May 2010 issue

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Italy branches out

Last year was a challenging year for Italian operators, but a new quality mark for Italian language schools (and a hope that visa issuance will be simplified for relevant schools) is one cause for optimism. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

In the tough economic climate that emerged in 2008, Italian language schools experienced varying fortunes and their expectations for 2009 were similarly mixed (see LTM, May 2009, page 41). The picture emerging early in 2010 confirms these predictions, with some players successfully riding the storm, and others having so far failed to beat the recession.

Educator association, EduItalia, for example, quotes selective data from 12 of its member schools that indicates a 10 per cent rise in overseas students in the year to spring 2010. A positive report also emerges from Studioitalia in Rome, which enjoyed a 13 per cent increase in 2009 compared with 2008, according to Maria Mirkina. This was due mainly to its active marketing promotions, collaborations with agencies and returning students.

Florence-based language school, Europass, also achieved success, notching up a very high 50 per cent increase, according to Marek Dano, thanks to European Union programmes, and a substantial increase in Internet bookings.

Nevertheless, at the Università degli Studi in Pisa, spokesperson Luca Gamba admits to “a decline in subscribers”, as a result of the world economic crisis. A similar experience is confirmed by Asils’ Matteo Savini, whose 38-strong membership, he notes, suffered a general decrease of between 10-to-20 per cent last year. Savini cites problems in being paid by agents and continuing visa problems, especially in relation to China.

Another adverse factor has been in the form of competition from public sector institutions in the Calabria region, said to be offering substantial scholarships to attract foreign students, both “forcing local agents almost to close and reducing to nothing the number of Spanish students in private courses”, says Savini.

The exchange rate is a further factor that is putting a dampener on business, according to Giorgia Biccelli, Director of Linguadue language school in Milan, with Italy no longer as inexpensive a destination as it used to be. “This makes quite a difference,” she points out, noting that traditional long-term students have reduced their average length of stay. At the same time, she observes that there is now more focus on learning Italian for academic or professional reasons, rather than just for the pleasure of it. While commenting that there were no marked changes in the main nationalities attending her school last year, Biccelli observes that both South Korea and the USA were “very slow” by comparison with the previous year, while some European markets enjoyed a “very positive” trend. Meanwhile, in what was a very strong year for Studioitalia, Mirkina notes that traditional source countries remained at either equally good, or better, levels than in 2008. These were then supplemented by an increased presence of students from newer student markets, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yeman, Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Burundi and the Philippines.

Most non-EU students are looking to continue their university studies in Italy or to find a job, notes Mirkina, and, as such, need to obtain a visa. She highlights China, India, Australia and, even, the USA, as countries where it remains difficult to obtain an Italian visa, but, having significant experience of preparing visa documentation, she says that the school will continue to promote itself to those countries. Dano is also looking to the potential of countries such as China, Russia, Brazil and India to sustain the market in years to come, thus underlining the importance of a resolution being found to the country’s current visa difficulties.

According to Savini, there continue to be problems with Japan and Korea, and Asils members are seeing fewer students from Latin and Central America. However, on the positive side, he says that Russia seems to be growing, and Eastern European countries, especially Poland, “may have an interesting [development] in the near future”. But, “It will take a few years for them to become significant,” he warns.

Association action

In an increasingly testing economic climate, language schools rely more than ever on the activity of their representative associations. Asils (the Associazione Scuole di Italiano come Lingua Seconda) went on the offensive in 2009 to promote the quality credentials of its membership through a new national and international branding campaign.

Inspired by the French and British examples, a new quality mark has been created under the auspices of the Italian education authority. Its aim is not only to allow potential students to identify quality schools, but also to facilitate the work of the visa-granting authorities. While it is still early days in terms of results, association spokesman, Matteo Savini, is optimistic, commenting, “We have the feeling that 2010 could be an interesting year for this specific goal.”

Visa issuance is also a key issue for EduItalia, which helps students in acquiring the necessary documentation to allow them to study in Italy. In cases where there may be difficulties regarding the coherence of the educational choice expressed by the student, it has always tried to deal directly with the respective consulates involved, comments Communications Manager, Emmanuel Maio.

This is just one element in the association’s work, the most important of which is to promote its member institutes at international level, through participation at fairs and expos and through its website.

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