JC: Our current rules on territory depend on the popularity of a destination for study travel, rather than its population size. You can have a big city like Birmingham with few schools, whereas Bournemouth might have 30 schools, for example. So we do a rough count of language schools and categorise destinations into 3 groups: 1 member in a small destination; 2 members in a medium destination and in the top category destination, 3 to 4 members. These bandings are under review.
The PIE: And this is different to limiting the number of schools one member organisation can have?
JC: Yes. In fact, we haven’t needed to set a maximum, since our territorial policy makes it very unlikely any big organisation could join, because one or other of their destinations will already be ‘full’. The highest number of centres any member has at the moment is 4 – but this could be 5 or 6. That is one of things we are looking at when reviewing membership policy; whether and where to set a limit.
The PIE: Why are you doing this?
JC: It’s not that we’re losing members because they are growing and have to go; the reason is that good independent schools are takeover targets for expanding chains and corporate groups. That’s fine, that’s normal in business in any industry. All we are doing is saying this is the reality, and we need to address it. When we lost LSC [in Canada], suddenly we were without 4 good schools in Canada. To have your membership fluctuating like that and all of a sudden dropping – we’ve got to look at that.
The PIE: Tell us about the early origins of IALC; it was formed to give independent schools a USP over chains, wasn’t it?
JC: The association was formed by a group of independent language schools. It was really in response to growing competition – they wanted to distinguish themselves from chains; from state-subsidised institutions; and seeing themselves as higher quality, they wanted to distinguish themselves from “run of the mill” so: high quality, private and independent.
The PIE: How was high quality manifested?
JC: I believe it started with knowing each other by reputation. Quality standards came later, in terms of introducing our own accreditation scheme as the association grew.
The PIE: Have you always had a waiting list?
JC: We’ve always had a lot of interest from schools, some of which would become members if we didn’t have our territorial policy.
The PIE: How do you think the market is going to change as consolidation continues?
“I don’t see any industry where independent operators have been wiped out”
JC: In various ways, but I think there will always be boutique, independent schools, new start-ups. I think the entrepreneurs will continue to come into the industry and I don’t see any industry, the travel industry, hotel industry, where independent operators have been wiped out. But I think there will be more chains, and more takeovers. One observation that we have made at IALC is that the first-generation of school owners are now in their 60s. Either they are looking for succession or they are looking for an exit, which means to sell. We are expecting quite a lot of activity and handing over of reins in various ways in the next few years.
The PIE: Do you think the original product is going to change in the hands of big multinational organisations?
JC: What we see, which is also reflected in the research we have done with agents, is that chains are good with facilities. We think that some independents will have to look – however good their academic product and their care of students – at investing in facilities because the chains are leading the way there. [more>>]