The PIE: Coronavirus has upended our industry. How has ELS been impacted? And did it feel like a very sudden onslaught from your perspective?
Curt Uehlein: Yeah, we started to talk about this as soon as it started to happen because we had a good view of China because we have a large business with Berlitz in China.
“I think students are still going to want that full immersion that they get, by coming to us and many of our competitors”
So we started to do contingency plans and “what ifs” – in every country around the world to understand – if this Covid-19 would spread, what would be some of the ways that we could both support our students and our employees?
But again, it happened very quickly when all of a sudden, universities started to close. What we decided was safety was first. So I think we were the first ones to [decide] we just have to close our centres, all 35 centres.
The PIE: So what happened to all your students then? Did you encourage them to go home or encourage them to stay in the US?
CU: We let them make the decision that they and their families felt was best, we thought it was very important for them to understand that no matter what they decided, we were going to take care of them. So approximately 500 of our couple of thousand students immediately went home. Some of them stayed in the United States and Canada decided, ‘hey, let’s see if this is 30, 60 days then I’ll make my decision’.
We’re constantly monitoring to understand what the decision is. But we had a mix of students [returning home] and still do today. They’re deciding what they should do during this very difficult and challenging situation for all of us.
The PIE: So for your students – whether they are back in China or wherever – do you find most students are still happy to connect and learn online?
CU: What we instantly did is we took our methodology, the ELS methodology, and did an online version of it. We have about 2,000 right now staying on that platform. But through that platform, we started to poll students and say, what’s your preference here? What would you like to do since it looks like this is going to be months, not weeks? We went into what we would call an “information-collecting” mode.
And what a lot of our students said is: ‘this is okay on an interim basis. But we really want is the full immersion’. So we thought what would be best is to offer all our students a free, self-paced online offering as the basis you’re going to get that for a month, two months, six, eight months, whatever it takes.
The PIE: And so for the students who were hoping for an on-campus experience, did you then freeze their tuition fees?
“When will the consulates open to reissue visas? All of that factors in”
CU: Yes, we did that. Some people said, look, I’m using this as a time to terminate. So we’re refunding those. Most of our students said ‘we want to come back to the campus. As soon as we can get out and you determine it’s safe for us to come back, and our families decide that’.
The PIE: I wonder if the States will open up on a state-by-state basis, based on what Trump has been saying…
CU: Well, we have 25 great university partners, so we’re going to have to make that decision collectively with them, because we can’t bring our students back [unless] their students are coming back.
Also, when will the consulates open to reissue visas? All of that factors in. But the most important thing is when do we feel it’s really safe for our students to be in a centre; that along with considering our employees will be the driving thing.
Meanwhile, we do have some of our students who are keen to just reach the [proficiency] level they had been close to achieving, so we’re going to continue to adapt and we’re going to subsidise a formal online study program.
We will charge for that program, but about half the cost of our normal program, just for those few students who really can be structured and want to get that last level to make sure that they can enter college. About 10% of our students are saying that they’d like to do that.
The PIE: Will that program be self-paced or will you have tutors?
CU: No, it’ll be tutors. It’ll be very much like what they’re going through right now. And we felt that was the right way to do it as a company, to give every student an option that was personalised to them directly.
The PIE: Interesting, why do you think that there were some rumours circulating that ELS had closed?
CU: We have tried to be very clear that we’re not closing. If we were, why wouldn’t we have just closed? Why would we be offering – which is costing ELS a lot of money – a free service to students for an unlimited amount of time until we reopen up our centres?
“Berlitz and ELS are owned by a very well-funded company in Japan called Benesse, with a very, very solid financial backing”
We’ll take full accountability for maybe not being transparent enough. But we thought with everything we were doing, it was very clear that we’re going to reopen very aggressively as soon as the time allows us to do it.
The PIE: Do you think being part of a bigger company, given the Berlitz connection, is going to help support you in a way that would maybe threaten less well-funded operations?
CU: Yes. And not only because we’re part of Berlitz, but Berlitz and ELS are owned by a very well-funded company in Japan called Benesse, with a very, very solid financial backing. So we’ve had open discussions with the board. They’re totally committed. They understand the situation. They’re dealing with it. And luckily, is very well positioned with their balance sheet and the financials behind it.
The PIE: Some people are saying this will change students’ expectations forever. But do you foresee international education still being a significant and imperative industry?
CU: I do. I think students are still going to want that full immersion that they get, by coming to us and many of our competitors, I think it will gradually come back.
I think in some areas of the world, families will be less intimidated by sending their loved ones away. So I think it’ll be region by region but I think it will be a very viable business going forward.