ELT providers in the UK are waiting anxiously to find out if funding for Italy’s PON scheme, which provides group scholarships for language study abroad in Europe, will be released this year. This, along with the programme’s challenges and opportunities, was a hot topic of discussion among providers in London this week.
Many UK ELT providers have found PON funding to be one of the few reliant streams of revenue during a tense few years of trading. However, the €3bn to distribute to Italian schools between 2014 and 2020 to fund three- and four-week study abroad placements in Europe was not released in 2015, despite anationwide rollout of the scheme in 2014.
“Improving the level of English language in our schools is absolutely crucial if we want to become good competitors in the world”
Only a handful of groups came to the UK last year, using residual funding from 2014. Adding to the rocky road, many providers say they struggle with agents overselling their offer, short-notice bookings and late payments.
At a session organised by theBritish Council, Trinity College London and English UK this week, educators expressed their frustrations that no confirmation has been given on 2016 funding, but many are hopeful that it will be announced in time to accept groups this summer.
Alfredo Mazzocchi, a consultant to the Italian MoE and chair of the non-profit Educare per Europa, assured attendees that the ministry is keen to release funds.
“They understand that improving the level of English language in our schools is absolutely crucial if we want to become good competitors in the world,” he said.
“Youth democracy makes democracy, and democracy has to favour youth mobility,” he stressed.
Both EUK and Trinity are working to open channels of communication with the MoE to encourage the release of funds.
“It might be that the problem is in the design phase, and the fact that it’s a new tranche of funding… therefore they want to redesign the programmes and evaluate the sector,”Huan Japes, deputy chief executive (professional services) at English UK, told The PIE News. “If we can get over that then we should be looking at PON groups towards the end of the year.”
Jimmy Hordon, director of Target English International, underscored the value of PON to UK providers: “You don’t want to miss out on the opportunity and count yourself out of that, and see all these groups go to your bigger, more muscular competitors.”
But Hordon added that like many providers, his centres have had a “lengthy delay” in payment for its PON intakes, most receiving the revenue after the course is complete.
“It is a problem with the project that we as providers in the UK are almost asked to fund this in advance; it’s not a very comfortable position to be in”
“It is a problem with the project that we as providers in the UK are almost asked to fund this in advance; it’s not a very comfortable position to be in,” he commented.
Hordon also outlined some key points schools must consider if they plan to take on PON groups.
“The most salient thing for me is the time factor – you don’t get long to pull most of these things together,” he said, explaining that schools can have as little as two weeks’ notice between funding being awarded and groups arriving.
This can create difficulties when organising the rich social programming that students expect, he said, citing one group that hoped to visit the Houses of Parliament at short notice.
Flexibility to accommodate a bespoke programme of activities is “the thing that in, my experience, most Italian groups are looking for”, he said, but warned that costs can stack up, particularly as common requests include theatre shows or excursions to London or Edinburgh.
These discussions brought home a key concern among providers: that some education agencies over-promise on what schools can deliver, and attendees agreed that more stringent quality assurance for agencies is needed.
Andrew Hjort, principal of Melton College in York, emphasised the need to know exactly what agents are selling, informed by “bitter experience” of having to deliver on over-promising by agents.
“We need to try and work either directly with agents or with other bodies to make sure there’s more control over the entire process – so not just over the bid or tender stage, but the entire student journey through this programme is better managed,” Japes commented.