||For most language schools, quality accreditation has always been a valuable asset. Meeting the standards of a respected scheme is something that many have worked to achieve, because, not only does this make them better schools, but the “badge” of quality accreditation can be used as a highly useful marketing tool. As Fiona Pape of the UK’s British Council (which administers the Accreditation UK scheme in partnership with English UK) concurs, language schools have traditionally applied for accreditation under the Accreditation UK scheme, “because they are interested in improving their standards and/or are interested in having use of our marque for marketing purposes”.
Principal, David Jones at UK-based ETC International College in Bournemouth, highlights, “much enhanced international visibility and credibility” as the motivation for gaining British Council accreditation. Meanwhile, Matt Wills of fellow British Council-accredited school, Language upon Thames in London, says, “The benefits are that students know when they come to us that they can expect to receive a high quality of tuition and pastoral care.”
Not all countries have a single accreditation provider. The UK has both the British Council and ABLS, while in Italy, for example, various schemes exist, none of which is compulsory in any sense. Italian language schools may apply for Ministry of Education accreditation, which is intended primarily for mainstream schools, while many are accredited by the MIUR (Ministero dell’Università della Ricerca). Meanwhile, the national language schools’ association, Asils, incorporates quality standards into its membership criteria. For Laboratorio Linguistico in Milazzo, Asils accreditation is a current target, which it hopes to achieve by the end of this year. “We consider this an important step,” comments Sales Manager, Francesco di Santi, “because belonging to an association with good standards of quality in teaching and other services can be a guarantee for the students who choose us.”
Whereas, in the majority of cases, the main advantage of possessing quality accreditation lies in the combination of the holding a quality “badge” and the marketing advantages so conferred, the situation is slightly different in the USA. Here, according to Roger Williams of accreditation body, Accet, “it is often external forces that drive the issue”. Access to funding sources, for example, is often restricted to accredited schools.
The other major driver in the USA today as in Australia is the visa system, since accreditation by either CEA or Accet provides a means for schools to obtain certification from the Department of Homeland Security to issue the Form I-20, which students need in order to obtain their visa. Australian language schools wishing to accept overseas students requiring a visa have to be included on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (Cricos). For this, they need to have gained relevant accreditation, which is provided through the National ELT Accreditation Scheme (Neas). Stefan Boffa, Assistant Manager at Neas, reports that there are currently 230 Neas-accredited schools across Australia, “with a healthy number of new centres continuing to apply”. Meanwhile, the number of US schools accredited by Accet stands at 659.
In what is now taking on the appearance of an inexorable worldwide trend, the UK is currently working towards a similar system to that used in Australia and the USA, while Canada is also looking at going down the same route. The UK has already introduced a register of language schools eligible to accept international students requiring a visa, which is administered by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) formerly the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and this resulted in a flurry of new applications, both for British Council and ABLS accreditation. The Accreditation UK scheme has grown significantly over the past three years, and Pape comments, “This is no doubt in part due to the implementation of the DfES register in 2005 and the impending announcement on compulsory accreditation.” Compared with 377 accredited schools in 2004, numbers today stand at 411. Similarly though from a smaller base ABLS has seen a 10 per cent rise in membership over the past year, according to spokesperson, Diana Lowe, which it expects to be reflected in a similar rise in applications for accreditation over the coming months.
Despite the considerable advantages associated with accreditation, many schools decide not to go down this route. The main reason is probably the time and expense involved in acquiring and retaining accredited status, which can be considerable. For smaller institutions, in particular, this can be a significant factor in deciding whether the undoubted benefits are going to be worthwhile for them. While different schemes can confer different benefits for schools, they also vary significantly in terms of the cost and work involved in the application process. Thus, schools may be well served by weighing up their options carefully before deciding to which accreditation scheme, or schemes, they wish to apply.
Acknowledging these issues, the Accreditation UK scheme recently underwent a review to ensure that the accreditation process is accessible for all. Today, as Pape explains, “The cost of gaining accreditation depends very much on the size and type and standard of provision at the time of application.” A number of changes were introduced to make the accreditation process “very affordable”, she claims. “We have also reduced the annual and inspection fees, withdrawn the old scrutiny fee and introduced a banded fee structure to better respond to the financial constraints of smaller providers.” Typical costs over the first four years amount to less than UK£1,200 (US$2,424) per year.
Most schemes’ fees vary according to the time necessary to carry out the inspection and the direct costs involved in doing so. Teresa O’Donnell, Executive Director of US accreditation body, CEA, says that initial accreditation costs of around US$6,000 include the direct expenses for a three-person team on a visit to the school site. “Added to that would also be any time allocated to faculty and staff to carry out the self-study,” she points out. Then, once accredited, sites pay an annual fee, depending on the number of student weeks the programme provides.
With any such scheme, the amount of time a school spends in preparing its application will be reflected in the outcome. “One of the most time-consuming elements of [our] accreditation is the quality plan,” underlines Jan Capper of the international school’s association, Ialc. “Members must involve their whole staff in a long-term quality planning process, with quantified objectives and time-lines for staff development [and] facilities,” she says. As Boffa of Australia’s accreditation scheme, Neas, highlights, there will be delays if details are not complete or require clarification. Given the significance of accreditation in that market for the recruitment of many overseas students, this is something to be avoided. As a result, many providers in Australia pay out over and above the accreditation fees of AUS$3,450 (US$2,969) in obtaining the services of an experienced industry consultant to help them through this important application process and ensure that there are no hitches.
While some may be put off by the time and expense involved, Jenny Byatt of Australian language school, West Coast International College of English in Bunbury, is confident that it is well worth it. Her school, which opened for business in 2006, is currently in the process of completing its Neas accreditation. “It is an enormous undertaking in terms of time and money, but we feel a vital one,” she stresses. “We believe the accreditation process is vital because it provides students in Australia with a sense of safety they know that an accredited college is providing quality tuition, and is serious about maintaining a high standard of service.”
While it is widely agreed that accreditation is a good thing in itself, does it therefore follow that compulsory accreditation is even better? There are strong arguments in its favour. The study abroad industry has been hurt by cowboy schools and bogus students, as Capper points out, and, “If mandatory accreditation restores the trust of overseas government missions in our sector, it has to be a good thing for the industry as a whole,” she asserts.
Elsewhere, opinion tends to be generally positive, so long as the compulsion is limited to those wishing to enrol international student visa holders. “Compulsory accreditation will raise the game for us in the international marketplace,” says Pape in the UK. “It will raise the awareness of the concept of accreditation and quality standards, and improve the language study experience of international students throughout the UK.” Lowe agrees, believing that the measure will also help reduce the number of visa problems. It is this aspect of compulsory accreditation that also moves Canadian associations, Capls and CLC, to support the introduction of a similar measure in that country. “We are working with our government partners to ensure that the new [combined] association’s accreditation process is recognised by visa officers and embassy officials, to make their visa processing easier,” she says.
However, Accet is wary of extending the compulsion to become accredited to all language schools. Williams explains, “Accreditation in the USA has a long tradition as a voluntary, self-regulatory process. Accet believes that this voluntary nature is a core value of accreditation.” In any case, Williams is confident that the government’s concerns appear to have been addressed by the present scheme. According to O’Donnell of CEA, nevertheless, there is increasing support for making accreditation a requirement.
From Australia, Byatt lends support to this argument. “In the industry here,” she remarks, “colleges that do not become accredited can be viewed with some caution. I hope in the future that all colleges will need to become accredited, to protect the industry from the risk of substandard or ill-intentioned providers, who could give study in Australia a bad name.” Such a move is probably still a long way off, but current trends suggest that this is the way the industry is moving, and those who choose not to accede could be putting their future success on the line.
An example for agents?
While language schools in many countries have a range of options for obtaining valuable quality accreditation, such opportunities are notably lacking in the language travel agency sector. There is a European voluntary standard in the form of the Comité Européenne de Normalisation (CEN)’s guidelines for European study tour operators and language schools. This covers matters such as the definition of a language tour organiser and procedures for enrolment and payment. However, according to Brunella Belluomini of Italian agency, Language Data Bank, it falls far short of what is needed in the industry. Thus, language schools have to rely entirely on their own observation and instincts to find the best partners.
This situation is not because of an absence of interest in the subject. Ten years ago, Belluomini, drew up plans for a training course that would qualify successful applicants as an accredited language and education consultant. However, this never got off the ground, although Belluomini reports that the course is now to be adopted by the Faculty of Tourism at an Italian university.
Training courses for language travel agents have also been developed elsewhere, but these are generally geared to a specific destination. The best known is probably the British Council programme, which supports agents working with UK education providers. As British Council spokesperson, Fiona Pape, explains, this includes an online training programme, which runs for between six and eight weeks, with participants then undergoing a formal assessment under exam conditions at the local British Council office. Successful candidates receive a certificate stating that the agent has passed the Education UK qualification for agents.
According to the British Council’s Jane Lowther, this programme, which was first piloted in 2003, has been received positively by agents and schools, to the extent that it has now been rolled out in 20 countries worldwide, with around 600 agents having completed the training. The BC programme was, she notes, the first of its kind. Since then, Australia has also introduced an online study course for agents in relation to education in Australia (see Language Travel Magazine, April 2006, page 10), and other countries are reported to have been working on developing relationships with agents in this way.
There is no doubt that the interest is there to support further agent training programmes, which in turn could lead to the development of accreditation schemes along similar lines to those for language schools. Agent, David Duque Terneus of Langex in Ecuador, would be keen to see this happen, in order to help build public trust in the business. Meanwhile, Belluomini points out that it would at least help to distinguish the specialised and authorised agencies in a world where clients have become increasingly demanding.
Language schools around the world would also welcome such a development in this sector of the industry. As Matt Wills of UK-based school, Language Upon Thames in London, comments, “Just as agents who work with accredited schools know that the students they send will receive high quality tuition, it would be good for schools to know that their agents are working to similar high standards.”
Ringing the changes
The growing importance of accreditation is reflected in the level of activity being engaged in by accreditation bodies, both to refine and update existing schemes and to launch new ones. Recent changes by the different bodies have variously focused on tightening inspection procedures, extending standards to new areas, improving existing standards and enhancing accessibility.
In the UK, for example, the British Council and English UK undertook an extensive review of the Accreditation UK scheme two years ago, to make it “flexible, accessible, inclusive and reasonable”, as spokesperson Fiona Pape reports, both for new applicants and for those already accredited under the scheme. More recently, the South African language school association, Eltasa, has created a new membership level associate membership, with the idea of making the organisation more accessible to smaller providers in the process of development. This allows newer schools with a genuine desire to work towards full membership within a certain timeframe to come on board, as association spokesperson, Luanne McCallum, explains.
In the USA, Accet, which revises its standards on a five-year cycle, undertook its most recent review in October 2005. The resulting changes, which, reports spokesperson, Roger Williams, focused on strengthening and clarifying existing criteria, came into effect in December 2006. Additionally, two new standards on transfer of credit and student services were introduced.
Meanwhile, in Australia, updating of key legislation relating to international education, the Education Services for Overseas Students (Esos) Act, has resulted in the introduction of a new National Code of Practice. Effective from July 2007, this is intended to improve clarity and to give institutions in Australia more flexibility in their practices, as well as to give greater protection to language students, according to Anne Newman, General Manager of the Elicos accreditation scheme, Neas. Meanwhile, an ongoing review of the quality assurance framework for providers offering long-term English language programmes to international students on student visas is expected to strengthen the overall quality assurance arrangements.
By contrast, France has until recently lacked regulation by any official scheme for French language schools. However, April 2006 saw the launch of the Label Qualité Français Langue Étrangère. The result of a collaboration between three government Ministries, the new scheme is administered by the Centre International d’Etudes Pédagogiques (CIEP), and responds to the need for high quality criteria to mark out those schools who meet specific standards in terms of welfare, premises