It Wasn’t Me.

According to the Australian government, enrollments by international students declined by 0.4 percent in the 12-month period starting August 2009. Those declines were driven by steep drops in English-language classes.

Colleges and universities are still experiencing a rise in enrollments by students from abroad but predict the numbers will decline in 2012 in part because English-language institutes often feed students into universities. Some signs of that impending falloff have appeared already with enrollments by Indian students into university courses falling 19 percent.

Never mind the last sentence that the Indians are temporarily (or not) pissed with the Australian Higher-Ed scene.  What made my eyes open wide was the fact that my gut instinct that Australia and other Western countries will see a steep and continuous decline of students going there for English language courses has been proven. Maybe I’m clairvoyant after all.

I hope my counterparts in the Western world saw this coming : the more people desire to learn English, the more motivation for people to get good at it and the more motivation for Business to come up with a service that has a great local demand.

I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of argument over the quality and ability of local teachers to deliver quality language learning but, really, have you seen the native-speakers who come to Asia to teach?  Once we remove the lack of  English language proficiency as a handicap it levels the playing field for a non-native speaker to perform at or beyond  the ability of a native-speaking ESL teacher.

Consider the cost of taking up a pretty standard English course, say, one that uses Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley’s Innovations or an FCE immersion course. (If you’ve never used Innovations before it’s one of the better written ESL coursebooks and is virtually teacher-proof.  Anyone can make a lesson worth the money students have paid and a reasonably good teacher can look awesome at getting the job done.)

If we’re going to run on the debate of  “quality”  between a native-speaking teacher and a non-native speaker teaching them there’s hardly any argument because these courses are really idiot-proof.  It costs a grand total of RM480 for 32 hours (or GBP60) in a comparable classroom environment compared to  OVER RM8,115 or GBP1,640 for the same duration.

I really cannot calculate how much more in percentage that comes up to but FYI this is just the tuition cost and does not even cover food and accommodation, transport, visa, and other miscellaneous expenses while there. For that kind of money, we’d have the luxury of taking our own sweet time attending 7 years of language courses at our home country with the assurance of a success rate many times over that of a 2-week course in London.

Of course it’s true that in England it simply costs more to operate a language class. I did grow up sitting in front of the TV learning English with the rest of Mr. Brown’s class and thus  have a one-dimensional idea of what it’s like.  But it doesn’t make economic sense for a student to spend half their inheritance taking up 2 weeks or whatever makes up 30-hours of study of English.

Yes, I’m simply trying to exaggerate the whole point by using the cost of studying for an English course in London when we were actually discussing the decline in numbers of foreign students being fed into Australian universities by Australian ESL schools.   But I’m sure it’s not that much less taking up ESL in Australia or the US now that there’s been some not insignificant activity in the Forex this last year.

I’m reminded of an adult student I once had who took a crash-course in English from me before heading to China to further her studies. (Yes, China.) She said that many years before she had spent an entire year and quite a fortune to get a piece of certificate to say she studied English for a year in Australia (after several years of  having taken English classes at the local British Council.) She felt rather cheated of the whole experience and wished she had had this learning experience two decades earlier.

If it costs only 10% or less to learn English to the same or above the standards offered by language classes in a Western country – why pay more?

A natural evolution from this trend to stay local to learn Standard English is the opportunity to offer twinning programs (since Asian countries now have the language competency and support network to acquire the necessary standard of English to undertake those courses). This trend that began in the early 90s was meant to increase the number of students who will be fed to their overseas campus by making an overseas degree more affordable. However, the knowledge transfer obtained through these twinning programs plus the increasing proficiency of non-native speakers created an opportunity for local private education to design and implement courses to the standards of their foreign counterpart – well, if they wanted to, that is.

Let’s be honest: Since higher education ceased being free in Australia and New Zealand not many felt obliged to pay thereafter.  The real reason people (well, Asians, who else) are paying for an Australian degree is to get those extra points for an Australian PR and not return, thereafter, to their native country. Asian filial piety demand of the children, who were raised with the explicit knowledge that it’s the blood, sweat and tears of their parents who sent them there, not to forget to repay their parents.  This means bringing the entire family over some day.

I’m writing all this in my capacity as an ESL tutor who has interviewed dozens of  Thai, Malaysian and  Chinese students about their intention of picking up English while in Malaysia.  Whether or not the Australian Higher Ed industry will admit it a very significant percentage of students who go there have an explicit knowledge to enter with a student visa and “jump the airplane”. Canberra’s tightening of visa requirements is, no doubt,  an exsanguination of the multi-billion dollar Australia Higher Ed economy.

As for the US, Australia’s bane may just be their boon. The US has been traditionally less attractive because of the distance while the same is true of course for Canada with the added disadvantage of the cold climate.  The UK remains a favourite destination for middle-class families from the Asian Commonwealth nations as the old charm of England is still romanticized in textbook readings illustrating our historical connections to our former Imperialist. But then again, we don’t know for how long more. Traditionally, Malaysian families who chose the UK as an education destination tend to qualify for PR purely on the basis of their financial standing and professional credentials and thus do not need to live vicariously through their children in order to emigrate.

In the end the Australian Higher Education industry may just have to brace itself for the inevitable :  that they might as well outsource the entire Australia faculty to an Asian destination (do I hear Singapore and Malaysia?)

If ever an Australian university is caught outsourcing grading to India and Malaysia that might just spell an abrupt end to the whole “Australian Higher Education ” bubble as we know it. In fact, that could just be the catalyst we need to kick off a 21st Century Revolution in Education, centered in Asia,  led by non-native speakers of English with the collaboration of the best educators from the US, UK and Australia. Only God knows how the most ethical and dedicated teachers in those countries must’ve felt all these years holding their stomachs in while watching universities from their countries take advantage of Asian students and their parents’ hard-earned money.

My next post is about a student who is about to go to Australia who asked me whether I heard her right that I had just told her she doesn’t need to take an English course after giving her a lengthy 2 hour free consultation and assessment.

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