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The Business Case for English Language Programs in Continuing Education

The Business Case for English Language Programs in Continuing Education
Robust approaches to international marketing, the infrastructure to manage a unique population of international students and high-quality and enthusiastic staff are all critical elements of building a successful English language program.
At a recent Languages Canada conference, my industry colleagues established that teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) was the second oldest profession in the world (motherhood, of course, being the first).[1] As we all know, English is the current lingua franca of international business, education, science, technology, aviation, diplomacy and even entertainment.[2]

What does that mean for continuing education?

Globally, it means there are more non-native speakers of English than there are native. Policy-wise, it means many countries have put English language learning as a national priority to help globalize their population. Theoretically, it means there are about a gazillion ways for a student to learn English: from hiring a tutor to watching Friends, from singing Justin Bieber songs to memorizing Robert Frost poems, from filling out workbooks to running Rosetta Stone on your computer, from dating someone in Australia to enrolling in an immersion program in Canada.

With emerging technology, Massive Open Online Courses and apps, there is now an even wider array of tools for learners to select from in order to expand their vocabulary as well as develop listening, speaking, reading and writing skills.

The Changing Marketplace

Traditionally, ESL instructors have not garnered the same level of respect as other teaching professionals; people think if you speak English fluently, you can teach it. This idea is perpetrated because some ESL teachers started as backpackers, teaching English overseas to fund their travels. Teaching English seemed like a fun and easy job (it’s not, by the way, if you want to be good at it).

As the industry matured and as demand for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) increased due to pressures on postsecondary institutions to recruit international students, professional designations and industry associations helped establish quality standards in methodology, pedagogy and classroom management. The reality of putting together a multi-level, multi-section program for hundreds of full-time intensive students flying in from all over the world can be complex.

Assessing the Competition

English language learning is offered online or in-class; it can be instructor-led, self-directed or in clubs; and it can be formally structured and levelled or completely customized. Students can take a course or pass a test (e.g. TOEFL, TOIEC, IELTS, MELAB, etc.) to prove competency for a job or academic program. Broadly, people learn English for academic (getting into university), business (improving career prospects) or general purposes (traveling or immigrating).

ESL schools may operate privately (as a standalone, as part of a franchise or as part of a chain) or in a public institution (as a standalone, as part of a department or as part of a continuing education unit). One needs to understand this is a very competitive market to enter. It may appear there are low barriers to enter the ESL market (well, you need teachers and a classroom…), but, frankly, it can be a risky business and difficult to differentiate in a crowded marketplace that spans the globe.

Looking to the Future

What’s in the future for ESL? Without a crystal ball, it’s hard to say. The importance of EAP for postsecondary institutions recruiting international students would suggest that pathway programs with conditional acceptance into degree programs will continue to grow for at least the next few years.

However, macro issues such as government policies on visas and immigration, mobility of global professionals, significant investment in learning English locally, upcoming shifts in higher education as a whole, creative technological advances, exchange rates and costs of travel all affect this industry.

No one can see into the future and tell us exactly what will happen. However, it’s clear that institutions must be flexible and responsible in order to meet the changing needs of our students.

Thriving in this Environment

Student needs, of course, encapsulate more than just what happens inside the classroom.

Firstly, you need to ensure you have excellent, qualified instructors and a solid curriculum with clear outcomes. But in order to build a sustainable program, you must also have a multi-pronged international marketing strategy, flexibility to manage fluctuating numbers, enthusiastic student services staff to acclimatize students to a new and unfamiliar environment, appropriate technology to support learning in and out of the classroom, as well as solid infrastructure to support payment, counselling, testing, placement, visa, housing, safety, banking and culture shock issues.

It’s essential to have a team of people who truly care about the well-being of international students, who can be particularly vulnerable when they first arrive. Your institution is now their home away from home.

The key to sustainable success is leveraging the strengths and uniqueness of our institutions, countries, locations and instructors. Offer students an experience they just can’t get anywhere else. Show them a side of the world they would normally never see and give them opportunities to connect, communicate and change.

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[1] For the purposes of this overview article, English as a Second Language (ESL) will be used to also represent English as an Additional Language (EAL), English as a Foreign Language (EFL) or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

[2] Ironically, Latin for ‘Frankish language’ or a French/German/Dutch common language from the 4th to 8th century in Europe.

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