By Matthew Knott, News Editor of StudyTravel Magazine

South Africa’s language school association Education South Africa (EduSA) has released some alarming statistics highlighting the impact of visa regulations imposed last year.

The 34 per cent fall in students in the first half of this year is sobering enough, but in the second quarter of 2015 (April-to-June), there was a 46 per cent decline.

Last year, the Department of Home Affairs decreed that language study was no longer a valid reason for a student visa, leaving the EFL sector reliant on tourist visas: workable for some markets, fatal for others.

These figures were unveiled last week by Education South Africa Chair, Johannes Kraus, at the South Africa Youth Travel Confederation conference and subsequently at the World Youth Student Travel Conference (WYSTC), which was held in Cape Town last week, its first ever visit to the African continent.

I was lucky enough to be invited over to both of these, and I offer huge thanks to all there at EduSA for the hospitality extended to me.

The tragedy of the visa situation is that until 2015, South Africa’s language schools were riding a wave like those that tempt surfers to the country’s shores. A clear upward trajectory has been halted, and given the prohibitive exchange rates that are currently afflicting the two largest English language destinations – the UK and the US – South Africa could have been having a terrific year. 

But what impressed me most during both these conferences and some visits to schools was the complete lack of pessimism or self-pity. “I see it as cyclical,” was one comment, “full of hope” another common mantra. Perhaps this is the sunny disposition of the people of the Rainbow nation, but the schools are putting up a determined fight.

The association has been tirelessly lobbying the government to address this issue, and as Kraus reveals in our news story today, there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

And among the schools I heard talk of innovative course offerings, renewed marketing focus, a recently opened new centre, rebrands, enhanced collective promotion, and much else besides.

I also met a number of agents from around the world at WYSTC, at the various fam trips that were taking place, and at the parties hosted by schools. As always, it was a pleasure to hear their backgrounds, business trends and insights first hand. It was also intriguing to see at both WYSTC and SAYTC how some of the other youth travel sectors interconnect with language study.

Certainly in South Africa, the EFL sector is a significant funnel of business for related sectors such as tours and backpacking hostels. As such, the government would do well to quickly acknowledge the damage that the current impasse could do to the sector and the wider economy.

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