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Student Experience Provides the Edge in the International English Program Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | Student Experience Provides the Edge in the International English Program Marketplace
In the international English language program marketplace, providing a strong customer experience is critical to forging a long-term relationship with a student.

This is the final installment of a two-part Q&A series, on the international English language program landscape. An immensely competitive space already, the rise of proprietary language program providers—private companies that offer English language programming across the US and internationally—is only turning up the heat on universities and is forcing leaders to look at new approaches to long-term viability. In the first installment, Gaskill explained that the biggest advantage proprietary providers have over universities is their infrastructural effectiveness. In this conclusion, Gaskill shares his thoughts on the competitive advantages universities have over proprietary providers.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In the first part of this series, we discussed the advantages proprietary English language programs have over universities. What are the biggest advantages universities have over their proprietary competitors?

William Gaskill (WG): In most university-affiliated programs, IEP directors have considerable autonomy and a wide range of responsibilities in addition to academic and administrative oversight. These include developing and managing large budgets, marketing and program promotion, establishing partnerships and agreements with overseas study abroad consulting agencies, and overseas student recruiting. As a result and although our jobs are often incredibly demanding, we enjoy a strong sense of ownership and involvement in all aspects of our operation.

For example, it’s common for us to decide to offer a new program. If so, we conduct needs assessments, develop the curriculum, create or select course materials, develop a budget, plan promotional campaigns, and contact student sponsoring organizations and study abroad consulting agencies to help “sell” the program. If the program succeeds, we own the success. If it fails, we accept responsibility, go back to the drawing board, analyze what went wrong, and try again.

In recent searches for managerial positions, we have interviewed a number of candidates who were or had been directors of a center, which was a part of large proprietary company. Often we found that their duties were limited to the day-to-day operation of the IEP, e.g., supervising instructors, testing and placing students, student advising, and instructor observation and evaluations. These candidates seldom had experience developing and managing large budgets, managing marketing and promotion, working directly with sponsors and agents, or overseas student recruitment. Those duties were the domain of upper company management. In short, those of us in self-supporting university-affiliated programs have the satisfaction of running virtually all aspects of our programs.

Although speculative, I think loyalty and commitment to the university also play an important role in university-based programs. Many of our instructors and staff have an unmatched sense of identity with the program because they graduated from our university. I think our students pick up on that. It would be interesting to conduct a study on administrators, instructors, and staff of university-based versus proprietary programs to determine whether or not there is a difference in job satisfaction and years of service in the program. Of course, it would be necessary to consider at least three types of programs: those which are directly affiliated with and are a part of a university, proprietary programs that are located on a university campus, and proprietary programs that are not located on a university campus. Just guessing, but I’d vote in favor of the university-affiliated programs when it comes to program loyalty and commitment.

Quality control is another important factor. Our university-affiliated program operates “at the pleasure of the university.” If there were major complaints from students, staff or instructors, it’s likely that academic and human resources departments, along with upper university administration would be involved. There are institutional checks and balances in place to ensure that we adhere to high academic standards as well as to university guidelines and regulations.

Finally, students in a university-affiliated program generally have greater access to services, facilities and opportunities that are not typically associated with proprietary programs, especially those that are not located on university campuses. These include libraries, special interest and social clubs, sports and recreational facilities, cultural programs, and medical facilities.

Evo: How does the reputation of proprietary providers stack up against that of universities?

WG: Thirty or forty years ago, I think there was a perceived difference in the quality and professionalism of proprietary programs, and I don’t think that they were as highly regarded as programs that were part of a university. At that time, many proprietary directors and instructors lacked professional training and graduate degrees in the fields of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Applied Linguistics, and Language Learning & Instruction.

However, the field has matured and the differences are often not as pronounced as they once were. Most propriety and university-affiliated programs strive to hire instructors with master’s degrees in TESOL, Applied Linguistics, or closely related fields. Professional organizations have played a major role in raising program standards. Regardless of their affiliation, most programs aspire to membership in professional organizations such as EnglishUSA, formerly the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP), whose members comprise both university-affiliated and proprietary programs. More and programs of all types seek commission on English Language (CEA) Accreditation and are obliged to submit to a rigorous examination of all aspects of their programs. Finally, many student sponsors and overseas organizations have become more discerning and expect that IEPs meet specific requirements and accreditation.

From a business standpoint, especially for totally self-supporting university-affiliated programs, the differences between proprietary programs and university-affiliated programs are not significant.

Although many continuing education programs are non-profit, they still have to pay close attention to the bottom line, to expenses, and margins to cover losses, capital expenses, and build reserve funds. Thus, all types of program face similar challenges when it comes to finances.

Evo: So many private organizations have campuses located across the world. How do you compete with an organization that’s willing to take the education to the student, when a student would actually have to come to California to enroll in your IEP?

WG: For English language study, most people prefer immersion programs in the country where the target language is spoken. Students who study in English-speaking countries learn as much, if not more, outside the classroom than they do in the IEP; life outside the classroom requires the use of English, which reinforces and supplements classroom instruction.

When students enroll in IEPs in their home countries where English is not widely spoken, most of their classmates speak the same first language, and there is a natural tendency to fall back on their native language during breaks and even in class. When they leave the classroom and return home, they revert back to their first language. If students plan to continue their education in an English-speaking environment, the practical and cultural experiences gained in an immersion program offer distinct advantages and better chances for success in adapting to an academic environment.

It’s important to note, however, that there are practical considerations in studying English in the home country, especially because IEP tuition costs have become incredibly expensive in countries where English is widely spoken. If possible and depending on their financial situation, students are often better off reaching intermediate or high-intermediate English language proficiency before enrolling in an IEP in an English-speaking country. A year or eighteen months in many IEPs costs almost as much or more than a year in some university degree programs.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add on the competitive landscape of the international English language program market?

WG: The IEP industry has become extremely competitive. Even now when I hear about a college or university that wants to start its own IEP, I cringe at the thought. As I pointed out in an earlier article in this publication, unless an IEP is extremely well-funded and can afford to operate very small classes with only a few students per section, running a successful, quality IEP usually requires at least 150—200 students. Those numbers are needed to create cost-effective, relatively homogenous instructional levels based on student language proficiency. Most programs try to offer six or seven levels of language proficiency ranging from beginning to high-advanced, and this difficult with enrollments under 100.

Start-up costs are high, and maintenance costs can be higher. Programs require not only qualified instructors but also administrative and support staff. If they don’t have an IEP, college and universities are likely to be better off partnering with an existing university-affiliated or proprietary IEP than attempting to create their own.

Much of the competition stems from the propriety providers, and if university-affiliated IEPs wish to prosper and succeed, they need to pattern their business practices and services along the lines of the proprietaries. Customer service is key. University-affiliated programs need to view their students and their student-referral organizations as clients and focus as much on pre- and post-arrival services as they do on program and instructional quality.

This interview has been edited for length.