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Governments risk losing swathes of ELT sector without extra support

Ongoing support for English language providers in key destinations is needed to save the sector following the coronavirus pandemic, member organisations in the UK, Canada and Australia have warned.

Air bridges or corridors offer some hope to English language providers for future enrolments, bodies have suggested. Photo: Twenty20

"We're looking at 45% of our private sector members closing their doors within three to six months"

For many providers, government support has been a vital lifeline, but without more in the current climate, up to half of all providers may be forced to close in some regions, advocates have said.

“Summer season for us is what Christmas is to retailers”

Languages Canada – whose members hosted around 150,000 students in 2019 – expects at least a 75% drop in revenue in 2020, executive director Gonzalo Peralta told The PIE News.

“When you cut off the revenue in mid-March… [there’s] not even a full quarter there. And on top of that – the summer season for us is what Christmas is to retailers – when you take that away, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re looking at a 75% drop in terms of revenues,” he said.

“Despite all the support that government has provided, we estimate that if nothing else is done at this point and this situation continues, borders remain closed and no more assistance comes in, we’re looking at 45% of our private sector members closing their doors within three to six months,” Peralta continued.

However, the Canadian government’s wage subsidy program has been probably the single most successful program that this government has launched during Covid-19, Peralta added.

English UK and English Australia have also both praised their governments’ respective furloughing schemes. But they said more would be needed to save providers.

English Australia has written to the government calling for a six-month extension to the JobKeeper program – a stimulus program that has been a “lifeline for the vast majority” of the country’s English language colleges, CEO Brett Blacker noted.

It would also like to see the scheme extended to include university-based language centres.

“The risk is that without any substantial changes in terms of our borders and the inflow of new students, unless we see that program extended or some form of sector support, we will likely see a large number of business closures post September this year,” Blacker said.

According to Jodie Gray, interim chief executive of English UK, around 90% of all UK ELT staff have been furloughed.

“[The scheme] has been really impactful in terms of saving jobs in the ELT sector thus far,” she explained.

“Some of our members have furloughed all staff, including themselves… Others have furloughed everyone that they possibly can and just kept a skeleton staff to operate online teaching.”

A phasing out of the furlough scheme is a “major concern” for the ELT sector, as well as other parts of the tourism industry, that is seasonal and relies heavily on international arrivals, she warned.

Without an extension to the scheme, the sector is “going to really struggle to make it through”, Gray said.

“It is perverse that they would plough so much money into the scheme just to support jobs just to put off redundancies, essentially.”

Due to issues including the postcode lottery on business rates, new 14-day quarantine regulations and a dent in market confidence, English UK is “going to see a huge impact on student numbers”.

“Unfortunately, we are predicting that some schools just won’t survive this. That’s clear,” she said. “We are going to see a smaller number of providers in the UK and a smaller membership of English UK going forward.”

The summer peak is “hugely important” for businesses increasingly providing for a junior market, Gray noted, adding over 40% of the UK’s total student volume arrives in the summer.

With quarantine regulations, it “feels really unlikely” this year, she said.

“Juniors in the summer tend to stay an average length of just two weeks. The quarantine regulations will require two weeks of isolation. That’s just doesn’t make a two-week course feasible, and that is a massive challenge.”

While larger providers have bigger financing options or may be able to choose from an array of centres to open, smaller providers have lower overheads, haven’t had to maintain online teaching operation, and may own their premises – meaning they may have been able to ‘hibernate’.

Some schools have not been able to access coronavirus business interruption loan despite government guarantees, Gray continued.

“Seeing the government not do all that it can is heartbreaking.”

Bilateral arrangements between countries – such as air bridges or corridors – offer some hope, the three bodies indicated.

The Australian government has flagged that international education would be in phase three of its reopening strategy, touting July for a reintroduction of some international student arrivals.

English Australia is pressing for ELICOS [ELT sector in Australia] students to be included in potential pilot programs to test systems before a broader opening of borders. The organisation is also pushing for a visa fee waiver package for students.

Countries which seem to have managed the crisis well have been highlighted as potential markets for English language students.

“China, Japan, South Korea are three key source destinations for English language that have all managed the virus well,” Blacker said, adding that Vietnam may offer promise.

“We are predicting that some schools just won’t survive this”

“I expect it’ll be a gradual reopening based on sort of bilateral arrangements and working on small numbers in the first instance.”

Canada will also be looking for corridors to bring in students from places that are also considered relatively safe, Peralta detailed, adding China, Korea and Europe as “places where I think everybody is going to be looking for students”.

“Air bridges might [be an] opening to closed groups, for example, later in the summer,” Gray said.

“Plenty of schools are thinking of early September or autumn openings for new arrivals. Others, especially seasonal providers, just don’t see summer as possible and are just thinking that it’ll be 2021 before they reopen.”

Unlike other destinations, the UK has been “vague” with its guidance for providers seeking to open, Gray said.

The UK also has difficulty in the way the government introduced its quarantine strategy, she added.

“It’s not that we are against quarantine as a tool; it’s just the way they deployed it in an incredibly blunt way. Countries that have far lower rates of infection transmission than us – quarantining their arrivals, it doesn’t make any sense,” she suggested.

Air bridges can offer members recruitment options, Gray continued: “With over half of students coming from Western Europe, hopefully, some of [the bridges] will be there.”

Questions also abound around how schools will operate with social distancing in place.

A classroom which usually holds 25 students may now resort to teaching five students, but whether or not that is financially viable remains to be seen.

Like airlines, ELT providers will “charge as little as possible, but there’s a good chance that rates will need to go up”, Peralta suggested.

“There’s going to likely be the acceptance that you just will not make the same profit over the next 18 months even if the classrooms are open… It means a tightening of the belt for everybody,” he noted.

English UK has produced a 35-page Covid-19 guidance document based on government guidelines, Gray explained.

“A lot of people – when they look at the guidance we produced – are just thinking running that kind of operation under those restrictions just isn’t financially viable.”

Providers whose students didn’t go home during the lockdown feel a duty of care to try to get them back to the classroom setting as soon as they can, she added.

There is also a massive issue with market confidence, Gray said.

In Australia, most ELICOS classrooms have been designed to fit 18 students, but new regulations vary depending on states, Blacker added.

“Clarity from the government around the requirements of physical distancing is really something we’re pushing for, but [it’s] complicated by the ability for different states to implement different regulations.”

Current data for Australia shows the sector was down by around 5% in March, Blacker said, adding he “would suspect we’re going to see far greater declines post that period”.

“We saw something like 10 years of innovation in about 10 days”

All three organisations praised their membership for their quick reaction and pivot toward virtual teaching.

“The sector adapted quickly,” Blacker said.

“We saw something like 10 years of innovation in about 10 days, which took us from fully face-to-face teaching to the virtual teaching platforms.

“Colleges should be commended in their dedication to the student experience throughout that period,” he added.

“As traumatic and stressful as this process has been, I have some members that are saying we are discovering some really interesting things over here,” Peralta at Languages Canada said.

“Our pedagogical methodology is being applied in new ways, and that’s allowing us to discover perhaps new and very effective teaching tools.”

Government funding will help members bridge the gap between now and 2021, he noted, but a “key aspects of this is it’s not just a handout”.

“We are competing with everybody. We need to make noise, and we need to make the right noise,” Peralta continued.

“The issue for us really becomes how do we survive in order to recover?”

Language education is deeply ingrained in international education – it’s necessary to immigrate, integrate, as well as to pursue further education, Peralta continued.

“I hope that Canada doesn’t have to learn the hard way and that Canadian leaders respond to our call for action and say we can’t afford to lose this sector.

“We’re not looking for any preferential treatment, but we are sending one message very clearly to government: to not pay attention to what’s happening to our sector will have a huge and detrimental impact on other sectors,” he added.

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