October 2011 issue

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Accrediting schools

The accreditation of the language teaching industry is a hot topic at the moment with many governments linking accreditation with visa issuance as a means of preventing illegal immigration. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

Around the world, accreditation of language programme providers is carried out by a combination of self-regulation in the hands of industry bodies and government-regulated schemes. While government schemes set minimum standards for operation, industry schemes, on the other hand, tend to serve rather as a quality mark, designed to set their member schools apart from the average.

However, with governments of the world’s major study travel destinations focused upon restricting the potential for bogus students to use the study route to inward migration, accreditation is being increasingly used as a determining factor in the granting of student visas. As such, changing government policy in these markets is impacting significantly on our industry.

In the UK, for example, the granting of full student visas became linked to providers holding appropriate accreditation upon the introduction of the Points-Based System in 2009. Accreditation UK, the scheme administered jointly by the British Council and English UK, became the first to be approved by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to act as an accrediting body for the English language teaching industry.

Since then, however, the game has changed, with the government announcing that, in future, only statutory bodies would be able to accredit language centres wishing to issue General Student Visas (GSV) for longer stay students. After a period of uncertainty, UKBA recently announced that the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) will in future be tasked with providing the accreditation required for Tier 4 recruitment in England and Wales, while language schools in Scotland will be accredited by Education Scotland.

As Susan Young, Communications Consultant at English UK, points out, this change means that centres might now need to obtain two different types of accreditation, “but, given that many already voluntarily belong to two or more different accreditation schemes, we think that might not be too much of an issue,” she comments. “It would certainly prove to students and agents that the centre was serious about quality.”

Not surprisingly, however, the situation has created some confusion, and, says Young, “It’s true to say that there has been some degree of misunderstanding, particularly around the concept of Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status. The HTS badge means that a centre is fully compliant in the eyes of the UKBA for recruitment of long-term students,” she explains. “It is not a badge of quality in the same way that the Accreditation UK scheme [is]… and many centres that offer courses to shorter-stay students simply do not need to be HTS.”

“While many schools will focus their recruitment on the European market and students on the extended student visitor visa, those wishing to continue recruiting students on Tier 4 visas are concerned about the costs of getting additional accreditation for Highly Trusted Sponsor Status,” notes British Council spokesperson, Joanne Stafford.

While all this is relatively new to the UK market, Australia and New Zealand took an early lead in linking visa approval to accreditation. In New Zealand, all language centres wishing to enrol international students are required to be approved by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), which was established in 1990.

One drawback of the New Zealand set-up is the cost of compliance with a system that, according to English New Zealand Operations Manager, Kim Renner, is not specifically tailored to the language teaching sector. As she highlights, “Compliance costs have…increased significantly, without adding value.” However, she comments, “We are working with NZQA and Immigration New Zealand on how our [own] standards, which are more industry-specific and relevant, can be integrated into their system.”

Renner reports that English New Zealand also has some issues with the current system of external evaluation and review reports (EER), believing that “the outcome-focused model is not appropriate to language travel”. However, she adds that the association is continuing to work with NZQA on how its system can further improve, in terms of incentivising high-performing providers and sanctioning those with lower quality. It is, she says, critical to the reputation of New Zealand as a quality destination that schools are not able to offer poor quality programmes at a much-reduced tuition rate.

Australia provides a closer model for the new UK system, having taken a lead in ruling that all education providers offering courses to students requiring a visa must be approved under the National ELT Accreditation Scheme (Neas). Now, however, major changes are in the offing. At the time of writing, many aspects of the new monitoring environment were yet to be revealed. However, from July 2011, responsibility for the registering of English language programmes moved from the state and territory government authorities to the national government authority. The rationale behind the change, according to Neas spokesperson, Anne Holmes, is to give greater clarity to the process, assist providers who have centres across the country and to remove inconsistencies in legislation around the approval and regulation of providers.

In light of the national standardisation of registration, she says that Neas is examining the monitoring framework supporting the Neas standards and criteria for ELT centres, and is working closely with the government registering body (the Australian Skills Quality Authority). She explains, “The two frameworks will be differentiated, to demonstrate their different purpose: the national (draft) Elicos standards’ prime rationale being registration; the Neas standards and criteria for ELT centres being accreditation.” Good news for Neas-accredited centres, announced this summer, is that where Neas accreditation is currently approved, it will be accepted as meeting the national Elicos standards for the purposes of Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (Cricos) registration.

With other markets acting to tighten up student visa controls, it was only a matter of time before the USA and Canada followed suit. Until recently, in the USA, there were no third-party quality checks in place; however, earlier this year it approved legislation to allow only accredited English teaching organisations to issue I-20s, which are a pre-requisite for students to apply for a US study visa. This means that the country’s independent language schools will need to be accredited by one of two organisations, which are recognised by the US Department of Education – either the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) or the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (Accet).

According to CEA Executive Director, Teresa O’Donnell, the new legislation will affect US independent language schools that are not within the governance of a university or college, that are already certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enrol foreign students, and that have not previously been accredited. These providers will have to apply for accreditation by the end of 2011. Additionally, schools not already certified will also need to seek accreditation. “The obvious benefit”, notes Charlie Matterson, Associate Executive Director of Accet, “is that it might weed out IEPs that do not offer a serious and/or rigorous language training programme.” The move is also expected to have a positive impact on quality standards. As O’Donnell outlines, “This external review means a strengthening of quality language instruction in the USA and increased assurance that students who come to study will receive the education promised by the school they attend.”

However, the disadvantage of the new law is that it presents a significant barrier for new centres to get established. As Matterson explains, a school must demonstrate a two-year operational history before applying to Accet for accreditation. Therefore, it will also face restrictions for that duration in terms of its ability to recruit. Furthermore, as it is likely that not all schools will meet the requirements for accreditation, the result may be a reduction in the number of stand-alone, independent language schools recruiting foreign students, O’Donnell highlights.

In Canada, where visa issuance is to be linked to accreditation from March 2012, the plan is for students to be tracked electronically, from the time of application, right through to the end of their stay in the country. As Gonzalo Peralta, Executive Director of Canadian language schools association, Languages Canada, explains, only recognised educational institutions will be allowed to be part of the system, and it is expected that Languages Canada accreditation will qualify.

Last year, Languages Canada moved to reinforce the credentials of its own accreditation scheme, when it contracted accreditation services out to an external company, Orion Assessment Services of Canada. While Languages Canada still owns the standards, and retains active involvement in their further development, Orion’s job is to verify that members meet the required standards and specifications. According to Peralta, the reason for the change was “to ensure that accreditation is kept at arm’s length from the operation of the association, and, thereby, [to] avoid all potential conflict of interest”. In view of the forthcoming visa changes, this seems to have been a well-judged move.

Peralta adds that Languages Canada is closely following the proposed changes, and is hopeful that the outcome will meet the aims both of the authorities and the industry. For him, it is important for the industry to respond positively to the new situation. “The language education and the educational agent sectors are coming face-to-face with the reality of regulation as the basis for ensuring that students are protected and immigration rules are respected. If, as a sector, we don’t embrace this reality and demonstrate responsibility, transparency and accountability”, he underlines, “our governments will dictate the rules to us. The role of educational and agent associations is clear – lead or be led.”

While, to date, it has been only a handful of authorities that have sought to establish a link between visa issuance and accreditation, this is a trend that could in future spread, as immigration becomes a more serious issue in other markets. So, what do language school associations in other markets think of this trend?

At the Mexican Association of Spanish Institutes (AMIE), spokesperson Harriet Guerrero believes that it seems to be a “reasonable requirement” on the part of the immigration authorities. At Maltese language schools association, Feltom, meanwhile, Executive Officer, Isabelle Pace Warrington, feels that such a system can benefit the industry, if it can help to persuade “over-cautious authorities that students are submitting bona fide applications”. However, Oscar Berdugo, President of Spanish language schools association, Eduespaña, is less than convinced. “Overall, I think that quality accreditation should work as a tool to enhance and boost confidence to the final customer or agents, but it should not become [an] administrative requirement,” he figures.

While the principle may be sound, compulsory accreditation is unlikely to be a viable option in many less developed markets. “While the schools that comprise the Mexican Association of Spanish Institutes…would undoubtedly see their market share increase dramatically by such a measure, compulsory accreditation would probably not be practical or even enforceable in Mexico at this time,” comments Guerrero.

In South Africa, meanwhile, language schools association, EduSA, has been trying for at least two years to gain government support for its proposal for an official accreditation scheme. Association spokesman Craig Leith reports, “Our application has been submitted to the National Department of Education, but even our provincial administration is unable to pin someone down at that level for meetings or discussions around this issue.” As a result, he believes it could be anything up to another five years before anything materialises. “This is enormously frustrating for us,” he comments, “as there are definite advantages to having an accreditation programme in place. These include opening up more markets, as well as preventing ‘fly-by-night’ and other less reputable operators from damaging the market.”

In Malta, at the same time, Feltom is looking forward to the establishment of a compulsory national accreditation scheme for English language schools. To date, as Pace Warrington highlights, the only accreditation available for the sector has been Feltom’s own voluntary scheme. “Given the small size of the island, when even one school fails to operate at acceptable standards, it is the image of the whole destination which is tarnished,” she says. “We believe that compulsory accreditation will help to raise standards nationally, and this will improve Malta’s overall image.”

While accreditation is not going to become universal in our industry within the short-term, there is little controversy in stating that an increased focus on accreditation and industry standards can only be good. At the same time, it will help meet increasing government demand for accountability.

Association spotlight

While government accreditation requirements for the education sector have been hitting the headlines on a regular basis, the industry itself has continued behind the scenes to develop the work it has long been doing to uphold standards above and beyond statutory requirements.

The International Association of Language Centres (Ialc) is a group of language schools from across 24 countries worldwide, whose remit is to promote quality. As such, it is constantly reviewing standards and the means by which they are upheld, and, from late 2011, reports Executive Director, Jan Capper, it will be using only external inspectors to assess new member schools. While Ialc believes that peer inspections have advantages, she comments, “We’re moving away from peer inspection partly because of the volume of inspections we now do.”

Another recent change is to put increased emphasis on the school quality plan. As a result, members are now required to update this document annually, with their plans for maintaining and developing quality in different areas, from teaching to facilities, to support-staff training. “What they promise in this document is checked during their inspection,” notes Capper. Acknowledging that it can be frustrating for schools in already highly-regulated countries to have to undergo yet another inspection, she points out that the scheme has to involve benchmarking, so that agents can trust the Ialc brand across all members’ countries – especially those with no national accreditation. Ialc is, however, looking at ways to reduce duplication with other schemes, she comments, and more changes may be made in the next couple of years.

In Spain, meanwhile, a number of non-government organisations offer accreditation schemes available to language schools. Ceele is administered by the Spanish Department of the University of Alcalá de Henares, and this quality scheme has recently seen the addition of a new accreditation, Ceele Plus, which, notes Oscar Berdugo, President of Spanish language school association, Eduespaña, is awarded to schools that attain a standard beyond the parameters of the standard Ceele award.

At English New Zealand, standards are, as Operations Manager, Kim Renner, highlights, Tesol-specific, and are likewise benchmarked against international standards. She notes that these standards – which cover academic qualifications and experience of staff, professional support and development, curriculum/course design and delivery, student assessment, premises and equipment, complaints and self-assessment – are over and above the government’s (New Zealand Qualifications Authority) accreditation standards. Minor adjustments are made from time-to-time in the interests of maintaining the quality and strength of the standards, she comments.

The UK scheme, Accreditation UK, is well established, and, as such does not see major alterations. However, notes scheme spokesperson, Joanne Stafford, a few changes were made in 2010 to give greater emphasis to the management responsibility for the continuing professional development of staff, and to highlight the importance of formally reviewing provision to achieve improvement.

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Study 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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