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English language colleges for overseas students 'at risk of extinction'

Australia's $2.35 billion industry that had taught English to 180,000 overseas students a year faces collapse because of the coronavirus pandemic despite getting a government funding reprieve this week to help pay staff.

The industry feeds international students into universities and vocational training colleges.

David Scott, managing director of the English Language Company in Sydney has 280 overseas students working from home online and whose visas will expire within six months. "Our business is about people coming into the country so, with the borders closed, there is no ongoing revenue for six months," he said. "We still have the expense of paying teachers and staff to manage these students.

"When you have a big school with rent and staff that you have to keep paying but your revenue is gone then you are one of the first to suffer badly. I think a lot of schools will face extinction very quickly unless something is done," he said. Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, described the sector as the "canary in the coal mine" for the $40 billion international education industry because it was an entry point into tertiary institutions. Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, says the sector is the "canary in the coal mine" for the $40 billion international education industry. "Unlike any other business, their customers cannot get into the country," he said. "When their student numbers drop dramatically, TAFE, universities and other providers all know they will be impacted in the subsequent pipeline of students." Brett Blacker, chief executive officer of English Australia, the peak national group representing about 120 businesses, said some had already closed and others were on the brink of collapse because their revenue depended on a constant flow of international student arrivals. "We rely 100 per cent on foreign nationals and, since borders closed on March 20, no new business can come in," he said. "For the last two weeks owners have been scrambling with cash flow issues and ongoing costs in teacher salaries and overheads in transitioning to online study. We have a huge number of providers just scrambling to survive." While the federal government's announcement of the new JobKeeper package this week was a welcome reprieve for the operators and 10,000 teachers on their payrolls, some had already been forced to close. Larger operators were "on the brink" of closure. The JobKeeper wage subsidy gives six million workers a flat payment of $1,500 per fortnight via their employer. Mr Blacker said that once closed colleges, including some that had been running for more than 20 years, would find it difficult to restart their businesses. "The payroll is one element, but it is not going to fix everything," Mr Blacker said. "Prior to this we were the third largest sourced destination for English students globally." Mr Scott said the JobKeeper package would help schools manage staff costs. Schools including his would try to survive by going into hibernation, but he feared that many forced to close would be unable to recover. He said the sector was "at grave threat". "We need to hang on," he said. "We are the feeder to all international education in Australia - all the universities and other colleges. If the industry dies, which it is at danger of at the moment, all that is gone." John Paxton, the director and owner of Perth International College of English said that, up until two weeks ago, he was receiving six to 10 new overseas students for English tuition each Monday. He said his industry needed government-sponsored interest free loans to see it out until international students could return. "We don't have any revenue at all," he said. "It disappeared overnight". "About 30 per cent of my students are learning English to go to Vocational Education and Training courses, TAFE and higher education. The English language sector is heading to the abyss very quickly. We don't have any prospect of getting any new business for the next six months." The Australian Skills Quality Authority, which regulates the vocational education and training sector, said it was committed to helping colleges minimise the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, staff and their operations. "Our focus has been on reducing the regulatory burden and working flexibly with the sector to maintain quality of training and assessment and to provide assurance of the outcomes of competency," a spokesman said. The measures it has taken include extending some registration periods or putting them temporarily on hold to relieve the pressure of upcoming renewal applications. Deadlines for annual reporting requirements have been extended and other regulation activity postponed.

Via The Sydney Morning Herald

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