October 2010 issue

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Safety in numbers

In today’s challenging economic environment, language school associations can, more than ever, add value for their members, as Jane Vernon Smith finds out.

Depending on their particular remit and local conditions, it is natural that some associations have, more than others, had to adjust their priorities over the past year. Immigration policy changes in some countries, combined with a global economic downturn, have taken their toll on many language teaching destinations worldwide and some schools have been left reeling from the effects.

Increased international promotion
For English Australia (EA), for example, college closures – many of which resulted from the fallout of the global economic climate – have led to EA applying significant resources to ensure that all international students were satisfactorily relocated, comments Executive Director, Sue Blundell. The association has also been working with Austrade and Australian Education International (AEI) to develop and roll out promotional strategies for Australia as a student destination in order to keep the country in the eye of potential new students. This is in addition to continuing work in other areas of its remit, such as lobbying the government concerning visa and migration policy, and developing its own quality assurance credentials.

The association is also concerned with improving student perceptions of Australia as a study destination. At the end of 2009, EA undertook a major survey of more than 10,000 students, with the aim of finding out what is important to them and where schools under-perform. “As a result,” reports Blundell, “we have produced a new Best Practice Guide for EA Colleges in Providing Student Support Services, and we are in the process of developing a new one specifically to look at accommodation services.”

At the Mexican Association of Spanish Language Schools (AMIE), the economic climate has also had a major impact on association activities recently. Its huge effect on enrolment “made us turn our attention to ‘staying alive’ as schools”, notes spokesperson, Harriet Guerrero. Because of this, the association held its annual assembly, as well as individual committee meetings, over the Internet this year so that members wouldn’t be faced with expensive travel costs. AMIE is striving to make Mexico the top destination for Spanish language acquisition, and has participated at a convention and expo in North America, while also concerning itself with the establishment of country-wide standards of professionalism, safety and academic quality.

For many school associations, the economic situation has not changed their priorities, as such, but put them into sharper focus. At Argentina’s Asociación de Centros de Idiomas (SEA), spokesperson Jimena Sabagh underlines, “On the contrary, [our priorities] have been strengthened.” SEA continues to concentrate on the three main aims of promoting quality in teaching among its members, representing members to the national and international authorities and contributing to worldwide cultural promotion. Among its current projects is the joint organisation of an international congress on language learning, to be held in October this year in Córdoba, Argentina.

Counting the costs
Value for money has been the watchword for many during the past year. “Members and the association are more careful in spending, including marketing,” says Gonzalo Peralta of Languages Canada (LC). “This has not affected our priorities, simply made us more aware of the need to make sure that our efforts pay off.” Key areas of activity for LC have included the creation of a fully independent accreditation system, the creation and launch of the Canadian Consortium for International Education Marketing, and gaining access to the Education Quality Assurance Brand in British Columbia. The latter was granted as a result of both the association’s high standards of school accreditation, and of its student fee protection scheme, eCAPTM.

Meanwhile, at international association, Ialc, “We’re very conscious of the economic challenges facing our members at the moment,” says Executive Director, Jan Capper. “They need the best possible value for money from Ialc, and we try to deliver that.” She notes that Ialc worked especially hard to bring a good number of key agents to its 2010 workshop, while also re-launching the Ialc road shows, and growing its partner agency scheme, as well as undertaking online marketing. Similarly, for Italian association EduItalia, a body devoted primarily to the interests of foreign students studying in Italy, “The crisis has made us more aware of the need to press governmental institutions even further, because one of the solutions to this global problem lies in the many jobs and business opportunities the study abroad phenomenon creates,” comments Communications Manager, Emmanuel Maio.

At French association Groupement FLE, according to spokesperson, Fabienne Oréal, the economic climate has resulted in a restricted budget. The impact has been felt both on internal spending and certain areas of external spending, particularly advertising. However, this young organisation still managed to increase its membership to 32, making it the country’s “most important association of schools specialised in French as a foreign language”, according to Oréal. This achieved, its next objective was to become visible to international agents by taking part in a number of agent workshops in 2010.

Dealing with government policy
Advocacy is a core remit for many national language school associations, and, for English UK, the economic climate has been less of an issue than the revised Tier 4 rules in respect of minimum English requirements for student visas, observes association Chief Executive, Tony Millns. Consequently, English UK has put major effort into “getting the rules changed in a way that would meet everyone’s needs better”, and earlier this year was successful in gaining a favourable result in a Judicial Review against the Home Office. This decision has since been overturned, however, when new immigration legislation was introduced to the UK Parliament in July. Fellow UK association, ABLS, has also been heavily occupied as a result of the new visa regulations – in this case holding meetings to inform members regarding the new requirements, and also preparing them for the Vetting and Barring scheme which was due to be introduced in July 2010.

Millns adds that, despite the huge extra workload of the Tier 4 campaign, English UK has continued to offer ongoing professional and marketing support to members. The success of its overseas agent fairs with language schools has been such that it is to increase their number from two to three each year. Meanwhile, its new partner agency scheme was officially launched at the association’s annual UK workshop, StudyWorld, last month. “Much of the continuing success of our business, despite the economic downturn, has been down to quality partnerships between the best agents and the best language centres, and we believe this scheme will help to support and develop these relationships,” comments Millns.

Elsewhere, government policies concerning student visa holders are also high on the agenda. “Immigration policies and practices are currently top of the list,” at English New Zealand (ENZ), according to association Chairman, Rob McKay. As he explains, “New Zealand doesn’t have a large offshore promotional budget, so we need competitive policy settings and consistently good visa decisions. We need to do better in some areas,” he observes, “and we are constantly lobbying for constructive change. We’ve had some good wins in the area of working holiday visas. Gaining automatic part-time work rights for our student visa holders is the current big challenge.”

Ensuring quality
Another core responsibility for many language school associations is quality assurance, and McKay believes that, if anything, the global economic crisis seems to have brought the focus onto this, ENZ’s key platform. “Apart from a guarantee of the highest quality, our schools also demonstrate a collegial commitment to the welfare of our industry,” he states.

It is a similar story at MEI, where Chief Executive Officer, David O’Grady, underlines that delivery of quality programmes remains the top priority, although the economic climate has meant looking to new markets. In this context, he says, MEI has been heavily involved in political lobbying, to highlight the fact that Ireland’s market share of non-European Economic Area (EEA) business is declining – a fact that can be attributed to language student visa policy. “We have been relentless in showing the financial spin-off from international students coming to Ireland,” he notes. MEI has also been busy developing its MEI Foundation Course, which was due to start being offered to students from September.

At IH World Organisation, “Quality is still our priority,” according to Business Development Manager, Christina Margraf, and this year it has further developed its Online Teacher Training Institute (OTTI), an online learning platform offering affordable and flexible teacher development courses, she notes. It has also been successful in increasing its membership, with the addition of members in five locations.

For US association, UCIEP, the promotion of quality standards has been a major focus of late. Working together with the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP) and Teachers of English as a Second Language (Tesol), it has been advocating for legislation to ensure that the term “accredited language training programme” means one that is actually accredited by an accrediting agency recognised by the Education Secretary. The three organisations have also collaborated on a joint position statement on Governance for English Language Instruction at Institutions of Higher Education, to ensure the high quality instruction, administration and programme delivery of courses.

At the same time, US accreditation agency Accet has been working on a complete upgrade and redesign of its database and website to make it more user friendly for clients. “This revision will make it easier for students who are looking for IEPs to identify Accet-accredited institutions across the country,” comments spokesman, Charlie Matterson.

Similarly, quality assurance has always been the raison d’être of Maltese association, Feltom, and spokesperson, Alex Fenech is keen to underline the importance in an increasingly competitive market, of constantly reviewing standards to ensure they remain relevant and in keeping with demand. Feltom has continued to give priority to the accreditation of its members, all of whom had successfully completed the process by autumn 2009, along with two new members. Industry promotion is also viewed by Feltom as “particularly important” in the current economic climate. In 2009, Feltom held Malta’s first language travel industry workshop, and, following on from the success of this event, a second workshop was due to be held in September this year.

Considering the future
Offering further proof that economic recession does not necessarily lead to new projects being put on hold, Spanish association, Fedele, has been busy developing its 2009-12 strategic plan. Focusing on four strategies of entrepreneur excellence, training, promotion and products, it aims to increase Spain’s share of foreign students in the global market and further the country’s reputation as a quality international education provider.

At EduSA, meanwhile, the schools’ Directors of Studies has formed a new sub-group to discuss teaching and academic matters; and hold management training workshops for members. Plans are also afoot for an EFL conference in South Africa in 2012. Having been created only last year out of the former Eltasa, EduSA has been focused primarily upon successfully increasing membership. However, another priority has been its work with the relevant government departments to try to gain recognition and accreditation by the state for English language schools.

Elsewhere, although some associations report small decreases in membership as a result of the financial crisis, an encouraging number have experienced either stable or increased membership. At English Australia, the impact has been mixed, says Blundell. “Short-sighted colleges look at their bottom line, and look where they can cut costs. They may see association membership as a luxury, rather than a necessity. Far-sighted colleges see association membership as essential in times of crisis,” she reflects.

As SEA’s Sabagh remarks, “In Argentina we have learnt that every crisis is an opportunity. In this case, more schools and universities decided to work together in pursuit of mitigating the negative effects of the crisis, and gathered to achieve global goals. In our association, school membership grew by 15 per cent in the last year, and continues growing.”

In times of trouble school associations can really prove their worth therefore as their activities become even more important. In the face of economic uncertainty and immigration rule changes, the actions of a group can make big changes that would be impossible for one school on its own.

UK regional spotlight

Alongside the national associations, a variety of regional and other groupings, based on criteria such as business type or quality credentials, also play an important role within the industry.

Memberships are not mutually exclusive, and often language schools may belong to several groupings, each with a different focus. Indeed, UK national language school association, English UK, has a number of groups operating under its umbrella. Along with Business English UK, Work Experience UK, and Young Learners UK, are four regional groups representing Scotland, the North, South-West and Central areas of the country.

Formerly English in the North, English UK North took the lead in becoming a recognised regional body within English UK, says spokesman, Richard Day, in order to raise the profile of member schools and consolidate their position in target markets overseas. “We take interested members to the market to introduce the region and take part in a workshop. The second phase in each country,” he explains, “is to host an inward mission, so that agents get an opportunity to see both the region and our member institutions. We have been very active in the last year, and have achieved a lot. I think we are all agreed that, in times of economic crisis worldwide, the best policy for us is to keep a high profile in the market-place and underline the reasons for coming to the UK at this time.”

The Heart of England Language Schools Association (Helsa), was founded in 1992, and, in 2009, transformed itself into English UK Central (EUKC). Similarly, “The aim of EUKC has been to maintain a good flow of agents and company training managers into the region throughout the year, so that awareness of the central region is strong when good times return,” says spokesperson, Rick Johns. “In addition, the group has continued to provide regional exchange of information between member schools. EUKC meets about five times a year, and each meeting is held at a different school, so that we can all learn from each other in terms of best practice,” he explains.

According to Day, regional associations are best placed to promote their areas and offer cost-effective services to members within the region. However, he comments, “We are also members of special interest groups, which highlight and work exclusively on important elements of our portfolio of courses, eg Business English UK. The recent launch of a new UK grouping, The English Network (TEN) seeks to bring a new dimension to collaboration.

As Day highlights, all participating schools are also members of English UK and of Ialc and/or Quality English. “We value highly the work done on our behalf by these associations, and do not consider membership of TEN to be in any way an alternative,” he comments. TEN, which draws together 10 language schools focused on quality provision across the UK, “offers us something different, which arises because we are a small network of very similar organisations in the same country, who share a common ethos,” Day explains. “There is also a personal dynamic, as members know each other and each other’s schools very well. There is a mutual respect and commonality of interest, as well as a unique openness between members that cannot exist in a larger organisation with an ever-changing membership.”

Association benefits

Membership of a language school association, especially one that is dedicated to the upholding of professional standards, can be a costly and time-consuming investment. Yet, says English UK Chief Executive, Tony Millns, “At a time of unprecedented challenge from the economic situation and government regulations, [it] is more important than ever before.

“We’re here as a backstop for any problems, to keep abreast of developments [that] may affect our members, to inform them, lobby for the industry, and to market what our members have to offer. And whether you’re one of the biggest language organisations, or one of the smallest, that still gives you access to a lot more information and power than going it alone.”

As Christina Margraf, Business Development Manager of International House World Organisation (IHWO), points out, member schools can benefit from a mutual exchange of experience and resources, “especially if, due to the economic situation, schools are required to react to changes by offering different courses.” Schools can also, in this way, strengthen the entrepreneurial skills of their managers, comments Ana Cózar of Spanish language schools association, Fedele.

Rick Johns of English UK Central, identifies a further point. “During a recession, people tend to go into survival mode, and their attention is naturally diverted from looking at the horizon to looking at what is happening today, tomorrow, this week… A regional group can keep you focused on the long- term, so that, when the good times return, you are in a good position to take advantage of the upturn,” he advises.

Quality of service and provision is part of the longer-term picture, and, for English Australia’s Executive Director, Sue Blundell, this is key to the role of associations in difficult times. EA believes that students and their agents should be looking for two things in the current economic climate – confidence in the quality of programmes and services, and confidence that, if anything goes wrong, someone will make sure they are looked after. “English Australia membership guarantees both of those,” she affirms.

Alex Fenech of Maltese Language School Association, Feltom, would go further, stressing that it is particularly during challenging times that schools should look to raising the standard of their product to gain a competitive edge. “Membership of Feltom… provides organisations with the opportunity to take a closer look at their operation, and implement changes where necessary to meet accreditation requirements,” he comments. “Furthermore, discerning students looking for value for money increasingly look for Feltom-accredited schools to ensure their money is well spent on quality courses.”

As Charlie Matterson of US accreditation agency, Accet, observes, “[Accreditation] is a significant differentiating characteristic in the marketplace that governmental agencies, employers and even prospective students have come to recognise as a meaningful indicator of an institution’s commitment to quality and ethical business.” Hence, points out English New Zealand Chairman, Rob McKay, a quality-driven association offers “a very useful filter to agents, parents and students seeking the best study abroad options”. Gonzalo Peralta of Languages Canada would put the case even more strongly, asserting: “There is no doubt in our minds that schools that do not offer accredited programmes and protection to students will be limited in the future in terms of attracting international students.”

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