The latest data released by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment showed a decline in commencing students of over 40%, and a 30% decline in all enrolments year to date.
These figures however are not a true reflection of the current state of the sector for two reasons according to Brett Blacker chief executive officer of English Australia.
“The survival to date has hinged on those colleges being able to teach online”
The first is that the official figures count only those who have student visas which accounts for around 70% of ELICOS students, the other 30% hold other types of visas such as working holiday or tourist visas.
The second is that the figures are a year to date aggregate perspective, which includes the early months of the year before border closures were in place.
English Australia, supported by the federal government, has undertaken quarterly research this year, which Blacker said paints a more realistic picture.
“[Private colleges have] been providing us data directly from their student management systems, which compares each quarter of 2020 to the corresponding quarter in 2019,” he said.
“So for the quarter three from July to September, responses indicated the market had declined in that period alone by 74% [compared to 2019]. When you look on the quarter by quarter basis, it’s much more accurate in terms of how many students are currently left.”
Half of those who have been studying, have been undertaking their study online – something prohibited in Australia until the pandemic took hold – and a teaching mode which Blacker discounts as long term strategy.
“The survival to date has hinged on those colleges being able to teach online. [But] I think part of the attraction of learning and other foreign language is being able to be immersed in that environment.
“There’s always been alternatives to language acquisition through online and offshore methods or modes but the real attraction which makes Australia one of the top providers globally is our culture and the lifestyle. It’s an ability to see the country and learn the language in that immersive environment.”
Around half a dozen private colleges have already ceased operations due to the pandemic, with fears that when the federal government’s economic stimulus payments cease in March 2021 that number will increase significantly.
While the university sector has suffered by a “lack of government stimulus”, the future risk for English Australia “comes within the private sector, which typically teaches the largest number of students”.
“The economic stimulus around Jobkeeper and other rebates have sustained a lot of businesses… but they are more vulnerable and at risk at the moment because they don’t have any other revenue streams. They don’t have the domestic teaching capacity or external training programs or research income as university colleagues.”
However Blacker believes the focus should be on the sector as a whole because “all providers are threatened with extinction”.
Levels of support vary across states and territories, for example plans for grant subsidies for students to undertake English language classes in Victoria, state funding for small and medium businesses in Western Australia which included eligible private colleges and small competitive grants program for providers who show innovation in Queensland.
“There are little pockets of support, none of which frankly, provide the level of financial support or student incentives that are going to at this stage really validate survival or sustainability as welcomed as they are,” said Blacker.
He proposed two things to ensure the longterm sustainability of the sector.
“One is dedicated sector support for all the ELICOS providers. Second, it’s really about getting students back into Australia across all sectors and at scale. Australia needs a position to say that international students will be returning.
“It’s really about getting students back into Australia across all sectors and at scale”
“It’s the real uncertainty as to when our borders will reopen that makes it hard for businesses to be able to model their own operating finances and not just for the businesses, but for the students and aid agencies and those others in the system.”
With large numbers of English language students continuing on to further education in Australia, Blacker warned there’ll be flow on effects if the ELICOS sector does not receive support.
“Typically, we see large volumes of our students flow on into the other sectors. Going back to the 2019 data, of student visa holders, 31% of those students that studied ELICOS continued into higher education, and 29% of them continued into vocational education and training.
“Without a strong and diverse English language sector that has a qualified teachers, administrators and businesses that survive, it’s not only going to impact on what our industry, our sector numbers look like in 2021, but it will have vast impact into the entire educational landscape more broadly.”