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24th Aug 2016

US ELT providers reporting enrolment declines this year

Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) across the US are experiencing deep declines in enrolments, pushing administrators to look for new markets, develop new partners, and be more resourceful in order to ride out the current economic drought. An industry with a history of cyclical fortunes, the IEP sector has been hit heavily by cutbacks to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), which propelled a boom in both the number of IEPs and the overall enrolment of Saudis in language studies and undergraduate programmes across the US since its inception in 2005. Changes to the scholarship programme announced in 2015 included measures designed to encourage young Saudis to attain more English proficiency before going abroad and to heavily restrict the approved list of higher education institutions that scholarship recipients attend. When funding support through KASP was offered to virtually any Saudi of university age, that country quickly leapt to the number one spot among sending markets for US IEPs, with Saudis counting for more than twice the number of students from China, the second leading source market, in the most recent Open Doors data for IEPs. Since the scholarship changes were announced last year, many US IEPs that depended heavily on scholarship recipients have seen their student numbers decline. A survey of the 456 English USA members released at the June 2016 NAFSA conference in Denver showed that about 80% of respondents indicated enrolment drops in spring 2016, with over 50% expecting that trend to continue throughout 2016. While Executive Director Cheryl Delk-Le Good has also noted the positive aspects of this shift, including more diverse and balanced classrooms as well as a push for increased innovation and efficiency, many programmes are also having to freeze hiring or reduce staff along with other cost-cutting measures. Falling numbers of Saudi students have added to woes from what was until recently another promising market for US IEPs: Brazil. Many programmes benefited from the Brazilian government’s ambitious Scientific Mobility Program (previously Science Without Borders). From the programme’s inception in 2011 until that country’s economic crisis forced a suspension in sending any new students for 2016, Brazil had moved into the third spot among sending markets for US IEPs behind only Saudi Arabia and China.

Links to academic studies

As a feeder into higher education institutions, IEPs have long played the role of an important indicator of future international enrolment trends at affiliated undergraduate and graduate schools. Thus the enrolment declines reporting by US language programmes this year will likely have an impact beyond the IEP sector. Saudi Arabia had become the fourth (and Brazil the sixth) largest source markets for US higher education, behind China, India, and South Korea. Beyond US IEPs, the impact of falling Saudi student numbers has skewed to undergraduate programmes, where most Saudis were enrolled. A Moody’s analysis noted in a recent Inside Higher Ed report said that universities previously hosting many Saudis "will be hard-pressed to replace these price-inelastic students in an increasingly competitive market for international students." Not that this hasn’t been seen before; the cyclical nature of the IEP industry has gone boom and bust since at least the 1970s, when Venezuela and Iran surged in numbers then waned, followed by expansion and contraction periods for Japanese and Korean in the 1990s and 2000s. "IEP directors know this," said Alexandra Rowe, professor and recently-retired director of the IEP at the University of South Carolina. "We know that the basic reasons are that IEP enrolments and therefore revenues are tied to international politics and economics," she added, noting that this reality is reflected even in the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) Standards which call on programmes to carry rainy day funds to help ensure continuity during downturns.

What now?

Other than dipping into such reserves, where are programmes turning to counteract these recent market shifts? According to a further survey conducted last month among English USA members by Lisa Kraft, director of the IEP at Pace University, many are looking to open new markets or expand in established territories. The country mentioned most often as a potential source for more students was China, followed closely by South Korea, then Brazil, Vietnam, and Japan. China has of course been a strong market for years. It will almost certainly reclaim the top spot among sending markets for US IEPs, and its potential is still vast. "The challenge there is that schools that are less known or who are not in the upper rankings will face more difficulty bringing in large numbers of Chinese students," said Nadia Redman, assistant director for Admissions and Recruitment at the University of Delaware IEP. Ms Redman did say that "some Chinese agents and educators report progress, albeit slight, in convincing parents that rankings may not always be as important as fit" when determining their child’s future education. Meanwhile, looking to Brazil as a strong growth market for US IEPs could be overly optimistic under current market conditions. The Brazilian real has crashed in value, and political instability has increased. The US remains a top destination for Brazilian students, but the market has shifted in the last year or two. According to a recent report from Brazilian Educational and Language Travel Association (BELTA), Brazilian students are now more cost-conscious and demand is shifting to shorter terms of study, work-study programmes, and more affordable destinations. In addition to exploring new and emerging markets that can provide further growth, US IEP directors are also pursuing new types of programming. Several directors in the Kraft survey mentioned that they hope to host more youth programmes and short-term group programmes, to provide new services to university-bound and new university students and to offer more courses for underserved constituents such as international scholars coming to their universities. Jim Hamrick, director of the IEP at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said that his programme has made up for some of the recent losses by marketing itself to contacts on his own campus as well as abroad, mentioning students brought in this fall term because of ties between other departments at his university and institutions in Korea and Japan. "This is a time to reach out to any partners you have, to ask them, ‘what are your needs, and how can we help meet them?’" Several respondents to the Kraft survey also said they thought the use of agents and agent workshops by US IEPs would increase. In fact, the use of agents by American institutions has increased since 2013, the year that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) repealed a previous ban on the use of commissioned international education agents. When English USA asked member programmes to offer recruiting tips for its summer 2016 newsletter, two of the three respondents discussed developments undertaken to strengthen ties with overseas agents and advisers. In keeping with the emphasis on building relationships with international agents, the third submission focused on "armchair recruiting" - that is, on lower-cost recruiting strategies that can be undertaken without leaving campus. "We are using software to schedule out more frequent social media and email campaigns so that we can better connect with the leads that we already have, as well as with our partners and sponsors," said Ms Redman. "We are also going to be scheduling webinars and Skype calls with our agents to keep them updated.” However, any recruitment strategy is a process that requires time to bear fruit, according to Perry Akins, chairman of Boston Education Services and long-time IEP professional. He argues the programmes that will cope best with the current downturn will be those that control their expenses and ensure student satisfaction for higher retention rates, and that have already developed and implemented long-term recruiting strategies. Mr Hamrick concurs and adds, "This is not the time to be figuring out your recruiting plan." Ramping up recruiting efforts at a time when personnel and resources are limited due to lower enrolments and revenues is not as prudent or efficient as ensuring that current processes and policies, such as quick follow-up and client focus, are carried out well. "It’s never a bad time to be coming up with new ideas and trying new things," he said, "but I think this is a time to focus more on what you’re already doing, and doing that well."

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