A report commissioned by English Australia has examined opportunities in the Chinese ELT market, highlighting strong general demand for English, a lack of awareness of the benefits of standalone English study overseas, and the importance of agents in the market.
Conducted by StudentMarketing (now Bonard) and supported by Australia’s Department for Education and Training, Raising the profile in China of Australia’s excellence in the delivery of English language training was based on qualitative interviews with sector representatives from Australia and China, and surveys of 200 Chinese agents, 2,746 prospective students, 623 parents and 36 Australian colleges.
Explaining the motives for the research, Brett Blacker , Chief Executive Officer of English Australia, told StudyTravel Magazine, “The report really opens up a lot of possibilities for both the sector and government to explore. This is the first comprehensive study of the Chinese ELICOS [English language] market that has been completed, and we hope that it gives our members and the wider industry a solid foundation to build on.
“Rather than being a prescriptive list of recommendations, the report is intended to be a starting point for further research and idea generation. It highlights areas of the market that could deliver significant results should an organisation make the investment.”
Although China is the largest source country for Australia’s ELICOS sector, the majority of students are enrolled on foundation or academic preparation programmes for higher education, with only around five per cent on stand-alone English courses (2,665 in 2017).
The authors of the report cited Chinese Ministry of Education data that estimates that almost one-third of the population is engaged in some form of English speaking or learning, said that consumer research shows strong demand for learning English for career purposes, and highlighted that there has been massive growth in online English study to an estimated 25.8 million learners in 2017.
A price scan of 20 major in-country English language providers also showed that the average cost per lesson in China was actually more expensive than in Australia.
But the study abroad ELT market has not developed significantly, with an outbound ratio for English language learning around 24 times lower than typical mature European markets, the authors claim.
“The major obstacle is the public, corporate and government belief that studying English abroad is not needed, nor advantageous,” they said. Perceptions of the difficulty of Australia’s ELICOS visa regime had also stuck, despite improvements in the grant rate to 77.1 per cent in 2016/17.
The authors said that Chinese agents are used to offering more expensive products where they can provide a higher added value or inexpensive packaged group tours, and that ELICOS sits somewhere in between. Market research of Chinese agents revealed that 63 per cent claimed to be able to process English study abroad, but not all were actively promoting it.
Nonetheless, agents were cited as instrumental in any future growth. “Agents represent the biggest opportunity to develop the market. There is a clear need for a strategic education and partnership programme with agents. The dependency of end-customers on third-party advice for these types of programmes was emphasised. Promotion through agents will have a better effect if coupled with awareness campaigns deployed through local on-the-ground support.”
The authors said, “Should the Chinese market reach 1/10 of the level of Poland (outbound mobility of 0.2 per cent) China alone would generate 60,000 standalone ELICOS students, 228,000 student weeks and AUS$277 million revenue per annum.”
Commenting on the opportunities the research outlines and the likely actions to follow, Brett told StudyTravel Magazine, “The report highlights an untapped opportunity in English-only students from China with volumes that could yield incredible results. However, the report also highlights that there is no single solution that will magically allow us to capture this opportunity.
“In the short term, it’s unlikely that we will see the significant level of investment that is needed to stimulate an immediate response. However, the report highlights numerous niche opportunities that could be targeted by individual institutions or through consortia models.”
He added that he hoped for increased government collaboration on the back of the findings. “From teacher training to an awareness campaign, there are several paths that could succeed but they need a coordinated and targeted approach that is a true collaboration between government and industry. We would love to see investment kick-start some pilot programmes as suggested by the report, but we would first like to see government work with industry to develop a clear strategy on China.”
Asked if Australia was at a competitive advantage to tap into any growth in China’s overseas ELT demand, Brett said, “No single country has the leading edge in China’s English-only market. We’re yet to see an international model make significant inroads into this market. That said, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be Australia.”
In the report, consumer preferences for the USA and the UK were highlighted in some factors of study abroad choice while Australia was the favoured destination in others, and the authors noted that the UK’s ELT sector has also been active in promoting itself in China.
“Our success in delivering English-only programmes within this region certainly puts us in a strong position to achieve this,” said Brett. “If we look at other significant markets in North Asia like Korea, Taiwan and Japan, we have been very successful. In fact, ELICOS-only student visa holders from these countries typically outnumber higher education student visa holders in Australia according to 2018’s Department of Education and Training data.
“Obviously, all of these countries have their own unique circumstances but given our success in this region, why not in China? One of the reasons for the report was to investigate why China has been challenging in recruitment compared with other North Asian markets. The better we understand the market, then the greater the opportunity for us to succeed in it.”
The full report is available on the English Australia website.