May 2010 issue

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Maintaining the gold standard

In an industry that attracts billions of dollars annually, it is rather surprising that in many countries the language teaching industry has been left without any compulsory regulations or quality checks. Increasingly, quality assurance measures and accrediting schemes for language schools have been gaining momentum with many governments now linking them to visa issuance. But will this bring quality standards down? Gillian Evans reports.

Accreditation schemes are invaluable in an industry such as language travel that trades mainly on trust. Without them, agents and students can be in the dark about the quality of the providers, where, unlike in the hospitality industry, no international star rating system applies to grade the provision offered. While quality assurance schemes differ from one country to another, their seal of approval can provide students and agents with peace of mind when choosing a language school. General Manager of the National ELT Accreditation Scheme (Neas) in Australia, Anne Newman, outlines their remit. “The purpose of Neas is to set standards of quality in the provision of ELT programmes and related services and to provide a professional judgement as to whether ELT centres meet and continue to meet those standards.”

Changes in protocol
While this is the general tenet of most accrediting agencies, they are aware of the need to review procedures to ensure their provision remains relative to the changing market. The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) in the USA, for example has, according to its Chief Executive, Teresa O’Donnell, added new policies which include, “extending eligibility in the USA to community college programmes that offer a 12-credit ESL programme and a provision for accredited sites undergoing a change of ownership or control and for those that open an additional site”.

In New Zealand, where all language centres that wish to enrol international students require NZQA approval and accreditation, the system was changed last year, making it a requirement of accredited tertiary education organisations to undertake self-assessment. “From September 2009, NZQA began a system of external evaluation and reviews of private tertiary education providers to ascertain their educational performance and the quality of their self-assessment,” reports Angela Perez, NZQA Communications Advisor. To make the scheme even more transparent, NZQA introduced external evaluation and review (EER) reports, which can be openly accessed on its website, on each inspected institution and documents “judgements about educational performance”.

In Malta, the language school’s association Feltom runs an accreditation scheme that goes above and beyond the requirements of the EFL Monitoring Board. Approved in 2005, it was not until 2007 that most Feltom members adopted the scheme, but as Isabelle Pace Warrington, Executive Officer at Feltom, admits, “It was at this point that a number of issues emerged which needed clarification.” Since then several minor amendments have been made. This year the scheme is being reviewed once more, with further amendments expected to be presented to Feltom members for approval later this year. Pace Warrington advocates constant reviews for accreditation schemes. “The Feltom Accreditation Scheme is still young and must continue to develop,” she says. “As further inspections take place and new situations and experiences are encountered, it becomes clear that constant development must take place if the scheme is to remain effective and relevant.”

Accet in the USA is also reviewing its provision, according to Charlie Matterson, Accet’s Associate Executive Director. “As part of its normal review procedures, Accet has initialised an examination of its Standards for Accreditation which is scheduled to be completed with any revisions adopted by the end of 2010 for phased implementation during 2011.”

At the beginning of this year, Accreditation UK, which is managed by the British Council in partnership with English UK, published its new 2010-11 Accreditation Handbook, which according to Accreditation Services Manager, Elizabeth McLaren, includes new and revised inspection criteria which puts greater emphasis on improvements between inspections and on continuing professional development for staff. In addition, the scheme has been extended to include the accreditation of in-company English language training provision. “We have extended the scope of inspections to include English language provision offered in-company so that EL providers who offer customers the option of being taught in their own company’s premises in the UK can apply to have this accredited,” explains McLaren.

At the International language centre association, Ialc, emphasis has been placed upon improving standards as an ongoing process. Judith Hands, Ialc Vice President explains, “We’re investing more money in QA administration services, in order to monitor the scheme more closely and maintain and improve its effectiveness in not just ensuring quality, but helping schools to improve their standards as an ongoing process. By placing more emphasis on the Ialc Quality Plan which each school must present annually, we see that schools are understanding the value of having an action plan for the future which is dedicated to improving all their standards in all areas of the school.”

In Ireland, the accreditation of language schools in now in the hands of the government with a new body being set up to assume responsibility for the quality standards of all instituitions receiving international students. Jim Ferguson from Acels – the now defunct ELT accreditation body – says, “Acels was integrated into the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland on 1st January 2010. The authority is an agency of the Department of Education and Science and has responsibility for developing and maintaining the National Framework of Qualifications. The Irish Government has announced the establishment of the National Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland for February 2011.”

The regulation game
The regulation of the language teaching industry has hit the headlines in many countries in recent years, with governments increasingly linking the accreditation of language schools to visa issuance. While this is largely welcomed, as a regulated industry can only mean better quality provision across the board, the danger is that the accrediting bodies are expected to act as border control enforcers, charged with uncovering bogus educational institutions.

In Australia, all education providers offering courses to student visa holders must have Neas accreditation. Similarly, in New Zealand, all education institutions enrolling international students must have NZQA accreditation. Following their example, in March 2009, the UK also introduced measures tying in student visa issuance to accreditation and this has not been without its teething problems. Since last year, only language schools accredited by Accreditation UK, the Association of British Language Schools (ABLS), the Accrediation Service for International Colleges (Asic) and the British Accreditation Council (BAC) – the latter two of which tend to cater for vocational and professional colleges – are included on the government’s Register of Sponsors for the points-based visa entry system. McLaren reports that interest in Accreditation UK has grown as a consequence. “We have seen a substantial increase in the number of new applicants for accreditation since becoming a Home Office approved accrediting body but over the last two years the success rate on first inspection has only been 65 per cent.” Since 2005, Accreditation UK provides a partial re-inspection facility to unsuccessful new applicants. “A substantial number of these [institutions] have been offered this opportunity and many have been successful in gaining accreditation after a supplementary inspection.”

In the USA, discussions are currently in progress to introduce legislation to restrict the issuance of the I-20 visa forms – which are required for student visa applications – to IEPs accredited by either Accet or CEA. O’Donnell comments that they would welcome the move. “We know that there are a significant number of independent language schools that do not meet government regulations but are still able to get students,” she asserts. “A requirement would help those schools that are accredited and of high quality in the marketplace.” Richard Brown, Director of BridgeEnglish in Denver, CO in the USA, is also in favour of such a move. “We all feel that when an organisation works so hard to meet the standards required of either Accet or CEA, we are able to prove the legitimacy of what we are about. It would also guarantee standards for our students, employees and the organisations we work with such as agents or partner schools. When a school is accredited, all these organisations can all be assured that they are dealing with a reliable, credible and responsible school.”

However, Matterson at Accet remains sceptical. While he acknowledges that it would undoubtedly raise the overall quality of IEPs in the USA by weeding out those that did not meet minimum standards, there are other issues to consider. He mentions the requirement that schools demonstrate an operational history before they can apply for accreditation. “This would then be, in effect, a restraint of trade issue as it would present possibly insurmountable obstacles for new schools to get into the business,” he argues. “Further, there are a number of schools offering courses and programmes to international students for which there is no accrediting agency, but they are authorised to issue I-20s. Unless the legislation singled out IEPs, which raises issues of discrimination, then these other schools for which there is no accrediting agency, would be cut off from the international student pool.”

Of course, the danger of linking accreditation to visa issuance is that the registration scheme suddenly becomes a mechanism for controlling immigration and quality becomes its secondary role. Some sources in the UK argue that once the government has put a rule in place that student visas can only been issued to those intending to attend a registered school, the government can change the rules at any time to suit their political need to be seen to be doing something to tackle bogus students. Adding weight to this argument, the UK government last year put forward several new proposals to stem bogus immigrants from entering the country – and gave the industry only 10 days to respond (see Language Travel Magazine, February 2010, page 6). Another concern of linking accreditation to visa issuance is that it would make the quality assurance offered by the scheme almost negligible, as many more schools would have this quality seal. Richard Rossner, Chief Executive of the European Association for Quality Language Services (Eaquals), argues that this is now the case in the UK. “The only way providers can currently distinguish themselves in this crowded national and local market is to seek additional accreditation by some other body and/or join a second association.” He continues, “We believe that the Eaquals accreditation scheme is the most robust and comprehensive available for language education providers, and also the most flexible given that our target group is so internationally diverse.”

In countries where there is no accreditation provision specifically for language schools, membership of schools’ associations can provide some quality assurance to students and agents. As Pina Foti at Italian in Italy, says, “To be part of an association, schools need to correspond to specific requirements of quality so it’s a signal of quality itself for customers.” In Italy, schools’ associations, Asils and Italian in Italy, provide certain quality standards for their members, with Italian in Italy stipulating that members adhere to the quality criteria set out by Uniter.
In Malta, the industry is regulated by the EFL Monitoring Board, which is charged with ensuring national minimum conditions for the industry. But Maltese schools’ association, Feltom, has introduced additional quality measures, as Feltom Treasurer, Julian Cassar Torregiani, relates. “Feltom has taken the lead in establishing quality assurance standards for the EFL industry in Malta, and today its members form part of a self-regulated body with Feltom’s accreditation scheme at its very core.”

However, the EFL Monitoring Board is investigating the possibility of establishing an accreditation scheme itself. “This year the board was allocated a budget and one of its priorities is to look into the logistics of introducing a national accreditation scheme which will include the various aspects of a language stay in Malta,” states Marthese Johnson, Executive Secretary for the EFL Monitoring Board. “This is still at an early stage but the Monitoring Board is eagerly looking forward to its accomplishment.” If it does introduce an accreditation scheme itself, Feltom will undoubtedly have to ensure its quality bar is set even higher.

A global standard?
Of course, global quality standards would be hugely useful to agents and students, even if they were set low. While international associations such as Ialc and Eaquals go some way to achieving this, will we see national bodies coming together to realise this vision of the future? Newman at Neas believes this could be achieved. “All key ELT accrediting bodies have similar standards and operating principles,” she asserts. As a result, ELT centres that are accredited by a recognised agency are meeting criteria that raise the professionalism of the industry globally. Variances across accrediting schemes may occur due to country specific requirements of operation and/or government regulatory requirements. Neas’ international standards can be applied to ELT centres regardless of country of operation. Due to the growth in the delivery of English around the world, it is timely for accreditation schemes to collaborate and consider future possibilities in relation to standards.

However, O’Donnell believes that national differences would make a global standard difficult. But she says she would welcome “a meeting of all of the accrediting agencies to get an understanding of how we all operate” and that these could lead to the development of general standards. “These standards could also provide a model for other countries that might eventually want to develop accrediting agencies,” she adds.

McLaren also points to broad standards being useful in countries with no national standards but says they would be “of little use where there is already a well-established national scheme”.

One way in which some accrediting agencies, such as CEA, have been extending their reach is by accrediting language schools in other countries. “After a review and revision of the CEA standards materials several years ago, the standards have proven to be very applicable in the parts of the world that have applied for CEA accreditation.” Currently CEA has three accredited English language centres outside of the USA. Neas has also extended its accreditation to include English language providers overseas. It now has accredited centres in Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Although global standards may be some way off, dialogue and cooperation about the challenges of quality assurance and standards between accrediting agencies can only benefit the industry as a whole.

Welfare issues

An area which is difficult to monitor but crucial to the quality of a language travel experience is student welfare. Most accrediting agencies have codes of conduct in place, relying on their members to adhere to them. Teresa O’Donnell at CEA in the USA says that they have a standard for student services which includes houses. It stipulates that an IEP must have a plan for reviewing and evaluating its student services, including housing, but it does not actually visit the site unless there are concerns or complaints from students.

A similar scheme is operated by Accet. “One of Accet’s standards specifically addresses student services and, as part of student services, requires the school to describe how it develops, manages and monitors its housing programme, whether it be in apartments, with host families, in school dormitories, commercial residences or a combination of these housing sources,” reports Charlie Matterson at Accet. “Part of managing the housing programme requires that the school obtain feedback from both students and housing providers regarding the appropriateness of the housing services provided to ensure all constituent’s needs are being met.” However inspections of the facilities are not made by Accet.

In New Zealand, it is the Ministry of Education that is responsible for the Code of Practice for the pastoral care of international students. According to Angela Perez at NZQA, they monitor the code through an annual attestation from the provider, as well as during the external evaluation review process.

Similarly, in Malta, it is a different body, the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), that licenses accommodation used by students and conducts spot checks when complaints are received. To enhance this provision, Feltom also has its own guidelines. “Part of the accreditation scheme includes a section on student welfare,” explains Isabelle Pace Warrington. “This obliges schools to ensure that they have contracts with host families that clearly outline the obligations and expectations of families and students. ”It also stipulates that schools inspect all their host families at least once every two years, and that there is a complaints procedure in place.

The provision for pastoral care is of high priority for Accreditation UK, with “pastoral care, safety, any accommodation and leisure programmes all inspected and specific inspection criteria apply”, confirms Accreditation UK’s Elizabeth McLaren. She adds that special attention is paid to the care of under-16s.

In Australia, Neas does not inspect host family or residential accommodation although it does provide standards for ELT centres that offer accommodation and these need to be met. Neas checks that the centre has a nominated staff member responsible for the suitability of homestay accommodation and for monitoring student feedback. Anne Newman says that many ELT centres across Australia use the services of a homestay agency. “In this instance, the ELT centre must have a contractual agreement with the agency and is responsible for monitoring the services the agency provides,” she says.

Ialc, meanwhile, uses in-depth interviews with accommodation and welfare staff as part of its inspection and audit processes.

Asian recruitment trends

Many countries in Asia are keen to maximise their international recruitment of students, but how are most of the involved institutions going about putting themselves on the map? The answer is predominantly via agencies, together with direct marketing efforts.

“We recruit mainly through participation in education fairs and partnerships with local recruitment agents and education consultants,” reports Dylan Ong, Marketing Officer for the International Marketing & Recruitment Team at Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak Campus) in Malaysia. The university offers a range of foundation, diploma, degree, Masters and PhD programmes as well as supplementary and intensive English courses.

Ong explains, “Following initial correspondence by email, we will follow up with a visit to the operating premises [of agencies]. Generally, we work well with agents in every country we visit, but our most established partnerships are in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.”

Ong’s experience is similar to many providers throughout Asia. Vernon Sim at SSTC School for Further Education in Singapore relates, “We engage recruitment agents who meet our criteria and will abide by our code of conduct. Through these agents, we participate in exhibitions, roadshows and conduct seminars.” Meanwhile, Stuart McCutcheon Barrett at Q Language in Hong Kong details, “We have agencies in several countries and use virtual agent referral sites. Plus, we have direct applications via our website. Also ‘word of mouth’ [is important], as some of the applicants already have friends or family studying/working in Hong Kong so they take the opportunity to join them.“

In Singapore, however, there is one difficulty that agencies working with institutions in the country are now facing. Graham Sage, Director of Inlingua Singapore, explains, “New regulations in Singapore are making it more difficult for educational agents overseas to recruit for private educational institutions here, as the government no longer allows the agent to collect course fees from the potential student to pay to the institution. The student must now pay the course fees directly to the school.”

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





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