Now that the busy enrolment periods for the year are over, many operators in the industry will be pleased to see 2003 coming to a close, and will look forward to what will hopefully be a better year for business next year.
This is certainly the view of many language schools in Canada. A significant number of schools there saw business drop by an alarming rate, as fear among Asian communities about the Sars virus prevented many students from travelling overseas.
While bookings are reported to have returned in the last quarter of the year, the Sars virus was yet another alarm bell for schools that rely too heavily on one or two main markets from the same continent. As Asian student numbers dwindled, so did the fortunes of many schools. It is always challenging to maintain a nationality mix in schools, but it is always best practice.
A notion of 'best practice', which school associations champion as one of their main aims, is wide ranging, incorporating factors such as student welfare, tuition, nationality mix and social activities. This is an area that Australian group, English Australia, has improved in the past year, according to Sue Blundell at English Australia. She explains that the association also prides itself on encouraging steady, sustainable growth rather than 'dramatic, market-driven fluctuations'.
Language schools in New Zealand similarly suffered from a slowdown in Chinese student enrolments this year. The reasons for this are thought to be manifold - the rise in value of the NZ dollar, the fallout from Sars and fears about student safety while in the country. Schools with an over-reliance on Chinese students are suffering as a result, especially those opened in the past two years to capitalise on what was then a tidal wave of Chinese students coming into the country. Some schools are being forced to lose staff members, while the first school casualty has been Modern Age Institute of Learning.
The government in New Zealand has involved itself in the regulation of language course provision and recently determined that best practice involves not accepting students under the age of 10 - unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian - into the country to enrol at educational establishments, unless they have boarding facilities. There have been concerns about young students, many of whom are from Korea, inappropriately cared for in large groups and the effect on the industry's reputation.
Agency associations similarly uphold best practice and quality standards as one of their central tenets, and many of these associations have been busy in the last year, improving professional integrity and promoting themselves to the general public. All keep professional values at heart, although some associations in Europe report a difficult year for members, which impacted on association activities.
A slow economy in a country can mean fewer students being able to travel, but also a reprioritisation of spending values. One agent, based in Korea, says that since the Asian economic crisis in 1999, student purchasing power has never been the same. General trends in consumer consumption also underly an awareness about value for money and a desire for cost-effectiveness among students. As we report, this doesn't necessarily mean that students buy the cheapest product, but they like to know what they are getting for the money that they are spending.