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18th Aug 2015

South Africa’s language schools face declining enrolment due to immigration policy

South Africa has emerged as an increasingly popular regional and global destination for students in recent years, due to its appeal as a "stepping stone towards global mobility" for African students, and the opportunity it offers global students to experience a culture different to that of the US and Europe. However, due to a May 2014 amendment to the Immigration Act, study permits (that is, study visas) are no longer being issued for students enrolled at English language schools in the country. The early indications are that the policy change has had a profound impact on enrolment already in 2015 and that student numbers are down sharply this year.

The alphabet soup of accreditation

Language schools in South Africa offer students the opportunity to gain a skill, rather than a recognisable degree, diploma or technical qualification. Because of this distinction, language courses – while accredited by the Services Sector Education and Training Authority (SSETA) under the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) – are not otherwise registered with the DHET. For its part, DHET argues that the Services SETA accreditation is sufficient for a study visa application. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA), however, has to this point not recognised the accreditation as a basis for complying with the new regulations and will only issue study visas to students studying at institutions that are registered with DHET. Johannes Kraus, the chairperson of Education South Africa (EduSA) explains, "We were originally informed by DHA and DHET that we as EduSA centres only required an accreditation, such as the one which we duly acquired with the Services SETA. This was in 2013. Then, the new regulations came into play where our Services SETA accreditation was no longer accepted and we were told that we had to become a TVET college." In the South African context, TVET refers to a Technical Vocational Education and Training college. Mr Kraus notes that EduSA members are now currently pursuing TVET accreditation but that the process is lengthy and complex. He adds, "Parallel to the [TVET] accreditation process we have been in contact with the DHET, who officially states that we are legitimate operating companies accredited with the Services SETA and hence the QCTO [Quality Council for Trades and Occupations]. The QCTO, however, is an accreditation body whose institutes do not require registration with the DHET. Therefore, we cannot be registered with the DHET, which is DHA’s major requirement for study visas and, as a result, we have reached a dead end here."

Challenging for schools

According to EduSA, the policy change introduced in 2014 poses a substantial threat to the EFL sector. EduSA’s vice chair Shaun Fitzhenry has previously claimed that the new legislation will "kill business" for language schools by between 20% and 60%. The director of the English Language School of Cape Town, Sunil Shah, has published an open letter to the government, demanding: "Don’t destroy English schools." In his call to action, Mr Shah wrote: "Policy changes at Home Affairs have disrupted the entire process… we have had three months where business has virtually ground to a halt, it is mostly due to the visa issue." Mr Shah claims that the impact of this policy change has had a devastating impact upon his business, with just three months until the school faces closure. Furthermore, Stevin Smith, a co-founder of the South African College of Education and Languages, said: "Our potential students’ visas are being denied because the immigration laws state that institutions have to be registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training." Mr Smith, who opened the school in 2004, adds, "It is clear that the language school industry was not considered when the new laws were drawn up. I understand the need to look after the integrity of our borders and we want to be regulated. All we are asking government is to help us to find a way to look after our livelihoods and to help us prevent job losses."

Student numbers drop

EduSA has surveyed 23 of its member schools in South Africa and is concerned by the results.

"Student numbers have declined by 24% compared to the same quarter in 2014," Mr Kraus told ICEF Monitor. "If we have a look at student weeks, the numbers have decreased by 27%."

The slowdown is particularly acute among African sending markets. While student bookings from some European countries, notably France and Spain, have increased in the first quarter of 2015 compared to 2014 (by 34% and 27%, respectively), bookings from Africa have suffered a 31% decline. Mr Kraus also explains that, while numbers for the second quarter of 2015 are yet to be released, he is expecting a further decline in student numbers: "The new immigration laws have had a significant impact on our industry, as our current accreditation is insufficient to obtain study visas for our students." MoneyWeb has described the decision taken by Department of Home Affairs to change policy as "onerous" and claims that "virtually no study visas have been granted to English language students since October."

A possible solution on the horizon

Within the last month, EduSA and its member schools have had direct contact with DHA officials, including the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Fatima Chohan. It appears, at last, that there is a growing recognition of the impact of the 2014 immigration policy change on South Africa’s language schools and that DHA is now moving toward a remedy that could be put in place quickly. "Our problem has been recognised and the DHA is working on a possible interim solution," reports Mr Kraus. "The interim solution could be that DHA grants long-term visas for up to 52 weeks to study at language schools accredited by a SSETA under the QCTO… Basically, DHA would waive the requirement of the registration with DHET. In the long-term we hope to be able to find a place within the educational landscape of South Africa, somewhere directly under the DHET." EduSA hopes to have further word shortly as to any such interim measures that would allow South Africa’s language schools to once again accept students for longer-term studies.

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