‘We’ve Been Sick for a While…’: English Language Education Industry’s Problems Run Deeper than COVID-19

Most people ask for an explanation when you mention that you work in ELICOS. This lack of understanding is at odds with the significance of this work in Australia. The English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students sector contributes more than $2 billion to an international-education industry worth upwards of $37.6 billion. Australia’s fourth-largest export, the sector supports over 250,000 jobs and over 750,000 students. It comprises various enmeshed institutions, including government regulators, private colleges, industry associations, education agents, universities, and more recently student and teacher unions. Many are invested in ELICOS, and yet it is not just the size of its contribution that is important but its relationship with education more broadly. ELICOS constitutes a key enrolment pipeline for the largest players in this space—universities and vocational education and training. Many have made the case that the COVID-19 pandemic poses an existential threat to ELICOS and therefore to these jobs, students and institutions. Phil Honeywood of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) likened ELICOS to the canary in the coalmine for international education. The pandemic has revealed the unsustainable and unethical business practices on which ELICOS colleges have always depended. That is, the proverbial canary has been unwell for some time. As the industry gears up its rhetoric of returning to normal, we should remember that for employees and students, these practices constitute a high degree of precarity and poor conditions. Recently, teacher-unionists have made some progress in combating these endemic problems with the support of the Independent Education Union (IEU).

Casualisation

Over 700,000 Australians have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and these losses were keenly felt within the ELICOS sector. Using the small amount of data available from among union members, a rough estimate is that most ELICOS colleges laid off 30 per cent to 50 per cent of their teaching staff. Again, this is a familiar story, and one that we have heard across industries. However, due to the casual nature of ELICOS, these kinds of occurrences are not uncommon.

English-language teaching occupies a position in Australia’s imagination as a flexible job in which teachers have a high degree of freedom.. Casualisation is sometimes upheld as the cornerstone of this flexibility, but we should not confuse a casual contract with casual work. ELICOS teachers are dedicated, full-time professionals in all but name, often staying with employers for a number of years. These ‘long-term casuals’ have no access to sick leave or holiday pay, and they work year-round, with just two weeks of (unpaid) leave over Christmas. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, colleges may also fire, stand down or rehire staff from a local supply of teachers desperate for reliable work when times are alternately lean or plentiful. This is not only true during a crisis but an accepted practice in a sector that is highly sensitive to fluctuations in student numbers multiple times a year. Combined with low pay, wage theft and a lack of union-negotiated enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs), this makes it impossible for teachers to feel secure and to financially plan for the future. The rhetoric of flexibility obscures this reality and exposes teachers to significant harms, and the uncertainty of being casual makes taking any collective action to ameliorate them very difficult.

Low wages and pay cuts

On 4 April 2020 a well-known, multinational ELICOS college attempted to impose a 15-per-cent below-award pay cut on teachers at its Melbourne and Sydney campuses. Although the college touted this as ‘temporary’ and necessary, it abandoned the cut when unionised teachers at the school and the IEU pressured management directly and via social media. Another Melbourne-based ELICOS college used the transition to online delivery to impose a reduction of $10 per hour on teachers already being paid below the award rate. Employers presented these cuts and others as unavoidable given the circumstances of COVID-19, but although their frequency has increased, these are not last-resort choices in a terrible situation. They are predictable outcomes of the way ELICOS has always been structured.

The low pay rates characteristic of ELICOS are partly attributable to the way the relevant award sets out minimum pay and entitlements for teachers. While the minimum wage of a casual ELICOS teacher may appear reasonable at $48.46, the reality is that the ‘real wage’ is much lower. According to the award, ELICOS teachers are paid for their ‘face-to-face’ teaching hours. Every hour of face-to-face contact is considered equal to 1.5 regular hours, to account for preparation, marking, administration and consultation. This means that teachers are paid $48.46 for 1.5 hours of work. In real terms, the minimum wage of casual ELICOS teachers is therefore $32.30. Without casual loading, the base rate is $25.52.

Although ELICOS teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree and a TESOL certificate, the ELICOS minimum hourly wage is only marginally higher than the national minimum wage and that of roles that do not require tertiary qualifications, such as call-centre work.

A key reason for over-reliance on the award is the rarity of union-negotiated EBAs covering teachers in the industry. However, and despite the challenges of organising as casual employees, ELICOS teachers have recently had success in renegotiating EBAs to secure better wages and conditions. Unionised teachers at Kaplan won a 12-per-cent pay rise over two years, and IEU-supported teachers are currently negotiating several agreements across the sector with the aim of improving pay and conditions. The work of union members has been vital not only in securing awards but in ensuring compliance with existing award conditions.

ELICOS providers rely on casualisation and ambiguities in the award to maximise profitability and responsiveness to a highly competitive and occasionally volatile market. Significant casualisation therefore provides flexibility for college owners at the cost of educational quality and teachers’ well-being. Casual teachers rarely have access to legitimate, ongoing professional development. Due to their real wages being extremely low compared to other sectors, they often must work at multiple colleges or across multiple shifts, sometimes spending twelve to fourteen hours a day at work—a clear threat to morale. Such long-term precarity also results in poor health and psychological outcomes for teachers, not to mention poverty and housing insecurity. Together, all of these things make achieving quality highly difficult, and the only way that teachers can change them is through increased job security, improved pay and better conditions. Permanent contracts and financial security give teachers an opportunity to take a seat at the table regarding how their workplaces operate and the structure of the courses they teach. Expert teachers are already the key to good quality-management in ELICOS; it is time that they were treated as such.

Regulation, colleges and quality

As colleges transitioned to online teaching during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they failed to provide proper training and sought to exploit regulatory ambiguities to increase class sizes for the sake of their bottom line. The result of this was that many teachers spent their own time and money to develop a framework for delivery, as colleges refused to budge on decisions to use freeware and provide limited support. In response to questions regarding student ratios, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) failed to provide clarity and announced that it would not be pursuing regulatory action for non-compliance. This led to suggestions from English Australia (the industry association for ELICOS) that teacher–student ratios were not the critical component, but that colleges should document how students were continuing to meet learning outcomes. In response to this, many colleges attempted to raise ratios, with one college placing fifty students in a single class. IEU members at the college in question took up the issue and requested formal confirmation from their director of studies that this was sanctioned by the regulator. Their director instructed them that ASQA had allowed this and told them not to pursue the issue. Members investigated with ASQA directly and were directed to an FAQ confirming that the ratio of one teacher to eighteen students was to be maintained. It was only through the actions of union members along with the public naming and shaming of colleges that teachers were able to maintain a standard of quality for their students.

This episode of miscommunication between regulators, industry associations and colleges seeking to protect their balance sheets is symptomatic of the environment in which ELICOS providers operate. This is an environment in which colleges have the opportunity to cut costs and find creative ways to meet the standards, sometimes while going unaudited for years. In doing so, they sustain themselves on the unpaid work of motivated professionals who care about their students. Beyond regular duties, this work includes adapting outdated materials and insufficient curricula. This is problematic when it comes to the level system in the award. Newer teachers are paid significantly less than those with more experience while doing significantly more work. At the same time, more experienced teachers often act as skilled mentors to newer teachers, but they are insufficiently remunerated for their expertise.

Left to their own devices, colleges will continue to operate with a low level of integrity as the industry recovers from the pandemic. But teachers, staff and students are invested in having a genuinely well-regulated sector, and many legislative requirements, such as proper resourcing and appropriate student ratios, align with their demands. If ELICOS is to become truly sustainable, there are two clear paths. In 2019 ASQA reported on the need to secure quality in the sector, and it has recently committed to a rapid review of its regulatory practices. This is a great start, but the missing piece is organised labour. Teachers must come together to hold colleges accountable through worker-negotiated EBAs. This additional layer of accountability will improve international education for everyone invested in the sector. The victories of IEU members during this crisis show us what is possible.

In the coming months we can expect colleges and industry bodies to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for the reduction in enrolments and therefore the various failures of the sector. This is a clear problem given the international nature of ELICOS. However, if we regard ELICOS as the canary in the coalmine for international education, we must heed the early warning signs coming from those at the coalface. Teachers have recognised that the industry has been unwell for some time. As the sector calls for $87 million in assistance from the federal government, we must resist returning to a situation in which colleges continue to transfer the risks of doing business to teachers while withholding fair wages and job security. If the sector is to emerge from the current crisis with integrity, teachers must organise for greater levels of contract permanency and stability, which in turn have a positive impact on quality and sustainability for all of higher education.

About the authors

Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones has worked in the ELICOS sector for over seven years, performing various roles from teaching to compliance. He is an active teacher-unionist with an academic background and a keen interest in all facets of the international-education sector, including international-student security and the rights of migrant workers.

More articles by Andrew Jones

Orlando Forbes

Orlando Forbes is a union rep and ELICOS teacher. He is currently a project officer with the Independent Education Union (IEU VicTas), working on a project to organise the ELICOS sector. He has an interest and research background in sustainable, quality and equitable education and lifelong learning.

More articles by Orlando Forbes

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Comments

A trenchant commentary on a difficult subject. But it’s not just about teachers’ pay and conditions, as grossly substandard as these can be. I would add, from my own experience, that the sector also suffers from outcomes-based management regimes that skew the assessment and quality-of-teaching landscape. Institutions often require that a higher proportion of their students receive passing grades than any reasonable assessment of their performance would assign. Failing fee-paying overseas students is bad for business, in other words. A glaring conflict of interest rarely resolved in anyone’s genuine interest.

This is not only a problem for the ELICOS field, serious though the teaching conditions and restrictions on programming are there. There remain long-term consequences of dismantling the infrastructure for serious ‘migrant English’ – now immigrants are only entitled to apply for up to 510 hours of English Language. Back in the day, TAFE and AMEP could run courses for everyone, Neighbourhood houses hosted courses and conversation groups, as a ‘right’. They were an important social meeting place, an orientation to other cultures, and recognised that ‘language’ is not just grammar and vocab but also a way into culture and history.

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