The 37% drop – to 7,336 – is all the more notable as it follows two years of growth for the sector, which saw a 9% rise in student numbers in 2014 and a 4% increase in 2013.
“We are really in bad shape; we should have growth and not a 37% decline in student numbers”
Student weeks have also dropped by 22% to 45,342, following 2% growth the previous year.
“We are really in bad shape – especially considering the [2010 FIFA] World Cup and the marketing that South Africa received, we should have growth and not a 37% decline in student numbers,” commented Johannes Kraus, chair of EduSA.
However, he added that the numbers are “not a surprise to us” as many member schools have been reporting decreases of more than 30% in the last year.
Language schools have been at a policy impasse since 2014, when new regulations were brought in that have made it more difficult for language students to obtain study permits for students, with many unable to study in the country for more than 90 days.
Meanwhile, the problems faced by language schools have been exacerbated by regional factors in student source countries.
For example, Kraus noted that destination markets around the world have seen declines in the number of Brazilian students coming for language study. In the last quarter alone, Brazilian students studying in South Africa were down 55% compared to the same period the previous year.
This contributed to South America seeing the biggest regional decline in students coming to South Africa, down 60% in 2015, though numbers from this region have been falling for the past two years.
Economic factors such as record-low oil prices have also contributed to declines in incoming student numbers from several African countries in the last year, said Kraus.
“They’ve had huge issues because the oil price is so low; and then there’s the visa issue, so it’s a few things that come together”
Incoming numbers from Africa, which rose by around a quarter in 2013 and 2014, plummeted by 57% in 2015.
Students from Angola, Kraus explained, “have had huge issues because the oil price is so low and they have not enough dollars, so it’s very difficult for them to get dollars out; and then there’s the visa issue, so it’s a few things that come together at the moment.”
Meanwhile students from the Middle East, where numbers have risen or remained stable for the previous years, dropped by 50%.
Looking at student numbers by region, Europe fared best. While numbers did fall by 14%, the decline was less marked than in other regions – likely down to the fact that European students are not restricted to a 90-day visa – and schools have said that the situation “could be much worse”, said Kraus.
For schools that are strong in the European market, such as his own, Kraus said European numbers – 3,114, accounting for around a third of the total student weeks – helped to “ease out” the situation.
“When I listen to the other schools in our meetings, they all say that ‘Europe saved us a little bit, otherwise it would be even worse,’” he said.
The numbers give a renewed urgency to discussions of the visa policy, and in the coming weeks, EduSA will press ahead with negotiations with the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Department of Home Affairs to resolve the impasse.
“We had a good meeting with DHET, and I can see they are really on our side,” commented Kraus. “They have formed a working group with the DHA in order to press for a two-year, transitional period where we can find our correct place in the educational landscape.”
He added that with the South African winter (low season) approaching, rumours are flying about schools downsizing and considering closing down as they are losing so many students.
“We need a solution now,” he urged. “Member schools are contacting me every week saying that something needs to happen now.”