geared towards their target career goals, and they want to make the most of their overseas study experience.”
“I think that more than ever, people need English to survive in a job/get promotion/get a job, so it is vital for their career,” comments Jonathan Quinn, Marketing Director at Ireland’s Centre of English Studies (CES) in Dublin. Reflecting this, Irish language school, Atlantic Language Galway has seen growth in the popularity of business Ielts preparation courses, and spokesperson Masa Kitaya reports, “We now offer a full-time Ielts preparation course and business English course (Bulats exam included) to match [students’] needs.”
It is not only English language schools that have witnessed a move away from general language courses, towards more practical and specifically focused programmes. In Spain, Clic IH’s Frederic Parrilla also notes that, “People tend to try to learn the more practical aspects of the language, and there is more interest,” he says, “in business, medicine, etc, and less towards literature. Simply, the language learning is losing a bit of its romanticism,” he concludes.
A similar trend is evident in Germany, according to Rainer Epbinder of the Goethe Institut chain of schools, who reports, “Course participants need to learn German, because they want to study at a German university, or because they need the German language for their jobs in their home countries.” He notes also “a remarkable increase” in the number of people, already resident in Germany, who need to learn the language for their job in that country. “That is why we have created new course types, [such as] German for Medical Professionals Communication Skills, German for Legal Professionals and Business German.”
Overseas academic study is also seen as a growing motivation for enrolment at language schools elsewhere, and is reflected in the increasing demand for exam preparation programmes. According to Edwards, Ielts preparation is increasing. Similarly, in the UK, Blake adds, “With more people going on to study at a UK university, we have noticed an increased demand for academic English and pre-university preparation and advice.” Meanwhile, in Australia, Simon Craft, Managing Director of Inforum Education Australia, comments that both Ielts and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programmes are much more popular than in the past.
According to Craft, “One of the biggest changes, especially in the last decade, has been in the number of students wishing to use education as a pathway to permanent residency, or, at least, further study here, in Australia. “When I first began working in Queensland, the concept of ‘pathway programmes’ leading from an Elicos provider to vocational colleges and/or universities was unheard of in the industry, at least in Australia. However, over the years, these kinds of programmes have now become a very important component for colleges wanting to attract prospective students.”
Meanwhile, study travel advisors back up findings that students are seeking more targeted learning. Pakistan-based counsellor, Abdul Wahid Abbasi of the Academy of Professional Studies & Counseling (APSC), notes, “Changes have occurred in preferring business language and academic year to general language.” At the same time, Victoria Jaramillo at EduTravel in Bogota, Colombia, comments that demand for bilingual staff in a variety of professions, is driving the demand for language study in that country. Edina Crunfli of Intercultural Cursos No Exterior in Brazil concurs that, “The need for language learning nowadays is veering off more to professional needs than before.”
Among study travel advisors, there is also evidence that clients today are much more interested in combining language study with paid work than in the past. “Though there is a market for general English and academic year for students who do not need to work, the majority of students care about the possibility of working,” comments Jaramillo from Colombia. “In our case, I would say that 70 per cent of our students ask for programmes including a work possibility.”
While the adult market is growing more specialised, the junior market, characterised mainly by summer vacation courses, is seeing a lowering in the average age of students, as parents are enrolling them at an increasingly young age. According to Ana Fernandez, at German language school, IP International Projects, her institution is receiving growing numbers of requests for children as young as age six.
Another important aspect of changing demand concerns ability to study, and, in Europe, initiatives such as the Erasmus and Leonardo da Vinci programmes, have contributed to the circulation of students and language knowledge growth, as Parrilla points out.
Clearly, the rising and falling financial fortunes of source markets also have a strong impact. Hence, economic growth in Brazil, Russia and the Ukraine has, notes Epbinder, led to an increase in recruitment from these markets compared with the past. The emergence of new markets in the Middle East has also provided opportunities for recruiters.
Visa issues are also part of this picture, and can have a substantial impact on a school’s ability to recruit from certain markets. Until now, for example, “Satisfying Ireland’s visa requirements has been much more challenging than in the UK, which results in concentration in the number of particular nationalities at certain times,” comments Kitaya. However, these are trends particular to certain markets, and are not so much driven by student preference as government policy.
One trend that has been widely noted, meanwhile, is a growth in student sponsorship. Most notable are the large numbers of Saudi and Spanish students receiving either full or partial funding through BECAS and MEC. “In general, the number of fully-funded students coming to our school has increased significantly, particularly from Middle Eastern countries,” says Kitaya, who also observes that the MEC grants from the Spanish government continue to encourage Spanish students to Ireland.
Company sponsorship is also becoming a more significant factor, and Romonko comments that IH Vancouver sees many more students coming with either government or company sponsorship than in the past. “The largest [number] of these are Saudi students, who receive a full sponsorship for their studies, and Korean students, who are partly sponsored by Human Resources and Development Korea for a study & work programme.” Increased sponsorship by companies has also been witnessed in Malta, according to inlingua School of Languages’ Director, Maryse Gatt, who reports, “Companies are encouraging and sponsoring their employees, since there is a firm belief that investment in increasing fluency in written and spoken English will pay off.”
Compared with a decade ago, today’s students, as well having more specific learning objectives, are also more focused on obtaining the right deal on other aspects of their programme. “Ten years ago, the main business was always to focus on the programme itself, and all the other details were just details,” comments Paula Johnson, Director of Cypress Homestays and Cypress Intercâmbio Cultural, based in Vancouver, Canada. “Accommodation, pick-up service, insurance, weekend excursions, were not the core of the business, and I think now students are more demanding, and asking more for each service they pay for.”
Today’s clients are better informed (see inset), and seek to maximise the value of their experience by making sure of every detail. Hence, says Fernandez, “The trend is increasingly towards more quality and service.”
Within the junior market, she notes, round-the-clock supervision is now a major consideration for parents, while importance is also attached to provision of attractive, age-appropriate activities within the price of the package. “There is value placed on providing teaching that is animated and full of variety, clearly separating itself from typical school teaching, and accurately reflecting the life of where the course is located.
Standards of equipment in schools have also changed to keep pace with technological advances. As Brian Brownlee of Anglo-European School of English in Bournemouth, UK, highlights, “Ten years ago, interactive whiteboards (IABs) were not a feature of most language schools. Nowadays, most decent language schools have at least some of their classrooms equipped with IABs.” Furthermore, wireless Internet access (Wi-Fi) is now “a must”, according to Quinn. Blake confirms that, “New technology has had an impact on teaching techniques, and we have embraced that it has given trainers more options and course participants more choice. “However,” he adds “these technical advances have tended to have a steady incremental effect; they do not amount to a revolution.”
Perhaps a greater change lies in the importance that students today attach to their accommodation. For many, this aspect of the experience now appears to be accorded equal importance alongside choice of school, programme and city, according to Johnson. “Nowadays, if an agency or school does not offer an alternative for the student’s accommodation, [they] may not buy the programme,” she observes.
“Ten years ago,” says Fernandez, “the emphasis was put on home stay [accommodation]. Today, what we are being mostly asked [for is] premium accommodation in well-appointed colleges or on campus.” This trend has led many language schools, which previously offered only host family options, to expand their range of accommodation choices. Cypress made the decision to open its own separate accommodation department, in order to offer a more personalised service with increased options, that is open to clients, language schools and agents alike, advises Johnson.
Clients are also factoring additional considerations into the accommodation choice for example, proximity to the school has now become an important issue in the junior market, according to Fernandez. As students have become more demanding, standards for accommodation have become higher over the past decade, according to Epbinder. Nevertheless, affordability remains a key factor, as Brownlee points out, noting that many students opt for host family, being unwilling to pay the extra costs associated with residential accommodation.
Not only are students seeking higher standards in both accommodation and course quality, but they are also increasingly looking for better value, with faster progress in a shorter time. “What is clear,” says Parrilla, “is that people will have less and less time, and will need more and more condensed, intensive programmes.”
Although the past decade has witnessed the coming-of-age of the Internet, the threat that direct bookings were once felt to pose to study travel advisors’ business now appears to have abated. Indeed, according to Edina Crunfli of Intercultural Cursos No Exterior in Florianapolis, Brazil, “We [are observing] a growth in the proportion of students booking through a study travel advisor.
“That may seem paradoxical, in a world where all schools have very rich websites and offer the possibility of online bookings,” she observes. “However, what we feel is that, precisely because of the abundance of offers on the web, students feel safer booking through a travel advisor, who will be assisting them in more ways than just the application itself, but also with tickets, visas [and] insurances.” Furthermore, at her company, ”We definitely pass to the students our experience of [the] relationship with our partners, giving them the confidence they need that the institution they are seeking is recognised, accredited and solid.”
According to Frederic Parrilla of Clic IH in Spain, the level of direct bookings via the Internet varies depending on the country. However, he endorses Crunfli’s comments, noting that, even in more developed markets, clients may prefer to book through a study travel advisor. “Parents are sensitive to quality and need interface; students want to make sure [of] where they are going to invest their time and money and going through an agent is an excellent way to make sure of the choice, quality and return on the investment,” he asserts.
According to Simon Craft, Managing Director of Inforum Education Australia, education agents are still the main route that students take to choose a college in Australia. “However, it’s probably needless to add that the Internet also plays an important role. From speaking with students, they generally approach an agent who will recommend two or three colleges. [Then], the student will go online and find out as much as they can about the schools, and once they have collated the information to their satisfaction, will return to the agent to start the enrolment process.”
As Kim Edwards Director of Australia’s SEA English Academy International, highlights, as a result of the Internet, “Students are more aware, better informed, and know how to ask the right questions when it comes to choosing a destination. Social media (particularly Facebook) provides immediate access to information about a school, and lets students interact with other students at the same school.“
Thus, today’s students appear to be enjoying the best of both worlds. At Germany’s Goethe- Institut schools, Rainer Epbinder is one who expects study travel advisors to consolidate their position: “More and more students will be recruited by educational agencies worldwide,” he affirms. “That is why the Goethe-Institut in Germany will strongly expand their co-operation with educational agencies, and make them an important part of their customer service.”
Students’ choice of destination is in many cases closely bound to factors outside the control of educators or themselves matters such as visa requirements and currency fluctuations. This has always been the case. What has changed, however, according to Colombian agent, Victoria Jaramillo from EduTravel in Bogota, is that more families and students are now considering and comparing fees, courses and related travel expenses when making their choice of destination, than they did in the past.
Another increasingly important factor in destination choice is the opportunity to gain paid work while studying, and, says Flavio Crusoe, Director of BEX Brazilian Exchange in Salvador, Brazil, most students are choosing countries that allow them this possibility. “The objective is not only to have an extra source of money while overseas to help pay for living expenses, but also to give them international work experience, which would enrich their resumé,” he explains. However, it is also a question of getting the right balance between price and work possibility versus quality of education, says Jaramillo.
Certainly, when it comes to English language study, students today have a wider choice of destination than ever before, with newer options, including Malta, Cyprus and the Philippines, having staked their claim alongside the better known English language destinations. In Australia, Sea English Language Academy’s Director, Kim Edwards, observes that many Korean students are choosing to study English in the Philippines, because it provides a cheaper option than the traditional English language destinations, such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the UK. “Not only are courses cheaper, but they offer [lower] living costs particularly accommodation and food.” In reflection of this trend, her own school has now opened language schools in both the Philippines and Thailand.
However, viewed from the UK, Brian Brownlee of Bournemouth-based Anglo-European School of English, does not feel that the fundamental reasons why people choose the UK has changed over the past few years. “The UK still has many advantages,” he observes. “Rightly or wrongly, British English is still considered to be the gold standard of varieties of English. [Furthermore], the UK is geographically closer to many source countries than competitor countries, and changes in the value of sterling have worked to our advantage. Within the UK, London, Oxbridge and the south coast remain the most sought-after places to go.”