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The collegiality and conflict of quality control in ELT

The politics of quality control in the English language teaching space are fast-changing and complex; governments now want to dictate the rules but in many cases they lack the sophisticated grasp of accreditation that membership bodies may have, claim stakeholders, resulting in multi-layered approaches. Beckie Smith reports.
March 18 2016
7 Min Read

Quality assurance and accreditation can be a lonely business, according to Julian Inglis, co-chair of the Quality Assurance Committee at Languages Canada. “We work at making the standards the best that they can be,” he says, but explains that having input from bodies doing the same in other countries can be invaluable.

It was to this end that the Quality Assurance in Language Education Network was formed: a forum for ELT accrediting bodies across the globe to compare best practice and learn from each other.

With only a few official meetings under its belt and a website launched last October, QALEN is still in the nascent stages – but is excited about what they might collectively be able to achieve.

Across the multifarious accreditation options for English language teaching, there are two main camps: optional accreditation, which signals to consumers that an institution is of high quality; and that which is required for schools to accept students on a visa.

“I think that the more rigorous expectations have really given quality and scope to the IEPs”

Government mandates on quality control

In the UK, for example, English language schools must be accredited by either the British Council or the Accreditation Body for Language Schools, in order to accept students from outside the EU on Student Visitor Visas. Students studying longer-term in the UK will enter on a Student Visa which means their institution will have a sponsor licence, accredited by separate accreditation agency that covers a wider range of education institutions.

Both the ELT-specific accreditation schemes are extremely rigorous and longstanding; addressing quality standards in management, resources and environment, teaching and student welfare.

While mandatory accreditation has been enforced in the UK since 2009, other countries where this has not previously been the case are also moving towards this model.

Canada, for example, only brought in its government registry of schools allowed to recruit internationally in 2014; while in the US, the deadline for applying to become accredited in order to be able to issue I-20s (required to gain a student visa) was in December 2013.

The Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act, signed in 2010, mandates that US Intensive English Programs must be accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency. The two main bodies responsible for this are the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training and the Commission on English Language.

“I think that the more rigorous expectations have really given quality and scope to the IEPs,” comments Bill Larkin, executive director of ACCET.

South Africa and Canada clashes

Government intervention is not always welcomed by the sector: in British Columbia in Canada, for example, members of the BC Chapter of Languages Canada are spending a huge amount of time and resources lobbying and liaising with the provincial government and trying to explain why a career college accreditation system is not the best fit for the province’s language schools.

South Africa’s ELT sector is also undergoing an uphill struggle to find its place in the country’s regulatory structures. Schools have been offering ELT to foreigners for two decades, but until recently were effectively “under the radar”, explains Johannes Kraus, chairman of Education South Africa.

“They said to the government if you don’t bother us, we don’t bother you,” he elaborates, saying that for the last decade, the sector has benefited from other countries putting stricter visa regulations in place.

“In the end we are talking words here: accreditation versus registration”

“And now, 10 years later, our government feels that they also need to have restrictions on the visas and change visa regulations and now it hits us,” he says. Though the government is keen to regulate the sector more closely, there is currently no clear path to accreditation for South Africa’s ELT sector.

The Department of Higher Education and Training considers the accreditation under QCTO and Services SETA, which regulate other sectors, sufficient to allow them to sponsor study visas; but the Department for Home Affairs insists that registration – not just accreditation – with DHET is required.

“In the end we are talking words here: accreditation versus registration,” comments Kraus. EduSA is currently attempting to broker a discussion between the two departments to find a solution that will enable English language schools to easily sponsor long-term students again. In the interim, many schools have applied to be vetted as a vocational provider.

Policy overhaul and impact

While in the US, IEPs had three years to prepare for the new legislation, schools in Ireland were also caught unawares by a student immigration policy overhaul last year following a spate of college closures.

In September 2014, Ireland’s Ministers for Education and Justice announced that as of January 2015, only schools accredited by Accreditation and Coordination of English Language Services (ACELS) would appear on an Interim List of providers approved to accept non-EU students.

However, ACELS, operated by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, is due to be replaced this year and is no longer carrying out accreditation. A legal challenge lodged by two colleges last year claimed this left them no route to recruiting internationally, scuppered the legislation.

A number of membership organisations around the world also offer their own accreditation procedures

Australia also moved accreditation responsibility in its Elicos sector from NEAS (which continues as a supplementary seal of quality) to either the Australian Skills Quality Authority or the Tertiary Education Quality Authority in 2011.

More than the minimum – membership organisations

Along with government-mandated schemes, a number of membership organisations around the world also offer their own accreditation procedures which have further augmented expectations of quality output and student service.

As of June 1, 2014, every Canadian province must publish a list of designated education institutions allowed to accept international students on Study Permits.

However, Languages Canada, which accredits schools teaching French and English, remains adamant that the only way for students to guarantee that they are applying to a quality school is to make sure it is a Languages Canada member, undergoing its own accreditation system.

Executive director, Gonzalo Peralta, is sceptical about whether some provinces’ schemes are sufficient to ensure quality and protect students. The PIE News has written on the sector’s concerns that schools teaching those on a tourist visa are escaping accreditation requirements.

Executive director, Gonzalo Peralta, is sceptical about whether some provinces’ schemes are sufficient to ensure quality and protect students. The PIE News has written on the sector’s concerns that schools teaching those on a tourist visa are escaping accreditation requirements.

Membership organisation FELTOM in Malta also offers a voluntary accreditation procedure for ELT programmes, which is highly encouraged by the government alongside mandatory licensing by Malta’s ELT Council.

The process takes 12 months, beginning with due diligence by Feltom CEO, Genevieve Abela, who makes a recommendation to her board, which votes on whether to admit the school for review.

“The aim is we help good schools become even better”

FELTOM places a higher emphasis on non-academic factors than some other accrediting bodies because Malta is set apart by its study-holiday offering, Abela says.

“We have two different sets of inspectors: one that checks the academics, the English language teaching is being handled and handled efficiently; and then someone else that does all the other things that are non-academic, whether it’s premises, human resources, leisure activities, supervision of minors, for example,” explains Abela.

Government-association relations

The relationships between government and independent accrediting bodies vary, but it appears to be a trend that governments are choosing to work more closely with voluntary accrediting bodies.

Membership of language schools body, English New Zealand, which quality assures all of its members through an inspection process, is one element that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority uses to inform its external evaluation and review process, which determines which programmes can accept international students.

Auditors from the two bodies also participate in each other’s training to ensure that English New Zealand auditors are familiar with the expectations for quality assurance and NZQA staff are familiar with the EFL market.

In Australia, though NEAS Quality Endorsement is not a requirement for Elicos providers to appear on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, ASQA has said it “acknowledges that NEAS Quality Endorsement is a desirable outcome for Elicos providers, and beneficial to their students”.

This has led to NEAS working closely with both TEQSA and ASQA, in a joint effort to reduce the burden of compliance on institutions. For example, institutions may now submit just one set of documents to apply for both TEQSA accreditation and NEAS Quality Endorsement.

In addition, NEAS has introduced a colour code for Elicos providers that ASQA says will contribute to the range of data ASQA considers in its risk profile of providers.

Student-centric approach

NEAS’s student-centric inspection process includes both student surveys and interviews. The question might be: Is the enrolment process at Centre X is an efficient one? illustrates Mark Raven at NEAS.

“The student might say: ‘It was appalling, I couldn’t find where to sign, lots of excessive documentation that was irrelevant’; the teacher might say ‘It gives us exactly what we need’; the marketer might say ‘It gets in the way of getting people on board quickly’. “Clearly there is disparity here,” he says.

Though NEAS takes the most account of student feedback, it is by no means the only accreditation scheme to take students feedback into account.

“I think there is quite a lot of concern in the quality end of the profession that students themselves are very unaware of this”

Orion Canada, for example, conducts both student and staff focus groups during its site visits. Feedback touches on academics, accommodation, student services and support, explains Inglis at Languages Canada, but the questions students are asked remain confidential in order to ensure impartiality.

Extra layer of Eaquals

Originally open only to EU members, the 14-year-old Eaquals changed its acronym last year from the European Association for Quality Language Services to Evaluation and Accreditation of Quality in Language Services, reflecting its intentions to broaden its scope.

“The aim is we help good schools become even better,” explains executive director, Sarah Aitken. “The idea of people coming to us is to continually develop as opposed to meeting a benchmark minimum.”

Unlike other schemes, appointed EAQUALS members can conduct inspections, though it is careful to ensure that competitors do not inspect each other.

“The idea of having a peer and a practitioner, somebody who knows about managing group schools is really important in our scheme because of the developmental aspect,” Aitken explains. For accreditation schemes that are not required for visa purposes, such as EAQUALS, conveying the value of accreditation to consumers can present a challenge.

“I think there is quite a lot of concern in the quality end of the profession that students themselves are very unaware of this,” comments Aitken.

“Students are choosing schools through online portals; there is a lot of shopping on price,” she continues. “It is quite tough for good schools to really get the message out of what quality means.”

  • This article is an abridged version of the original from The PIE Review edition 8.
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