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Loans and online learning: ELT industries unite, adapt to survive

As the language teaching sector continues to grapple with the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the heads of ELT associations have told The PIE News that urgent appeals for government support – and supporting members’ shift to online provision and community building – are the new modus operandi.

The importance of community building has come into focus as the language teaching sector continues to grapple with the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Pixabay

"Virtually we've been able to create even a larger community because we're in this all together online"

EnglishUSA executive director, Cheryl Delk-Le Good, observed it’s challenging to do any kind of marketing or recruitment right now.

“We’re trying to address how we can help our members with decisions around synchronous or asynchronous learning, information about small business loans, maintaining morale – things like that,” she told The PIE.

“We’re trying to address how we can help our members”

The shift online has also been beneficial in strengthening connections, she added.

“What we’ve learned in the last couple of weeks in the virtual events that we’ve been holding, I feel like I’ve met more people over the past three weeks that I’ve met in my five years,” she said.

“I have a lot of contacts in the field, but these are teachers and staff, these are individuals from our members who don’t necessarily come to all of our in-person events. So virtually we’ve been able to create even a larger community because we’re in this all together online.”

In the UK, English language schools were hit hard early in 2020 when business dried up from China first, and then engulfed another main market for the UK sector: Italy.

Describing the pandemic as an “existential threat” to the industry, member association English UK has been lobbying to get COVID-19 business rates relief for the hospitality and tourism sector extended to ELT centres – and has so far been “partially” successful.

“We are delighted that English language schools have been included by the [Local Government Association] in the list of properties considered to fall within the scope of the relief,” said Huan Japes, membership director of English UK.

Two of English UK’s member centres have already been forced to close their doors, and the association is lobbying to formally include ELT centres in the list of organisations eligible for the relief so that it is not at the discretion of local authorities.

But it’s not just the UK sector that’s appealing for government financial support.

In a recent letter to Canada’s minister of finance, chief executive of Languages Canada, Gonzalo Peralta, highlighted the gravity of the situation through his warning that most of Canada’s 642,480 international students go through LC members programs first to learn English and French.

According to Peralta, with state assistance, the industry could rebuild to 2019 levels in one-to-two years, but without it, it could take five years.

In Malta too, which had seen ELT student numbers stabilise over the past couple of years after “unprecedented” growth in 2017, FELTOM CEO, James Perry, said bookings at member schools for Q2 and Q3 have virtually come to a “standstill”.

According to new data, the 20,000 cancellations at FELTOM schools to-date are expected to give rise to an estimated loss in contribution of €8.8million and are expected to have an estimated negative financial impact on the economy of €23.7m.

“Our schools are closed as by the directive of the government. However, we have communicated with the government and with regards to the ELT industry, they will be considering it month by month as the industry works on a different scenario [to general education],” Perry told The PIE.

Perry said the Maltese government has issued some financial packages which have helped the schools to avoid redundancies.

“At this point, those are the only financial packages we have are for employment, and it does not cater for people who have to pay rent, loans and so forth. It just caters for everyday money and in order for schools not to make people redundant.”

“We have schools that have been successful in retaining their students here and offering online learning”

Perry said that most of the schools have been trying to develop an online platform, while some of them already had an online platform in the past and they are revisiting that option.

“I think that helps a lot because while some students chose to get repatriated, others chose to remain and attend lessons as best they can through the online platform being offered by the school. And then there are others who said we cannot offer this option and told students to go back and gave them refunds.

“We have schools that have been successful in retaining their students here and offering online learning, I must admit, which is quite positive to see.”

Online learning has become a major part of the educational offering for students in New Zealand too, with English New Zealand explaining how “nearly all” of its 22 member schools have shifted to online teaching to students located there.

“As long as the border remains closed members can’t welcome new students,” noted Kim Renner, the group’s executive director, however, “feedback from students about the online provision is generally good.”

“It’s important to maintain contact with students who had intended to begin their studies in the coming months and with our study abroad agencies,” she urged, as agents are the “primary source” of students for ELT in New Zealand.

“Their businesses will also be impacted by COVID-19,” she added, explaining that support measures are available for businesses requiring financial assistance via the government’s business stimulus package.

“We have also presented the minister of Education and agencies with a request for a range of targeted support measures for the English language sector as most providers are 100% reliant on international students are receive no government funding.”

However, predictions for the future are difficult at the present, Renner continued.

“We know that things will be different because of the impact on our key markets, and travel and tourism in general. We expect the financial epidemic to also have an impact on study-travel.”

While online delivery may be an option, English New Zealand will “continue to advocate for members and the wider ELT sector”.

In Australia, the online space offers a “real opportunity to do a lot of groundbreaking things”, according to English Australia’s Simon Lockyer.

“[The online space] is not something which has been really taken on board by, I think internationally, the whole English language teaching world. And this has sort of forced our hand,” he said.

For example, a big contingent in China is studying with English Australia’s members, he highlighted.

The organisation requested a AU$87m package in March – it expects a response in the “next two to three weeks”, but the government’s JobKeeper payment will benefit ELICOS sector employees, providing them AU$1,500 per fortnight.

Part-, full-time workers and casual workers who have been with an organisation for 12 months or more are eligible, Lockyer noted.

“Labour costs of an English college are so significant”

“It’s packages like that which are wonderful for our providers because labour costs of an English college are so significant. It’s allowed a lot of providers to keep staff on.”

However, as in New Zealand, English language schools are effectively closed to new students from overseas.

“We’ve got a ban on all foreign nationals. So it’s just those students who were enrolled prior to this and who are here already are continuing on,” he said.

Visas are still being processed but there are a lot of constraints, Lockyer added.

“Offshore English testing centres and offshore medical assessment clinics being closed have heavily constrained any processing.”

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