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Australia: sector shares optimism on ELICOS recovery

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"The top three visa grants countries for 2021/22 program year were Thailand, Brazil, and Colombia"

Sharing their insights at this year’s English Australia annual conference, some of the leading voices in the sector acknowledged that although the sector had suffered greatly during the pandemic, it was now on the road to recovery.

“The past two years have really shown the capability and the agility of our sector,” Brett Blacker, CEO of English Australia said.

“It’s really good that this year, we have been able to introduce a new agent stream; a critical part of our ecosystem is how we work with agents and how we use that intel from around the globe,” he mentioned.

“We have also been undertaking a detailed stakeholder consultation over the past 18 months, around the future of the ELICOS sector,” Blacker informed the delegates at the conference.

“The key driver for us at the moment, is to get through our backlog”

The Future of ELICOS report “will help us to work with government and regulatory bodies to ensure that the future is what we want it to be”, he added.

Blacker said that it was a proud moment for English Australia to win the Association of the Year Award at this year’s PIEoneer Awards, held in London earlier this month.

“It’s a proud achievement to be recognised amongst our peers, globally for the work that we have done,” he said.

Among some of the major issues that the sector has been grappling with on its road to recovery, has been the acute visa processing delays.

“The key driver for us at the moment, is to get through our backlog,” Alison Garrod, acting assistant secretary for Temporary Visas and Travel Exemptions Branch at Australian Department of Home Affairs said, acknowledging that the issue has raised major concerns among key stakeholders.

“The government has made it absolutely clear, that that is a priority for them, which means it is a very high priority for us and we just have to get it done.

“We are a global processing network, with offices all around the world and we distribute the case load as we need to.

“We will move things around as we need to and we continue to work on making sure that we are really giving consistent delivery across the globe,” she said.

The Australian department of Home Affairs has also introduced a tool on its website, where visa applicants can see where their application sits in the queue; the tool is updated monthly.

“In June this year we had the highest number of offshore student visa applications out of all months in the last 10 years. It’s been a sustained level of applications from May to July this year,” Garrod noted.

“ELICOS lodgements are picking back up and if the trend continues for the rest of the year, we are going to see fairly heathy numbers for this year.

“The top three visa grants countries for 2021/22 program year were Thailand, Brazil, and Colombia — making up 72% of all the ELICOS grants globally, that year,” she highlighted.

Meanwhile Blacker said that it was “very pleasing to see the different resources being committed to by the government towards managing the backlogs”, referring to the $36.1 million additional funding set up by the government to support visa processing.

“Over the last two years we have clearly had a reputation hit to Australia as a welcoming and supportive study destination,” Phil Honeywood, CEO, International Education Association of Australia said.

But with the challenges, there have also come opportunities, he continued.

“One of those has been inventing of online learning, which is much more of a difficulty for English language providers, but even so we’ve seen some really great examples of transitioning to alternative modes of delivery,” he posited.

“However, as we know when it comes to ELICOS in particular, students largely want face-to-face delivery and as we come out of Covid, we want to also have the diversity in the classroom.”

“We are keen to see what comes out of the Jobs and Skills Summit,” Honeywood said while speaking about the areas in which opportunities might come through for the sector.

“Getting Australian employers on board for recruiting international students, as well as the issue of uncapped work rights are some of the other issues that need to be worked out,” he added.

“One great opportunity for the sector in Australia exists in terms of enhancing the social license to operate, something that is around two decades overdue — to try and get the wider Australian community to understand that international students are not a threat, instead they are an incredible benefit to the Australians’ future going forward.

“We need to nail this conversation with the wider Australian community, because as of now, we do not seem to be able to communicate that message clearly, as a sector, into the suburbs and into regional Australia,” Honeywood highlighted.

“We need to focus on governance in the entire ecosystem. Getting the governance structure right is important, as we have got a 10-year strategy, that needs to be delivered upon,” he further added.

Meanwhile, Troy Williams, chief executive of Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia added that there was “a need to be resilient to external threats”.

“Perhaps within the ELICOS sector, the businesses need to be more scalable and have thicker balance sheets, to absorb unpredictable shocks.

“Face-to-face learning is still very important for the ELICOS sector”

“The sector is very reliant on visa processing and the visa processing delays issue needs to be dealt with in earnest,” Williams highlighted.

“With English language teaching, the language is only one part, a major component is the body language and the mannerisms, so face-to-face learning is still very important for the ELICOS sector,” he said.

Eliza Chui, special project lead in International Education at Austrade added that from Austrade’s social media listening project, two issues stood out.

“The first being the cost of living. It is a major concern. Many students are struggling with the rising costs of living,” she said.

Cost of living resources will soon be available on the StudyAustralia website in order to guide students “towards better addressing the cost of living issue”.

“The second issues is about future job outcomes for students. It is important to highlight some of the things that we can help [prospective] students with in their career development, as this is a major priority area,” she concluded.

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