How English language course providers can maximise the opportunity in China

In 2017, there were close to 180,000 ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) students in Australia, with around 25% of these coming from China. ELICOS courses are an incredibly important to Chinese students in particular, who have to meet English proficiency standards before they can commence with their studies.

While the majority of Chinese ELICOS students go on to undertake higher education in Australia, there may in fact be other areas of opportunity that ELICOS providers are overlooking.

To find out more about the latest ELICOS trends in the Chinese market, and how ELICOS education providers can take advantage of these, we spoke to CEO of English Australia, Brett Blacker. (English Australia is the national peak body for the English language teaching sector, whose members include independent ELICOS providers, vocational ELICOS providers, TAFE colleges and universities.) Here are some of his insights.

ELICOS numbers in Australia are steadily increasing

Australia remains a highly popular destination for Chinese university students, currently making up around 38% of the international student cohort. What may be less widely known, however, is that the numbers are also increasing in other educational sectors. In vocational education, for example, China is now the number-three source market, making up around 9% of the cohort as of November 2018 – this represents a year-on-year growth of 10%. China is also now the number-one source of international students for the primary and secondary school sector, and while the numbers are relatively small, particularly compared to the higher education numbers – as of November 2018, Australia was hosting around 5,800 Chinese international school students – this number is still significantly higher than the number-two destination, Vietnam (1,700 students).

This, of course, has a knock-on effect for ELICOS providers, as Chinese students must have a certain level of English language proficiency before starting their studies – around 70% of ELICOS students will go on to other forms of study, whether it be higher education, vocational training or school (only 6% of Chinese students solely took ELICOS courses). From 2016 to 2017, the number of ELICOS students from China grew by around 15%.

Brett Blacker

That being said, says Blacker, the numbers aren’t growing at quite the same rate. “One thing that is interesting to observe in the latest data is that the rate of growth in those higher education and vocational sectors is actually higher than in ELICOS. This would indicate that students are improving their language proficiency either offshore or through other channels before commencing their studies in Australia.”

“Executive” ELICOS

This tendency for students to work on their language proficiency prior to coming to Australia means ELICOS providers may need to start looking to other market segments. One key area of opportunity, says Blacker, is offering short-term (i.e one to four weeks) “executive” ELICOS courses, that blend tourism and language education. This would be aimed at young professionals wishing to increase their employability.

This would help us compete with other key ELICOS destinations, such as the US and the UK – Australia, after all, is a highly attractive destination to Chinese tourists, so being able to gain cultural and travel experiences while also boosting language skills would be highly desirable to young, affluent professionals.

It’s important to remember that this demographic prefers to travel around the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) when they tend to be given several days off, so ELICOS providers should time their courses accordingly.

Transnational ELICOS study

English language courses within China are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with students paying high fees to participate in highly individualised courses, either one-on-one or in small groups, which blend online and offline learning. In order to compete in this highly competitive market, therefore, Australian ELICOS providers need to consider how they can make their packages more attractive, and how they can maximise their opportunities offshore as well as onshore.

Another key trend is the rise of transnational education – many Australian higher education institutions are in fact co-delivering some of their English language course in China, helping to ensure that students’ language proficiency is already up to par before they commence their studies in Australia.

“It still remains a really valuable part of our framework, as we look to make sure that we're not just recruiting students purely onshore, but we are looking at enriching our relationships offshore by co-delivery and other modes that will allow greater access to Australian education,” says Blacker.

Another area of opportunity worth exploring is teacher training, for which Australia is “well respected”, says Blacker. Again, a transnational education would be highly desirable for this demographic, as it gives them the best of both worlds: they can remain close to family and friends and seek local employment, but also progress their language and teaching skills and have an international experience.

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