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Killing an industry softly

‘I can’t understand how government can stand by and watch an industry die,’ Stevin Smith, co-founder – SA College of Education and Languages.

Veronica Tima is a 40-year-old single mother who lives in Khayelitsha with her daughters and their dog Zack. She’s been working for the English Language School in Cape Town since 2009 and is now the office administrator.  

Within the next three months it is likely that Veronica will be out of a job. This will come as a direct result of government policies and two departments that do not communicate, which will ultimately force the language school out of business.

South Africa has a small, but growing language school industry. It competes with the likes of Canada, the UK, Australia and Malta and at one point had 1% of the global market for English language tuition. But the industry has been caught between a rock and a hard place – and its being stifled.

On the one side is the Department of Home Affairs whose new and onerous visa requirements mean that virtually no study visa’s have been granted to English language students since October.

On the other side of the rock – the hard place – is the department of Higher Education (DHE). And neither is budging.

When a foreign student applies for a student visa, they must satisfy a host of conditions that include proof of full payment of the course, proof of accommodation in SA, proof of funds for living expenses, a return flight ticket or proof of funds to purchase it and proof of insurance for health cover.

“Once these conditions were met, our clients would be granted a visa which lasts for the duration of the study course,” says Stevin Smith, co-founder of the South African College of Education and Languages. “So there’s a minimal risk that the subject might pose an illegal immigration threat.”

However, recent policy changes at Home Affairs mean this is not sufficient. 

South African language schools do not fall under the control of the DHE. Students who complete a language course don’t earn a recognisable degree, diploma or technical qualification – instead they emerge with a skill. This means that they do not fall under the DHE’s three accreditation bodies – Umalusi, the Council for Higher Education, or the SA Qualifications Authority (SAQA).

The Services Seta falls under the ambit of SAQA and this seta provides accreditation for the English language schools. The DHE says this accreditation is sufficient for a study visa.

However, Home Affairs will not recognise this accreditation and will only issue study visas to students studying at DHE accredited bodies.

“Home Affairs demanded a letter directly from DHE to prove our accreditation,” says Sunil Shah, director of the English Language School and employer of Veronica. “So we [and others] have obtained a letter from DHE stating that Services Seta was our accreditation body, and that we are legal and compliant. This message has not been communicated to the embassies and they continue to reject the language schools visa applications.”

This is costing the industry dearly. Shaun Fitzhenry, the director of the Bay Language Institute in Port Elizabeth, estimates he has lost R1 million this year already. “Without a study visa you cannot enter the country, and you can’t study on a tourist visa.” An audibly emotional Smith added: “I built this school from nothing into a business with a turnover of R6 million/year and 18 employees,” he says. “I can survive, but what about my people? What will they do?”

The language school industry is not like the clothing sector, which in its heyday employed tens of thousands of workers and which has received R3.5 billion in government support; it is not the mining industry which earns a large portion of SA’s foreign exchange. It is to some extent invisible.

This should not make it irrelevant. There are 40 to 50 accredited language schools in the country. These are small businesses employing three to 20 people. “We have two kinds of students,” says Fitzhenry. “The first group are travellers who want to improve their English and go site-seeing. They spend a lot of money here. Others are more serious, they come from Libya, Gabon, Angola, the DRC, Mozambique or further afield because they want to learn English as a stepping stone to further study,” he says. “This could be to write an entrance exam for a local or foreign university or to enroll at one of our flying schools, which are well respected.”

In 2013 language schools brought in $40 million in fees, according to information held by umbrella body EduSA. “A six month language course costs in the region of R70 000, and that is before the accommodation, tourism and other expenses are added in. The secondary spin-offs are big,” says Fitzhenry “Host families can earn R1 200/week – half of the Bo-Kaap is hosting foreign language students.”

While Home Affairs’ new visa regulations have exacerbated the situation, the problems have been some time coming. In 2006 changes to the Education Act meant that language schools were not formally recognised by the DHE. In 2012 representatives from EduSA made a presentation to the Home Affairs parliamentary portfolio committee – to no avail.

“Then I flew to Pretoria to talk to Jackie Mckay, deputy DG responsible for Immigration at Home Affairs to present our case. They told me it’s not a Home Affairs issue. It’s a DHE issue,” says Smith.

Neither McKay nor Mayihlome Tshwete, DDG for Communcations responded to questions sent to them last week.

Alan Winde, Western Cape minister for Economic Opportunities, has attempted to mediate a solution. “These schools are important, they bring people to South Africa from fast growing economies around Africa. These links are important, it bodes well for future economic growth.”

The first round of talks did not resolve the situation and the province’s Red Tape Reduction Unit is preparing a second submission on the issue.

Veronica Tima and many others in her industry are praying that someone listens.

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I wonder how many, or if any, of our pontificating regulators/politicians have ever started and managed a business? What a shame. Ultimately their intentions are benign but they likely have no clue what it means to try to earn an honest living with limited resources.

This is a complex problem. There are numerous scandals worldwide about fly-by-night study programmes being used as back-doors for immigration. There was recently a big news story in Australia about foreign students getting degrees while barely knowing English because they generate money for universities.

Vigilance is of critical importance in this area. That said, it seems that this issue with the language schools is as a result of incompetence on the part of Home Affairs, rather than security-consciousness.

The ruling collective has long since run out of feet to shoot.

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