New strategy aims to establish Australia as global leader in English language teaching

A new strategy released by Australia’s Department of Education and Training (DET) aims to further strengthen the country’s English language training sector (more commonly referred to as ELICOS [English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students]). The government is inviting stakeholder comment on the draft “English Language Teaching International Engagement Strategy 2025” until 3 April 2020.
The strategy is underpinned by four strategic objectives:
(i) providing a welcoming, safe and world leading student experience,
(ii) supporting the English language teaching sector to actively embrace new opportunities and adopt innovative practices and models,
(iii) Australia’s English language teaching sector is flexible supporting both standalone and seamless transition in further studies, and
(iv) English language teaching is recognised as a valued and integral part of Australia’s international education sector.
These are elaborated in the draft strategy with specific action points for each, notably that Australia’s ELICOS sector will enhance quality assurance in English language teaching, smooth pathways to further study, and “identify new markets and business opportunities”.
The strategy was developed in collaboration with the country’s peak ELT body, English Australia. The association’s CEO, Brett Blacker, said in a related comment to SBS News that the recent coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the need to diversify the market for ELICOS providers.
“Diversification is critical and I mean we’ve seen just now – we’ve had impact from the coronavirus,” said Mr Blacker. “When issues like this do impact us, that diversity of students…is really part of our ongoing sustainability.”
Australia’s Minister for Education Dan Tehan added in a related statement that, “The strategy will identify opportunities for more students to study English in Australia and will build on the excellent reputation of our world-class providers. The strategy will map out opportunities to increase our English language teaching footprint in Australia, online and internationally…[and] will help ensure the sustainable growth of the sector through to 2025 and beyond.”
A key sector
The draft strategy highlights the importance of the ELICOS sector, both in its own right and in the broader context of Australia’s international education industry.
It notes that nearly 180,000 students studied English in Australia in 2018 “in language colleges, schools, vocational institutes, or universities across Australia, either as a stand-alone course for their personal or professional interest or as a pathway to further study in Australia.”
The annual economic impact of that enrolment is estimated at AUS$2.4 billion for 2018 (US$1.6 billion).
Recent data releases for ELICOS suggest that those numbers were essentially flat in 2019, with year-over-year commencements up less than 1% and overall enrolment growth of 1.2% through late-2019.
“English language teaching is an integral part of Australia’s broader international education engagement as learning English is often the first experience that an international student has of Australia,” explains the strategy brief. “English is an important pathway to further study, and many international students package English language training with their studies in other sectors.” DET reports that roughly one quarter of all foreign students in Australian higher education, and a third of those in vocational education and training (VET) programmes, begin their studies in an ELICOS programme. 
But, as the 2019 figures noted above will illustrate, ELICOS growth has been modest in recent years. Overall foreign enrolment has grown by double-digit increments for several years in Australia, but those gains have largely been driven by increases in the higher education and VET sectors. In contrast, ELICOS commencements have been held relatively flat between 2016 and 2019.
The DET brief highlights some of the competitive pressures facing the ELICOS sector, noting that, “The global environment for English language training is becoming increasingly crowded and challenging as more countries enter the market. Low-cost competitors like the Philippines have emerged, offering potential English language students new and cheap study destination alternatives. In-country English language training provision is growing, and providers are developing new technologies and modes of teaching English, both of which challenge the traditional mode of learning English by traveling to an English-speaking destination.”
This observation underscores challenges that are common to all major ELT destinations today, and that have had the effect of constraining growth for language programme enrolments in most leading, English-speaking destinations. It also provides the important context for a strategy that will now aim to further “leverage Australia’s reputation for high-quality teaching and build on our historical success to ensure that Australia’s English language teaching sector grows and thrives onshore, online and offshore.”