It is now some years since Australia first moved to crack down on bogus educational institutions and students by allowing only approved institutions to recruit international students requiring a visa. However, July 2012 saw another major regulatory change, when Neas was replaced as the designated authority for approving institutions for Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (Cricos) registration purposes.
As Sue Blundell from English Australia, points out, “Both ASQA and TEQSA [which have taken over the role] were new bodies, and have obviously had a steep learning curve. As was to be expected, there have been a number of transition issues, and some of these are still on-going.” To ease the transition, Neas has been advising both bodies on quality issues, and also working on behalf of ASQA to monitor providers’ compliance with the National Code and ESOS requirements. English Australia has also been working closely with them, holding quarterly joint meetings to talk through the transition and any issues arising.
Despite teething problems, “What is clear is that the new bodies have much greater regulatory ‘power’ to suspend and/or close colleges if they are not meeting the standards [than under the previous arrangements]. The publicly available list of providers who have had their registration renewal applications rejected gives great confidence to the sector in the effectiveness of the regulatory framework,” Blundell affirms.
Nevertheless, as she is quick to point out, ensuring minimum standards, as intended under these arrangements, does not, on its own, drive quality. However, Neas, as an accreditation body first and foremost, continues to promote quality standards for English language providers in all sectors. As Executive Director of Neas, Anne Holmes reports, “With a more mature industry and the changes in regulation, the focus is more on continuous improvement, showcasing areas of best practice and a consideration of excellence awards.”
One new venture for Neas is a project to differentiate accreditation from regulation, with the aim “to set the bar significantly higher than registration standards”, Holmes highlights. Another task it has set itself is to clearly communicate the message that continued success in the international education industry has to be based on maintaining “rigorous, consistent and equitable quality standards and a commitment to continuous quality improvement”.
As part of this initiative, Neas has this year launched new quality standards, and has also introduced Neas Quality Services, to support its 250-plus accredited centres with various types of assistance, including help with applying for registration on Cricos and seminars on particular areas of quality assurance.
With federal elections due later this year, the regulatory environment could see further upheaval. However, Blundell does not foresee any changes in the area of regulatory responsibility. She notes that the recently released Chaney report, which has the support of both government and opposition, has recommended a settling-in period to be established for the new regulatory agencies, with a full review at the end of the first audit cycle.
Further refinement of the system may be on the cards, however, as the report also recommends increased consolidation of the regulatory requirements for providers serving more than one sector, whilst ensuring that any new regulations recognise the significant differences within the international education sector and that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be feasible for this industry.
Turning to the UK, with the latest changes affecting educational oversight for visa purposes only just in operation, the regulatory environment could be set to change once more, following the government’s decision at the end of March to scrap the UK Border Agency (UKBA), which oversees the student visa process. Any changes to come of this decision will, however, take some time to be implemented, and, meanwhile, the current system will continue in operation.
The 2011 decision by UKBA to give educational oversight for Tier 4 language school recruitment to the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) was similar in effect to the Australian changes described above. It meant that UK language schools wishing to recruit visa students on long-term programmes of study now needed to be inspected by a new body, regardless of whether they were already affiliated to existing industry accreditation schemes for schools in the UK, Accreditation UK or Abls Accreditation.
As a result, a number of smaller language schools took the decision no longer to recruit Tier 4 students. One such was Torquay International School in Torquay, where, according to Managing Director, Judith Hands, business has suffered no adverse effects. As she explains, “A school the size of ours does not have the time to spend on getting every kind of accreditation going...English UK, Ialc and the English Network membership, where we learn so much from each other, plus British Council accreditation, seem so much more relevant to the work we do than does the incredibly expensive ISI scheme, which has been forced upon so many schools.”
For the many that did decide to opt in to the new system, this was a major undertaking as John Flood, Academic Principal at Churchill House School of English Language in Kent, relates. In particular, he has been concerned about the stress it has put on school staff and the additional financial outlay.
Observing that his school has had someone working almost full-time dealing with visa regulations since the implementation of the new Tier 4 sponsor arrangements, Flood comments, “The ISI inspections have greatly added to these costs, and, as good as they were, it is difficult to justify the expense of a double system [especially when] most British Council accredited schools achieved good ISI results.”
Oversight of language schools has come as a new responsibility for ISI, which has long experience in inspecting mainstream private schools, and it created a new framework for educational oversight specifically for this new role, with a separate body of inspectors specially trained in the requirements relating to language schools.
According to a spokesperson from ISI, as well as fulfilling the UKBA brief for educational oversight, ISI inspections also provide added value for the institutions. ISI reports are “an impartial, detailed, student-focused quality assessment”, he comments, noting that their recommendations for improvement are particularly valued, and positive feedback proves useful to the institutions for individual marketing purposes.
While this may suggest that ISI’s services could one day rival the British Council’s Accreditation UK scheme, demand from schools for the services of Accreditation UK has, to date, been unaffected, according to Elizabeth McLaren, Manager, Accreditation Services at the British Council, who reveals, “We received 58 new applications for accreditation in 2012 and have received nine so far this year.” As she underlines, not only does Accreditation UK remain “the specialist quality assurance scheme for UK ELT”, but, “It is the only UK quality assurance scheme which offers both assurance of quality and financial protection, which means that, in the rare event of a school closure, students are able to continue their studies at another British Council accredited institution.”
Accreditation UK also continues to fine-tune its scheme, and, in 2012, made changes to its reporting summaries to make them more comprehensive and also make it easier to make meaningful comparisons between strengths in different reports. From 2013, full inspection reports are available on its website.
The Accreditation Body for Language Services (Abls), the UK’s other accreditation body for language schools in the country, meanwhile, accredits around 30, mainly smaller, often family-run, schools, which in the main have chosen not to apply for highly trusted sponsor status. As with Accreditation UK, quality assurance is its remit, and recent moves to support this role include the launch of an initial assessment service to assist unaccredited schools in preparing for an inspection. It has also been working in conjunction with its partner association, the Association of British Language Schools, contributing to its Above and Beyond workshops, with senior members of its inspection team presenting and leading sessions.
USA opts for full accreditation
The USA has also been immersed in meeting the demands of a new regulatory framework governing eligibility for recruiting overseas students who require a student visa (F-1 category). However, here, the government has gone a step further, and, rather than setting registration standards specifically for visa purposes, has specified that providers wishing to recruit international students requiring a visa must hold accreditation from a recognised agency.
This means that institutions that already hold accreditation by the relevant bodies – the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), in the case of language programmes and schools, and the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education (Accet), for tertiary education, already meet the government’s criteria, while others will need to become accredited if they wish to continue recruiting students requiring visas.
There was initially some confusion over the status of language programmes on university campuses, in relation to these requirements. However, it subsequently emerged that English language training programmes that are governed by a university or college in the USA may be included under the umbrella of the latter’s institutional accreditation. As Vice-President for Advocacy, Patricia Juza, at EnglishUSA reports, in summer 2012, the industry associations EnglishUSA and UCIEP worked with the regional accrediting bodies to obtain information on how university-governed IEPs could obtain the relevant documentation needed for this, thereby clearning up confusion generated by the policy change.
Meanwhile, all programmes that are not governed by the university or college, or are not wholly owned by the school – of which there have emerged a growing number in recent years – need to apply independently for their own accreditation (where not already in place), like other independent language schools in the country.
As Roger Williams, Executive Director at US accreditation agency, Accet, explains, “Because the decision to require those programmes to pursue separate accreditation was not made until relatively recently, a separate time-frame is being considered to accommodate that group of IEPs. To our knowledge,” he adds, “the SEVP has not made that schedule public, and those schools are not included in the current mix of applicants.”
Push for accreditation
Even disregarding those potential additional numbers, however, Accet has seen “an enormous number” of English language training programmes that enrol F-1 non-immigrant students seeking accreditation. “The looming deadline of December 13 2013...has more than tripled the number of initial applicants typically in that category at any given time,” Williams confirms.
With, as he points out, close to 50 per cent of initial applicants being deferred at least one review cycle, in order to allow them to “address issues central to the grant of accreditation”, there appears to be a question mark over whether all will obtain the necessary accreditation by the deadline.
In addition to addressing staffing needs resulting from increased application numbers, Accet has also recently developed additional policies and procedures, which define expectations relative to satisfactory progress through an IEP’s curriculum, maximum length of stay and vacation policies. It has also added some text to its policy on Leaves of Absence specific to international students.
At CEA, meanwhile, according to Executive Director, Teresa O’Donnell, the number of new sites seeking accreditation has increased from 40 to close to 200. “This has strained CEA’s resources, both in terms of volunteers and in terms of staffing,” she observes. However, she says it is determined not to compromise on standards, and has recruited or retrained over 140 reviewers, while increasing full-time staff from two-to-six (soon to be seven).
Here, the new system is not just about controlling immigration. As Juza, at EnglishUSA, highlights, “The English language programme accreditation law has helped to set the bar higher for standards,” and English USA, which promotes quality standards as part of its own remit, “is encouraged by the number of unaccredited Intensive English Programs [that] are currently in the accreditation process”.
Canada takes first step
Canada now seems set to join the growing list of countries where the granting of study permits is linked to a student’s attendance at a designated list of institutions within the country. A 45-day consultation period was launched at the end of December 2012 on proposals under which Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) would work with the provincial authorities to develop a framework to designate language schools and other educators eligible to host international students.
As elsewhere, the purpose of the plan is to crack down on institutions that provide poor-quality programmes or facilitate the entry of foreign nationals to the country for purposes other than study. Commenting in the March issue of Study Travel Magazine, Gonzalo Peralta, Executive Director of Languages Canada endorsed the motives behind the scheme.
While the motives are applauded, the plan has also raised some concerns. According to Jonathan Kolber of the International Language Academy of Canada (Ilac), one problem for language schools such as his is that under the proposed changes, their students would no longer have access to work permits, thus putting popular language coop programmes under threat.
Another area for concern is the role proposed for the provincial authorities in designating institutions under the scheme. As Languages Canada pointed out in its position paper in August last year, “provincial and territorial governments have historically shown no interest in regulating language education institutions, with the exception of British Columbia”. Instead, the association, which already runs an accreditation scheme that is a condition of membership, has indicated that its own member list should be made the basis for selection of authorised language education institutions in any future country-wide policies regarding linking accreditation to student visas.
Protecting Canada’s reputation
The involvement of the provinces in designation has also caused some concern among vocational colleges in Canada. In January this year, the National Association of Career Colleges (NACC) spoke out on their behalf. In the longer term, NACC is confident that the provinces will open up designation to career colleges, but, as Chief Executive Officer, Serge Buy, highlights, they are concerned about what may happen if they are not ready by the deadline of January 1, 2014. “Our position is that, if the provinces are not ready to submit lists of career colleges, the federal government should recognise all regulated sectors,” he comments.
Nevertheless, vocational colleges have much to gain from measures that will improve standards and enhance the country’s standing. At OMNI College in Richmond, British Columbia, which specialises in training internationally-educated nurses, the proposed changes are of great significance, since the majority require a study permit in order to join their programme. As President, Jade Burke, explains, there have been several less than scrupulous colleges in competition with her own in the past, and, as a result, “We understand and support the proposed changes and the reasons behind them...Overall, we feel that these changes could have a positive effect on Canada’s international education reputation.”
Australia: latest regulatory changes
For Cricos registration, providers delivering Elicos programmes must meet new Elicos national standards (based on Neas standards), comply with the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2007, the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and the Education Services for Overseas Students Regulations 2001.
From July 2012, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) have replaced Neas as the designated authorities for Cricos registration purposes:
1. Stand-alone Elicos schools are regulated by ASQA (which also regulates the VET sector).
2. Those that have pathway arrangements with higher education providers are under the authority of TEQSA (the higher education regulator).
USA accreditation deadline
The 2010 Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act (the Accreditation Act) required all F-1 students wishing to take English language training courses in the USA to enrol on a programme that has received accreditation from a recognised national or regional accreditation agency, such as CEA or Accet. Programmes that were already certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) were given an application deadline of December 2011, in order to meet an accreditation deadline of December 2013.
Canada’s way forward
Under recent proposals from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), educational institutions wishing to recruit international students on courses of more than six months’ duration would need to be “designated” by their provincial authority. Institutions that do not become designated would be able to continue offering programmes of six months or less to students on regular visitor visas. The proposals would not affect short-term courses which do not currently require a study permit.
“Eligible” students attending designated institutions would also be able to work part-time while studying, without needing to apply for a separate work permit. However, it is understood that this would not apply to those studying on language coop programmes at language schools.
Proposals also include new powers for CIC to request evidence that students comply with the conditions of their study permit, along with power to remove them from the country if they are found not to meet the requirements issued. Currently students in Canada need only demonstrate “intent” to study.