South African ELT recovery underway

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • South Africa’s ELT sector began to recover in 2016 from a sharp decline in enrolment the year before
  • Student numbers increased by 19% in 2016, and student weeks by 20%
  • With the November 2016 resolution of a two-year dispute regarding student visa eligibility for ELT students, the sector is now poised for further growth this year

Enrolment in South African English Language Teaching (ELT) programmes has begun to recover from a drastic decline in 2015. Recently released full-year data for 2016 shows a 19% increase in student numbers compared to the year before, and a 20% increase in student weeks.

While the sector has not fully rebounded from an even greater enrolment decline of -28% between 2014 and 2015, it appears well positioned for further growth through 2017.

enrolment-in-south-african-elt-by-student-numbers-and-student-weeks-2014–2016
Enrolment in South African ELT by student numbers and student weeks, 2014–2016. Source: EduSA

That significant drop in 2015 arises from amendments to South Africa’s immigration legislation the year before that effectively excluded language schools from the country’s student visa process. In a rather remarkable turn of events, this meant that students intending to pursue longer-term studies with a South African ELT provider could no longer get a student visa.

The country’s peak body for ELT, Education South Africa (EduSA) tried for nearly two years to resolve the matter with government officials with no success. This led in turn to an even more remarkable development when EduSA took the South African government to court in September 2016 in a bid to have the May 2014 amendments to the Immigration Act set aside or modified.

As we now know, that case was settled out of court in November 2016, with the result that study visas of up to 18 months can now be issued for students enrolled with recognised ELT providers.

While this landmark settlement resolved an issue that had badly hampered the industry since 2014, it would have come too late in the year to have any significant effect on 2016 numbers. This makes the industry’s progress last year even more noteworthy, and suggests that South African providers had adapted their programming and recruitment strategies to better target short-term ELT students during the year.

Making the shift to short term

“Schools have adapted to the visa issues,” agrees EduSA Chair Johannes Kraus. “We have managed to get students into South Africa through visitor visas and we were then helping the students who wanted to stay longer than 90 days with an extension to 180 days. The extension processes have mainly been smooth.”

“You can also see that the numbers from Europe have reached 2014 level again. Reason for that is, that most European countries do not need a visa to come to South Africa, they receive a 90-day visitors visa on arrival in South Africa and then the visa can be extended as well. Most schools, I presume, have focused on markets where visitor visas are easy to obtain. This has helped our numbers grow as well.”

As Mr Kraus suggests, EduSA members have placed a greater emphasis on markets where visas are easily acquired, or not required at all. The South African Department of Home Affairs maintains a list of countries – primarily in Latin America, Europe, and Africa – whose citizens are exempt from visas for stays of 90 days or less. Russia was recently added to the 90-day exemption list, and EduSA members are now looking to expand share in this important market, which appears poised as well for a recovery in outbound mobility this year.

In 2016, ELT providers in South Africa saw the greatest gains from markets in Europe (+21%), Latin America (+40%), and the Middle East (+109%), with Germany, Switzerland, France, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia driving much of the growth from those key regions.

EduSA members have also shown an increasing reliance on overseas agents over the last three years. In 2014, roughly six in ten ELT students (60%) were referred by agents. In 2016, the proportion of agent-recruited students increased to 66%.

Looking ahead

With the visa issue now resolved, EduSA members can hope for a further expansion in 2017, and for an increasing proportion of longer-term students in particular.

Mr Kraus adds, “I believe we are on a good path now to overcome the visa crisis. More and more embassies are finally enforcing the visa settlement in court and EduSA member schools that have applied for provisional registration with the Department of Higher Education and Training are receiving study permits from more and more embassies around the world. So, I sincerely hope that our 2017 student numbers will come closer to our record year of 2014.”

For additional background, please see:



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