Present tense

English language sector struggles for survival

Even with the JobKeeper program, the sector is finding it hard to see a way forward, but Australia’s success in containing the virus may provide a seed of hope.

The news about the coronavirus pandemic may be generally good in Australia, with daily new cases dropping to single digits in most states, but its long-term effects are still reverberating and the ELICOS sector is being hit particularly hard.

This is not surprising, given the industry is entirely reliant on the constant arrival of international students, but as long as the borders stay closed to non-citizens, it’s hard to see a way forward for many colleges.

JobKeeper has kept many colleges afloat in the short term, allowing them to keep many teachers on the books, despite having little or no real work available for them. Teachers, support staff and colleges have done a phenomenal job in rapidly moving all delivery to online mode, and some colleges have been able to sign up some students living overseas. But sooner rather than later, student numbers will start to dwindle, and the viability of many colleges will be called into question.

The IEU has sought briefings from many colleges, as well as English Australia, about how they see the road ahead. Most colleges are attempting to keep operating in the short term, but Kaplan International Languages has already advised it anticipates having only 18 students nationwide by August, while venerable institutions such as Sydney College of English have already closed their doors for good.

Several colleges have indicated an intention to 'hibernate' their operations, in the hope of restarting in several months when the borders reopen and something close to normal starts to return.

The Federal Government has made some effort to cushion the blow for many employers, not least through the JobKeeper program, as well as numerous tax breaks for smaller providers. However, the government is yet to commit to any broader relief package for the industry, and until support is forthcoming, most colleges will continue to struggle.

JobKeeper, while a welcome lifeline for many in the sector, has been uneven in its effects, and some employers have found the program’s requirements of the program onerous and cumbersome, particularly the requirement to pay employees first before seeking reimbursement from the government – cash flow concerns are front and centre.

In 2021 and beyond colleges could market Australia as a safe destination in which to study. Whether there will be enough colleges still around to take advantage of this is an open question.

There are emerging risks for employees, too, with recent suggestions that they may be required to repay any JobKeeper payments provided by employers later found to be ineligible for the program.

The Federal Government is also seeking to remake the industrial relations landscape in the wake of the pandemic, and to that end, it has convened a 'round table' of stakeholders, with the ACTU invited to join numerous business groups to see if there is any common ground for changes to the industrial relations system.

While co-operation should always be encouraged, and union members can feel confident in the leadership of ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and President Michele O’Neil, the history of anti-union and anti-worker sentiment in the Liberal Party should give all union members pause for concern about what might come out of this.

Longer term there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Australia has emerged as one of the 'good news' countries, with early restrictions and good social buy-in helping greatly to limit the spread of the virus. Australia has avoided some of the horror that occurred in Europe, the United States, the UK and elsewhere. This provides an opportunity in 2021 and beyond to market Australia as a 'safe' destination in which to study. Whether there will be enough colleges still around to take advantage of this is an open question.

Union membership has never been more important, so do encourage your colleagues who are not already members to join the IEU. Your union is run for the benefit of members, but union rules limit what assistance can be given to new members, especially those with a problem that arose before they joined. There are several ways to join:

over the phone: 8202 8900



Union fees are tax deductible and there are many broader benefits of IEU membership:

Encourage your colleagues to join today!

Kendall Warren