The Lessons of GEOS Australia.

Over on his blog, Alex Case raises the important issue of GEOS Australia closures earlier this year. It includes a well-researched piece by about the reasons for closure and the possible implications for the Parent Group and its operations in Japan. There is a discussion forum (sometimes painful given its unhelpful tone and occasional outbursts of racism) on the site which further discusses the issue. Unfortunately, the article does not touch upon the misery suffered by students and workers in Melbourne and other schools throughout Australia:

The single largest group affected is in Melbourne and has an estimated 530 students unable to complete their courses. Some had just one more week before the end of their course. A total of 390 employees have lost their job.

Now this is not to argue that the article is not an important article or that Alex is wrong to publicise it, but to suggest that the Australian context is as important, if not more important, than the “possible” implications for Japan (at least at present).  Moreover, by brushing over the differences between Australia (an operation largely based on the international student market) and Japan (an operation aimed largely at the domestic Japanese student market) important lessons are lost.

Firstly, the Australia (particularly Melbourne) collapse came on top of other important collapses of Australian providers in the international student market:

The GEOS closures follow the collapse of Chinese-owned vocational college group Meridian in November last year, which left more than 3000 students in Melbourne and Sydney stranded after investors lost confidence.

And a drive towards better regulation; as evidenced by the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Overseas Students) Bill 2009 in what is estimated at 15.4 billion Australian dollars, to be Australia’s third largest export market.

This is what an MP for the Greens had to say on the amendment:

I note that Mr Hall was very impressed with the article by Sushi Das in the Age on 24 November. I, too, thought she put things pretty well. With regard to the measures that were announced by the government and are appearing in this bill she made the comment:

“These measures, while welcome, should have been taken years ago — when industry insiders were screaming about major systemic problems in vocational education; when students were lodging complaints; and when news reports were regularly exposing rorts and scams.”
She went on to say that the minister:

“… has presided over a $5.4 billion export industry that has allowed private college operators to grow rich on the back of exploitation of students from developing countries …

she did not lift a finger to improve the workings of the regulator … “

Further, she said that this:

“… approach has allowed people to open colleges without … scrutiny. Operating … are colleges whose chief executives know nothing about education, colleges managed by people still in their 20s, colleges that teach automotive training from the ninth floor of a building … that do not keep proper records and … threaten to have students deported unless they pay fees in advance of the due date.
All this has been well known for a very long time. The government has just allowed it to happen until it became so difficult that something had to be done. Hence we have in front of us this bill which does something, but not very much.”

On 6 August Senator Hanson-Young and I met with representatives of international and postgraduate students. At that meeting a whole range of issues were raised with us, including the issue of overseas agents.

The students said that the agents are not truthful with prospective students about employment and accommodation, housing and potential permanent residency status in Australia. So overseas agents are untruthful and misleading potential students who may come to Australia. The students said there are big problems with private providers. Many said the quality is not good because they are not there for genuine education reasons; they have just a cash cow mentality.

They said there are problems with supervision of postgraduate students due to overworked staff. They mentioned housing; staff-student ratios; safety; visa processes; lack of comprehensive processes at orientation, including use of services — for example, the library; no social functions and cultural inclusion events; and no monitoring of standards and teacher qualifications for private providers.

They mentioned loneliness especially when enrolled in a course with a private provider. They said that English courses for international students are very patchy. They also said standards are falling, not only in courses run by the private providers but also there is no monitoring of teacher qualifications and a lack of comprehensive orientation. They raised the issue of concession fares not being available to international students in Victoria, which is an issue I have raised at least twice in this place. I urged the minister to extend concession fares to international students. They gave anecdotes about the pressures to pass students at all costs and the effect this has on domestic students and general standards; and they commented that the reputation of Australian international education is falling.

Mr Hall spoke about the effect of these failings on the industry and its reputation; although it is a valuable industry to Australia, I am more concerned about the effect on the students which has been caused by this debacle over which the government has presided for quite a long time.

In short, we might say the situation in Australia has more relevance for British ELT provision than for Japan. There is a shrinking International Student market and the scandals of that market are coming to the surface, particularly the parasitic and unaccountable role of Agents. GEOS Melbourne paid roughly the same on its marketing expenses (largely Agents fees) as it did to its teaching staff (click on image):

Students are being recruited abroad for courses in New Zealand, Australia or the UK, when up to 40% of the costs of those courses are in fact agents’ fees. Moreover, they have to trust in accreditation schemes like NEAS (the equivalent of the British Council scheme for English UK) which claim all courses are provided by “highly qualified staff”, when in fact the criteria for teaching in these schools is a four week training course in “TESOL methodology”.

We are not saying that workers in Japan should ignore the collapse of GEOS in Australia but we are saying that workers in the ELT market for international students need to learn the lessons quickly and begin to organise resistance. If a school is “profitable” and only suffers because of handouts to other departments of the industry and agents then no students should be turned away and no job losses incurred. The students should have their courses, at the same college and with the same teacher guaranteed (currently the government has “a responsibility” to find them an alternative course, it has no such responsibility towards the teacher or admin staff). If students and teachers are being robbed mercilessly by agents then that situation needs to be addressed (money for English classes should be exactly that and not a free ride for, what are in the most part , parasitic organisations). The government or some accountable Agency could provide the same service better and for a small proportion of the cost; the savings should go on pay and in-service training.

In view of the changing economic climate, it is now more important than ever that ELT teachers organise and resist.



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6 responses to “The Lessons of GEOS Australia.

  1. alexcase

    As ever, I rely on you to point out the big picture for me! Had no idea of the problems with other schools in Australia. In fact, I didn’t know there was a Shane NZ until I came across my mini-scoop by chance. Am relying on someone else to do any further digging for me

  2. marxistelf

    So that’s our lot in life, doing Sir Alex’s spade work!!

    No, seriously Alex, only too happy to help develop a story and many of your pieces, though rarely directly commented upon, find their surreptitious way into our thinking and planning of articles. We are forever “stealing” from you and will continue to do so!

  3. Breaking news is that the Japanese operation has just filed for bankruptcy in Tokyo.

    More to follow, no doubt. I wonder if this strengthens or weakens the hand of Berlitz in the dispute you cover elsewhere? I think students and teachers alike are getting smarter and realizing that they don’t need the middle men. I’ve done private lessons before – I got paid more than I did when working for the conversation school, the students paid less, and we could work out the schedule, materials and syllabus together. Everyone’s a winner, right ; D

  4. marxistelf

    Thanks Darren,

    Staggering news. The rumours were indeed spot on. What this means for teachers and students is not clear. What chance is there of the NAMBU foreign workers caucus organising a rally in Tokyo (or something)?

    The problems are becoming so widespread, only an imaginative and collective response can defend teachers and students’ rights.

    In this crisis it seems foreign workers (including NESTs) are being hit particularly hard. We came across this NPR broadcast on the treatment of Japan’s foreign workers:

    Our thoughts are with those teachers facing job losses and reduced hours and those students facing possible closure of their classes.

    We certainly have sympathy with the idea of a collective of teachers providing their services direct, without the “middle-men”, after all Nova and GEOS demonstrate all too clearly that language teaching is not safe in their hands.

    Ultimately, however, the response has to be collective and it should start with existing worker organisations.

    Organise and resist!

  5. No idea what the long term consequences will be, but in the short term it will not only be tragic for GEOS’s teachers and students, but also for all kinds of bits of the industry as students learn once again that they can’t trust Eikaiwa with their money. Not sure how you can resist a bankruptcy though, however well you organise??

  6. marxistelf

    Thanks Alex,

    You are right, these are not ideal conditions in which to organise, but organise is what we have to do.

    In the UK, Ford Visteon workers occupied factories in response to closures and won considerable concessions from management on redundancy pay and pension rights:

    In Spain, the CCOO (a key Spanish Union) helped run a campaign which won compensation for sacked workers following the financial collapse of
    Brighton Academies. Other Academies were shamed into accepting displaced students into their classes. The union worked to locate these teachers into other acdemies:

    (sorry but in Castillian and Catalan respectively).

    The key is to organise and organise quickly. The strategy will develop as teachers and students are brought together.

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