New report offers recommendations for stimulating Chinese demand for English study overseas

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Research shows low demand in China for standalone English-language courses but also room for growth
  • Overcoming myths about visa rejection rates and promoting benefits of language learning abroad are noted as keys to the market
  • Agents are also highlighted as crucial partners in any effort to build the standalone ELT market

A new report from English Australia and market research consultancy Student Marketing (now Bonard) estimates that a coordinated industry-government strategy could nearly double the number of Chinese students enrolling in standalone ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) by 2025. The “standalone” category refers to a student’s motivation for pursuing a language course being primarily personal or career-related, as opposed to a programme undertaken mainly as a pathway to further academic study.

The report, entitled Raising the profile in China of Australia’s excellence in English language training, considers a near-doubling of the market by 2025 a conservative target, noting that there is both untapped potential in the Chinese market as well as significant barriers to overcome if standalone ELICOS is to gain more traction among Chinese language learners.

The study sets out that, “When compared to overall size of the market, standalone ELICOS students from China (individual adult students not engaged in pathways or packaged programmes) are in the low thousands.” There were tens of thousands of Chinese studying in Australian ELICOS programmes in 2017, but of the 42,500 enrolled, only 2,665 were enrolled in standalone courses.

In general, the vast majority of Chinese in English language courses abroad are studying for academic reasons rather than to achieve personal goals or career advantages. The report notes that, “of the estimated 1,635,192 student-weeks spent by Chinese ELICOS students globally, up to 10% were adult standalone ELICOS weeks.”

English Australia CEO Brett Blacker expands on the rationale for the study: “Historically, almost all Chinese ELICOS students have entered Australia on packages with English language study as the means to an end. In contrast, many neighbouring East Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, have valued English-only study in Australia.

This research, supported by the Australian Department of Education and Training, aims to analyse contributing factors to the historical low stand-alone ELICOS performance, and presents findings from one of the most in-depth research projects of this nature. This will hopefully support Australian providers in considering market development and access opportunities for stand-alone ELICOS from China.”

Strong domestic competition

Australia is – with the US and UK – one of the top three destinations chosen by international students to learn English, and it is estimated in the report to hold a 26% market share. That said, the market within China for English-language learning is huge, and domestic provision has expanded considerably in recent decades, revealing a major source of competition for ELICOS providers in Australia.

The Chinese Ministry of Education estimates there are 300–400 million English language learners in China. In 2013, the value of Chinese students enrolled in English-language learning was worth US$4.9 billion and was said to be growing by 12–15% a year. What’s more, growing numbers of Chinese students are choosing online courses for language study.

Perception that standalone courses are not necessary

As it stands now, the report points out, potential ELICOS students in China aren’t seeing a compelling reason to study overseas for standalone English courses. They have an abundance of options at their doorstep and most don’t feel that a stand-alone course taken abroad instead of at home would represent a competitive career advantage. Research shows that 74% of Chinese prefer to learn English in China versus 26% preferring to learn it abroad.

This kind of sentiment obviously emerges as a key challenge for ELICOS providers wanting to increase their Chinese standalone enrolments. The report concludes that, “The major obstacle is the public, corporate, and government belief that studying English abroad is not needed, nor advantageous.”

Lower fees and improved visa acceptance

Overcoming this barrier, the authors note, will not happen as a result of a changed government opinion regarding learning English abroad. Rather, it will hinge on Australian government and ELICOS stakeholders working together to dispel myths about studying English in Australia and communicating a price advantage. The report notes that English language courses in China are on average much more expensive than those in Australia:

“When you consider the average price for an English lesson in China with a native speaker is 161 RMB compared to 95 RMB in Sydney, you start to realise that the potential is attainable.”

A prevalent myth in the Chinese market revealed by the research for the report is that it remains difficult for Chinese to obtain visas for standalone English courses. When paired with low demand for standalone courses abroad, this perception represents a key obstacle to overcome. While visa approval rates for standalone courses used to be relatively low, they have since improved significantly (from 48% to 77%), and this is a development that seems to not have been well communicated or understood in China.

Engaging with agents

The report recommends that the Australian government and English Australia should play the main roles in changing perceptions and promoting the Australian ELICOS brand in China through engagement activities including trade missions and other in-person opportunities. It emphasises that “agents represent the biggest opportunity to develop the market” and that “there is a clear need for a strategic education and partnership programme with agents.”

However, in order for agents to get behind the idea of promoting standalone ELICOS in Australia, there has to be more incentive. Standalone courses currently do not fit easily into the portfolio of products that agents typically promote. The report explains that,

“Education agents are used to promoting more expensive education products where they offer a higher added value (ROI per purchase, selling on value), or group packaged products, for example, inexpensive education products (study tours, which utilise volume sales). ELICOS currently sits right in the middle – individual and inexpensive, with low existing natural demand.”

An essential step going forward therefore is to package ELICOS courses more attractively both for agents and the students they are in contact with. For example, “a programme which would feature a completely pre-organised package comprised of an Intensive English course with after-class cultural activities and tangible outcomes (improvements in English proficiency), concluding with a certificate.” In fact, the report takes this point further in concluding, “Currently, a pure English programme is not a strong commercial option in the Chinese market; coursework must be combined with practical usage, a travel component, an internship with local employers, or with other incentives, and must conclude with a tangible certificate. Providers need to recognise the result-oriented approach and consider developing a product that delivers short-term results.”

Other recommended strategies include awareness campaigns (“to demystify some of the fears through hard evidence and demonstrate the added value of higher English language proficiency to employers”), leveraging alumni and opinion leaders, and press tours.

Significant upside

As much as the English Australia/Student Marketing research acknowledges challenges in the market, it emphasises the fact that even if there was a modest uptick in demand for Australian ELICOS in China, the benefits to Australia could be very significant. Moderate growth could see Chinese enrolments in standalone ELICOS courses move from 2,665 to 4,750 by 2025, while higher growth could mean tremendous benefits for ELICOS providers:

“Should the effect of market stimulation result in exponential growth (unlikely, but possible nevertheless) and the Chinese market reaches only 1/10 of the levels of the outbound ELICOS mobility of Poland, China could generate 60,000 students, 228,000 student weeks and AU$277 million revenue per annum (total size and value of new demand from which Australia would benefit respectively).”

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