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Ewen Mackenzie-Bowie, Chairman, English New Zealand

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, English New Zealand, the peak body for English language schools, has just completed an organisational restructure and has aspirations for further changes to the wider industry. Chairman Ewen Mackenzie-Bowie tells The PIE about the recent developments and plans for the future.

The PIE: What is English New Zealand’s role within the country’s international education industry?

"One of the problems we have in New Zealand is the collection of statistics"

EMB: We represent the English language sector. There are 25 members, which may not sound like a very large number, but is in fact 85% of private English language teaching schools in New Zealand. When you add on the universities and polytechnics, we are the only significant voice in English language teaching in the country.

That comes with a lot of respect from government agencies. Whenever they are considering any kind of change or strategic movement, they always consult us and they take our feedback quite seriously. Over the past couple of years, we’ve had some very substantial consultation on immigration issues, such as changes to student visas, which were universally welcome.

The PIE: What prompted the decision to appoint an executive director?

EMB: For some years, English New Zealand had been suspecting that really, this was not a sustainable model. The chairman was expected to spend an inordinate amount of time at their own expense running things. We felt there were one or two people who might be able to pick up the baton, but realised it’s risky. We might end up in a situation where nobody who is really competent is willing to spend 20 hours a week on English New Zealand, resulting in somebody who is not the ideal candidate taking on the mantle.

“It’s nice to have more accurate statistical information but it’s not going to change our marketing strategy, because we are very clear”

We decided over the past year that we needed to make a shift, and indeed we’re following the model that most of the other language school associations follow with a chief executive or an executive director who is salaried. This is the case in the States, in Malta, Australia and of course it’s been the case for a long time in the UK. So that’s what we did.

Kim Renner was obviously competent to take on the executive director role. I’m happy to say it has had an immediate effect on me in that my workload has dropped and I think that’s the way it ought to be. It’s already a very successful switch.

The PIE: Was that something you identified when you took on your position?

EMB: At the meeting where I was appointed, the previous but one chairmen were saying “Look, this is not a sustainable model.” I said, “Ok, well this is rather too late to tell me that now!” Everyone had information to indicate it was not a sustainable model.

I have four schools. Although I’ve got a lot of staff who can run these schools, I pitch in when somebody needs help and I’ve got the most experience, but I don’t really have a day-to-day routine in my schools. That’s been fortunate, that for the last year, I’ve been able to devote a lot of time to English New Zealand, but it has been on a sort of fifty-fifty basis. That’s the bit that’s really unsustainable.

So no it wasn’t my idea but I think I could articulate it quite well and got everyone’s support. The change was unanimously supported by the membership, so it really wasn’t controversial at all.

The PIE: A lot of people within your sector have begun talking about record keeping and statistics. Why is that?

EMB: One of the problems we have in New Zealand is the collection of statistics. For example, we collect our own statistics. We show a 9% increase from 2014 to 2015. That’s based on student weeks, although that’s not a very robust statistic. Every school’s interpretation of a student week is slightly different, but it’s still a good ballpark figure.

“For the last year, I’ve been able to devote a lot of time to English New Zealand”

If you look at the Education New Zealand statistics which were published in June, it shows something like a 1-2% increase. Now, that’s not correct because it’s based on student bodies. The classic is to compare Tahiti with Saudi Arabia. The numbers are fairly close when it comes to bodies, but when it comes to student weeks, the Saudi’s normally stay six-months to a year, while the Tahitians stay for two-weeks. Clearly the value is massively different.

Where English New Zealand has 9% and Education New Zealand has 2%, we’re just comparing apples with oranges.

The PIE: Has it been a hindrance not having accurate statistical knowledge?

EMB: I don’t think we would necessarily do any better if we had slightly more accurate statistics. We understand why they vary; it’s very clear which markets are doing well and which markets are not. We still know which countries are good and which countries need work.

It’s nice to have more accurate statistical information but it’s not going to change our marketing strategy, because we are very clear.

The PIE: Is it a problem in the statistics that the English language schools are grouped with Private Training Establishments?

EMB: About six or seven years ago, NZQA [New Zealand Qualifications Authority] decided things were either qualifications or training schemes. We argued it at the time but I think it’s fair to say NZQA weren’t keen to be diverted from this position.

“What we’re doing now is teaching deemed training schemes, but they bear no relation to a training scheme”

The result was basically an institutionalised fudge: as long as a language school had course approval before such and such a date, what they were delivering would be deemed a training school. That is still the case, what we’re doing now is teaching deemed training schemes, but they bear no relation to a training scheme.

The PIE: Is English New Zealand working to change that?

We are lobbying NZQA and the Ministry of Education for recognition as a separate sort of entity. We believe we have the rights to be heard as another group of institutions involved in international education. And we are being listened to, so we are hopeful that over the next few months we will engage with the ministry.

It would require an act of parliament to recognise English language schools as different from academic private providers.

The PIE: Why would it require an act of parliament to change?

EMB: That was simply what happened with that particular amendment to the Education Act. It determined that universities and schools taught qualifications, and if it wasn’t a qualification, it had to be by definition a training scheme. Then they realised too late that some education did not suit that category and English language teaching was definitely one of them. There are probably other categories that don’t fit very well.

English language teaching is more fluid than most education. In fact, during the consultation for a data collection project, we had the Ministry of Education, we had NZQA, Education New Zealand and us, English New Zealand, all in the same room with a facilitator and we got everyone to agree that what we are in fact providing is “non-formal education”. English language teaching is non-formal education.

Some of our students are working towards a qualification, but really, not very many. If they’re learning English to get into university and take IELTS, one of the important things is we’re not the examining body. We do IELTS preparation courses, but the student is assessed by an external agency, whereas if you’re at a university, it’s the institution that does the assessment.

The PIE: How does the rest of the industry view English providers?

EMB: I think they realise we’re important. English New Zealand is 10% of the international education turnover in New Zealand for revenue. We’re very significant.

“Although we are over 80% of the sector, ultimately we want to have the entire sector”

But I think a lot of people don’t understand what we do. They see English language schools as something different, they don’t entirely understand what goes on in the classroom but they greatly appreciate the revenue we bring in.

The PIE: There’s been frustrations within the sector because of difficulties in making meaningful pathway relationships with providers. How is English New Zealand working towards improving that?

EMB: We quite recently approached Education New Zealand to establish a cross-sector working group and they said, “Yep, we’ll do that”. That will be the chair of Universities New Zealand Chris Whelan, Schools International Education Business Association executive director John van der Zwan, Christine Clark from ITENZ as well as a representative Quality Tertiary Institutions – the PTE sector has two peak bodies. We’re going to all get together and one of the big issues is on pathways.

Universities have their own English language schools. At the moment we’ve got two in our membership and we’ve got another two on their way, so very shortly, we’ll have half the universities’ language schools as members of English New Zealand. That will definitely help us along the principle that any student who comes from an English New Zealand school is worth considering.

For example, we would expect that the university would accept a student from an English New Zealand school without requiring IELTS. That already happens in certain relationships, we just want that to be prevalent throughout the membership, but that will take a bit of negotiation to achieve that.

The PIE: What is the plan for the next 12 months?

EMB: Our main plan is to increase our membership. We’re talking to various people and we’re being listened to. There’s a lot of good happening in New Zealand in international education. We’re talking to each other much more than we used to.

The bottom line is we need more members, because we need bigger revenue to afford projects. So our main mission is evangelical. We want to get more members on board and we are working very hard on that. Although we are over 80% of the sector, ultimately we want to have the entire sector.

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