Visa settlement gives green light to ELT industry

Students of 'English as a foreign language' intending to study through recognised English language training providers in South Africa are now eligible for study visas of up to 18 months, in a settlement announced at the end of November between the government departments of home affairs and higher education and training.

Changes to the Immigration Act in May 2014 were unclear on the formal recognition of the English Language Training or ELT providers as ‘learning institutions’.

As a result, the ELT sector struggled to secure study permits for their students. Enrolments suffered, with student numbers dropping 37% between 2014 and 2015 (from 10,062 in 2014 to 7,336 in 2015). Student weeks dropped by 22% (from 55,394 to 45,342) over the same period.

The representative body for the sector, Education South Africa or EduSA, has been working to get legislation amended.

Court action

In a statement EduSA said by July 2016 the association felt it had exhausted its options through political and bureaucratic channels and turned to the courts.

The lawsuit led to an 8 November court hearing, and subsequently to what EduSA termed an “amicable settlement” with both the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

The settlement allows eligible students admitted to or enrolled with the 22 EduSA member-schools to receive a study permit for up to 18 months.

“Those study permits will be awarded through a Ministerial exemption and as a special dispensation exclusively for students at EduSA schools,” said the statement.

The settlement also provides that EduSA members apply for provisional registration as ‘learning institutions’ under South African immigration legislation.

ELT accreditation

The goal is to develop a clear path to government accreditation for ELT providers in South Africa.

“The special dispensation is valid for the full duration of the accreditation process until such time that EduSA members meet the ‘learning institute’ definition requirements,” said EduSA Chairman Johannes Kraus.

Kraus said the Department of Higher Education and Training had agreed to assist institutions with registering an appropriate qualification that matched the way their industry works.

He said the move had kick-started a process of formalising the English as a foreign language or EFL industry in South Africa.

“This is tremendous news for our organisation, and we look forward to working with our partners in government over the coming months,” said Kraus.

Visa clarity

Stefanie de Saude, the immigration law specialist acting for EduSA in its lawsuit, said: “This is the first time that clarity has been issued with regard to students studying on visitor visas, allowing South African embassies and consulates around the world to issue the respective visas more consistently.”

“This will significantly ease the entry of foreign students into our country,” De Saude said.

EduSA Vice-Chair Torrique Borges said in September that two schools – Inlingua Cape Town and English Language School – had been forced to close this year while others had to reduce both their teaching as well as administrative staff numbers due to declining student enrolments because of the prevailing visa situation.

A number of schools had moved to smaller premises to keep their schools more financially viable due to the current circumstances, Borges said, adding that more schools are definitely at risk of closing should the current immigration legislation remain in place.