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Jennifer Phillips, director Wisconsin ESL Institute, US

Jennifer Phillips is director of Wisconsin ESL Institute in Madison, US. Like the rest of the industry, the country’s English providers have been strained as a result of the coronavirus, but ICE guidance which has since been rescinded, banning language students from studying online piled on the pressure. Speaking with The PIE News, Phillips reviews where the sector is and considers what the future looks like.


"If we move back to just in-person, what do we do with those students that are online?"

The PIE: How did you react towards the news of the Trump administration’s backtrack on online-only guidelines? 

Jennifer Phillips: I did multiple happy dances in the living room. It was good. We had an English USA school meeting and there was a relief coupled with ‘Okay, what are they going to come up with next?’

“I think the ICE guidance highlighted a deep level of distrust with our administration”

The PIE: So come September, has that plan completely changed?

JP: We will look at the city public health department guidelines, and wait to see if ICE comes up with any modifications, which I think people are kind of expecting. So we’re holding off from saying officially what our plan is going to be.

But unofficially, we’re working towards having a hybrid system where students and teachers would get to choose if they want to be back in the classroom in person, or have online options as well.

One challenge for us is that we’ve really pushed our online courses and we have students in other countries taking those courses. So if we move back to just in person, what do we do with those students that are online? We’re still going to continue to offer online courses probably into the future.

The PIE: What did your online provision prior to the coronavirus outbreak look like? 

JP: It was really minimal. We would do online workshops here and there, nothing consistently. About a year and a half ago when we were deciding the direction the school was going to take, we said we’re not going to invest in online, largely because our teaching staff were just not interested. And we thought, other people have a lot more money to invest and they can do this a lot better, so we’re going to leave them to it.

Then this happened and everyone was forced to go online, and we were really surprised at how well it went. The feedback we were getting from students was really good.

We’re never going to compete with Open English or VIP Kids or anything like that, but for speciality programs, I’m seeing this as a way that we can reach a group of students that couldn’t afford to whether it was for time or money before, and give them a higher level quality program.

The PIE: Can you give us an example?

JP: We’ve worked together with some other Quality English schools to put together proposals for the Colombian government. I’m really interested in how schools can group together to provide offerings that maybe one individual school isn’t big enough to be able to provide.

“I think our industry was already heading kind of in a downward trajectory”

I think our industry was already heading kind of in a downward trajectory, things were more difficult, especially here in the US. And what has happened with Covid-19 and the push online has accelerated trends we already saw.

In some ways, this is giving us an opportunity that we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. But our plan for the future was very much to keep offering regular courses we’ve offered.

We’re not fighting for general English course student numbers anymore because we just couldn’t compete price-wise, especially with the chain schools which offer five locations and transfers between them.

The PIE: In terms of damage that the pandemic and ICE guidance might have done to the US sector, are you worried about that?

JP: Yes, totally. I mean, other providers with schools in other countries are not recommending that students come to the US. I completely see where that’s coming from, but we don’t have schools in other countries.

We were making a promise to students and families to take care of them if they come to us. And at the moment, I don’t feel like we can make that promise. I know that what we do, we can do very well, but there’s so much that’s outside of our control at the moment.

I think the ICE guidance highlighted a deep level of distrust with our administration. They might say we’re cancelling all student visas next week. Everyone needs to go home. And I don’t think before that I really thought something like that would happen. But now we saw it happen. And I think that definitely sets a precedent for what might be possible in the future.

The PIE: What sort of changes do you think November might bring?

JP: We’re holding out a lot of hope for the November elections and things will change, but in some ways, I think the damage has already been done.

The last three and a half years of the current administration has unravelled so many relationships internationally. And people, for a lot of good reasons, don’t want to come here.

In some ways this is just the nail in the coffin for what has been a very slippery slope downwards, I think, for US language travel and higher education.

“Students too are starting to feel there are other options out there”

Students too are starting to feel there are other options out there. Canada provides a great path to residency and New Zealand is as safe as you can come by. Things that we just don’t have anymore. It’s going to be a long time before the US gets back to a point where we feel like we’re one of the top study destinations.

I think we are very much at a pivotal point for our industry. We need to figure out how are we going to change and adapt moving forward, rather than trying to continue as we have and just fighting with each other for fewer and fewer students.

It’s times like these where you see the most creative ideas. And you either adapt, you’re flexible and come up with innovative solutions or, at some point just make the decision that you aren’t going to change and then just slowly close.

The PIE: Associations have said up to half of their members are at risk of closure, is that much the same in the US?

JP: Yes, I think so. I think [we will see] university-based programs lose funding or close in the next budget cycle. Numbers might be a little bit behind if we were just all private independent schools, but I think come the fall, we’re going to see a lot of school closure announcements. And then I think next year we’re going to see even more.

It was very much a question for us, [whether] we can survive. We have opened other businesses totally outside of education and language to allow the school to continue to stay open.

“We might start looking at outbound programs and providing study abroad opportunities for domestic students”

The PIE: What kind of changes have you had to make?

JP: We did a massive renovation of our building and rent it out for weddings, networking events, conferences. And that’s actually picking up, you know, we’re getting a lot of bookings and things for that. It has nothing to do with education or language programs at all. And we’ll continue to look at business opportunities that provide some stability.

We might start looking at outbound programs and providing study abroad opportunities for domestic students as well.

We’ve talked about doing those programs online, too. A lot of Americans, I think, are reticent to travel abroad, just like people are worried about coming in here. And so, again, using our agent networks that we’ve developed over the years to provide something different.

A lot of people got into this industry because this is what they want to do, they’re educators at heart. It’s going to get to a point where they might decide this is just too different from what we did, and we don’t want to adapt or change.

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