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Education South Africa takes government to court over EFL visa impasse

Education South Africa has resorted to court action against the country’s government over what it has called an “unconstitutional rejection of study visas”, following a longstanding policy impasse that EFL providers say has significantly damaged their business.

Photo: The PIE News.

"We have made repeated, concerted efforts to resolve these difficulties, but no answers have been forthcoming”

According to the association, policymakers have failed to make proper allowance for visas for students coming to South Africa to study English. A change in regulations two years ago caused confusion over whether student visas cover English language courses, and later meant many EFL students could not obtain visas.

“Potential foreign students are being prevented from studying here by the Department of Home Affairs”

The current regulations make provisions for visas to study at “learning institutions”, but EduSA’s 24-strong membership of English language schools are not included in this.

“There is a fundamental issue at stake in terms of the regulations’ failure to make proper provisions for educational institutions such as those forming part of EduSA,” EduSA’s chair, Johannes Kraus, said in a statement.

“Potential foreign students are being prevented from studying here by the Department of Home Affairs through its refusal to issue the necessary visas.”

The impact of the policy is being felt by ELT providers, with many reporting enrolment drops. Recent figures showed a 37% drop in enrolments across the sector between 2014 and 2015, which was particularly stark given that it followed two years of growth.

A founding affidavit for the case seen by The PIE News elaborates: “The industry is failing, EduSA institutions are closing, employees are being let go, the country’s reputation as an edu-tourism destination is suffering, and hundreds of millions of Rands in investment is being lost.”

The court case, which is due to start imminently, aims to bring about a change to immigration legislation that would mean EduSA schools are legally defined as learning institutions, thus allowing prospective foreign students to obtain visas for EFL courses.

Over the last two years, EduSA has lobbied for clear visa allowances for English study, negotiating with the Department of Home Affairs – who instigated the 2014 shakeup – and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Speaking with The PIE News, Kraus said that especially in recent months, meetings with the two government branches had appeared to be bearing fruit. However, a couple of months ago, discussions over an agreement to implement a transition period while a solution is found for the sector suddenly fell flat.

“What was on the table was a two-year transition period, and within these two years we would find our box where we belong within the education system. We were open until the end – we said ‘If you tell us you want us to go there and get that kind of accreditation, then we’ll organise this.'”

“I think we have a pretty good case there that we’ve tried everything possible for the past two years”

Kraus said that court action against the government was a last resort for the association to remove “unconstitutional restrictions” to growth in the sector by forcing a review of the regulations once all other avenues had been exhausted.

“I think we have a pretty good case there that we’ve tried everything possible for the past two years and in the end, we were kind of pushed back to where we started in May 2014.”

South Africa currently accounts for just 1% of the multi-billion dollar global EFL market, but EduSA is optimistic that if its court challenge is successful, it can establish itself as a market leader.

“We hope to urgently resolve this matter and allow our members, their staff and the international students to return to normal operations,” Kraus commented. “The social and economic implications of any further delay in the process are too awful to consider.”

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