Risk of closures: Language schools plead for certainty over borders

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English language schools are warning their $500 million industry is in a critical state because of dwindling student numbers.

Student learning.

It’s getting close to decision time on the future of language schools, the boss of English New Zealand says. (File photo). Photo: 123RF

School managers told RNZ they needed to know when foreign students would be allowed to return so they could decide whether to remain open or lay off staff and go into hibernation.

The government and universities have discussed the possibility of allowing students into the country early next year after a two-week quarantine, but language schools said they could not wait that long.

English New Zealand, which represents 22 English schools, said there were about 3000 students at its members’ schools in March, and they estimated the number would fall 85 percent by September.

It said the schools would normally enrol about 20,000 students over the course of a year.

The chairperson of English New Zealand, Wayne Dyer, said one school had closed its Auckland campus because of the lack of students.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s critical, because clearly students start leaving and are not being replaced,” he said.

“Schools are in a position of having to decide, with the uncertainty over borders, how long they can stay open and at what point they should decide to either hibernate or indeed shut down.”

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He said the schools could probably hang on until September or October, but they needed more financial support and a much clearer indication of when the borders might reopen to foreign visitors.

“If English language is a $500 million contribution to GDP, how much value does government put on retaining that industry and ensuring its survival if we weren’t to open until next year, because once the schools close down it’s going to be hard for them to reopen again.”

Managing Director of Languages International Darren Conway

Darren Conway Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The director of Languages International, Darren Conway, said it had fewer than half the 200 students it would normally have at this time of year and enrolments would steadily decline as students finished.

“We’ve got close to normal costs on half our income albeit with costs subsidised by government at the moment,” he said.

“We can hold on if there’s an announcement made soon that the border will open and we can plan for that, for September or so.”

Conway said if students did not return until next year, the school would have to lay off most of its staff and find a way to go into hibernation.

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He said he was confident enrolments would bounce back if the borders were opened to visitors who quarantined for two weeks and the school already had enrolments for September and December.

Quarantine ‘working well’

The chairperson of ICL Education Group, Ewen Mackenzie-Bowie, said its English language schools would survive because they were large and many of their students were long-term enrolments preparing to study at tertiary institutions.

He said the company recently closed its Napier English school because of long-standing difficulties attracting enough students.

Mackenzie-Bowie said the border should be reopened to foreign students who quarantined.

“People have been coming into New Zealand since March and they’ve been going first into self-isolation and now it’s quarantine and it’s worked extremely well,” he said.

“Whether the person that’s come is a New Zealander or a Chinese student is completely irrelevant.”

The principal of CCEL College of English, Glenys Bagnall, said it closed its Auckland campus last month.

“With no students able to come into the country, it was just not sustainable to keep the school open,” she said.

She said the school’s Christchurch campus had reopened, and it was using online teaching for students who had repatriated during the border closure and others who were enrolled but unable to enter the country.

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“This, along with the government wage subsidy, is helping to sustain our Christchurch campus for the time being,” she said.

Bagnall said language schools needed to know when new students would be allowed to enter the country.

“We appreciate that we may not see a full return to open borders for several months – we are simply looking for some certainty around the time frames and process so that we can plan appropriately and prepare for the sector’s future revival, even if that is not until 2021.”

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