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US ELT sector squeezed by market conditions

For intensive English language learning programs in the United States, difficult trading conditions in the last 12 months have taken their toll, and program closures and EnglishUSA membership re-enrolment figures bear testament to this.

ELS's Boston campus, but it has closed 13 centres in the last two years.

"There is greater concern with the climate in the US and the attractiveness of language study in the US"

ELS Educational Services, a major league English language provider with 54 centres, has operated in the US for 55 years. It has closed 13 centres in the last two years.

Alexandra Zilovic, executive vice president of global operations and business affairs at ELS, told The PIE News that the closures are “a natural contraction of location offerings to adjust to the market conditions.”

Meanwhile, membership of EnglishUSA is expected to slide. Last year, membership numbered 472 programs. By October, the organisation expects to have 435 programs — a membership decrease of 7.8%.

Stakeholders cite several factors that have all led to less demand for ELT in the US: a combination of local market conditions, local government scholarship funding (the Saudi KASP program notably), economies of the key markets, exchange rates, the political climate, as well as competition.

“This is, in a way, the perfect storm of negative conditions”

But the unsettled political climate within the US is not helpful either. “There has always been competition from programs in other countries as well as within the countries from which many of our students come. However, there is greater concern with the climate in the US and the attractiveness of language study in the US,” commented Cheryl Delk-Le Good, executive director of EnglishUSA.

Zilovic at ELS noted that “the US will always remain an extremely attractive country, and probably the top country in the world for students coming here to study English, as well as students coming here to study at university”.

“But what we’re dealing with is this severely shrinking pie of students for intensive English programs,” she said, “which really has to do with local key market demographics, economies, government scholarship changes, etc, while at the same time, competition is increasing.”

For those who have worked in English language programs for their entire careers, seeing peaks and valleys in enrollment trends is not unusual.

Since the Saudi government scholarship program has become more stringent in the requirements for the scholarship, fewer Saudi students receive them, which has drastically reduced the numbers of Saudis in the last year or so.

Many schools, including ESL, opened centres in the past decade specifically to serve the larger population of Saudi students flocking to US campuses as well as accommodate the rise in the number of Chinese students in recent years.

Zilovic noted that the China market is now stabilising because Chinese universities now have more capacity for their own students than they did in the past — which means not quite as many Chinese students need to go elsewhere for their higher education.

“This is, in a way, the perfect storm of negative conditions affecting the recruitment and arrival of international students at IEPs, but, it’s not just the IEPs — this is the first year in a long time that many US universities are seeing a decline in applications from international students as well,” said Zilovic.

This is true: a recent Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university admissions directors in the US revealed that one third of those polled expect a decline in international student numbers in the years ahead.

“What we’re dealing with is this severely shrinking pie of students for intensive English programs”

But despite the declining membership of EnglishUSA, some schools have reported that they are experiencing gains in enrollment, according to Jack Sullivan, director of English language programs at the University of Pennsylvania and president of EnglishUSA.

“One cited factor for that has been new arrangements for pathway programs,” Sullivan said.

Experts say that the organisational structure of intensive English language programs is in transition.

“Instead of focusing on having to ramp up capacity for a clearly/narrowly defined Academic English Program, schools are looking to be more flexible in delivering a wider range of short programs that are attracting new markets,” he explains.

Some examples of new types of programs are those that have partnerships to host high school students for summer programs that mix language classes and socio-cultural activities, like the EducationUSA Academy.

Sullivan also points to short programs with business themes (such as leadership and marketing) that are designed for college students interested in business with little to no professional experience.

ELS says it is evolving its product offer across its network. “We are continuously doing research and fine-tuning our curriculum,” explained Zilovic. “We would rather close locations that are not of interest to the current demographics, and invest the funds into the existing schools to continue providing improvements for the student experience.”

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