How To Save Money Studying ESL In Australia

You can probably save 30-40% of your booking with this advice. If this post becomes very popular and everyone starts doing it then the savings are less.

I was talking on Facebook to a Japanese friend recently. She's going to Melbourne and one of the things she will do when she is there is study English as a Second Language (ESL). I was giving here some advice that I want to share with more people.

My Background

I used to teach ESL at a few different schools in Sydney. After I finished teaching I started a company that was selling a product to ESL schools (the company failed). From these experiences I have learned a lot about how the industry works in Australia. I think it's natural to assume that it's the same in USA, UK, and so on. I don't work in the ESL industry anymore and I don't expect to again in the future so I can write freely in this post.

I also lived and worked in Korea teaching English for a year as well.

In this post I'm discussing the private, for-profit language schools you can find in cities like Sydney and Melbourne.

How The ESL Industry Works

Once you understand the economics of ESL schools it will become obvious why they operate the way they do. ESL schools get their students from other countries. By themselves they lack the resources to advertise and promote overseas. So they pay agencies in those countries (Japan, Korea, China, Brazil and Western Europe, Middle East are the popular regions) to send students to them.

Often the schools in Sydney and Melbourne are owned by people from these regions or South Asia. They use their connections to help them but ultimately they prefer to pay for students.

The Agencies

Note: I don't have direct experience about how the agencies operate other than what I was told while I was working in Australia. Having said that the model is fairly intuitive.

I'll explain how the agencies work by using Japan as an example. There are agencies in Japan who will promote going overseas to study English. You contact them and tell them what you want. In the best case scenario they will match you with a school in their network and send you there. For business reasons they will not recommend a school to you that they don't get a commission from. At this point there will be situations where the school will recommend something that might not be the best option for the student.

Let's say the student wants to live beside the beach but the agent doesn't have a relationship with a school like that. The agent has a choice: tell the student directly they can't help, recommend a school next to the beach that they won't make any commission on or lie to the student and send them to a school one hour from the beach. You can probably guess what usually happens. Of course, in the third scenario by the time the student arrives and finds out the truth it's too late to do anything about it.

Ideally, agencies will be honest in their marketing and only show schools they have connections with but that's not how they're incentivized economically.

When I taught there we often had students who were grossly misinformed by the agents about what the school offered. In short the agents would promise everything to get the student to sign and wouldn't check with us. When expectations weren't met the student usually blames the school and they're bitter because they have no power (especially in a foreign country) to fix the situation.

I always hate that. I want people to love their time in Australia and have great memories of visiting.

Another problem is that we could never be sure how many students would actually turn up. The agents would give us information but often we could have significantly fewer students actually arrive. From a planning standpoint that makes life hard. When I taught there was a rule that there was a maximum of 18 students per class (from memory).

So when the agents send wrong information then it meant there were either not enough teachers available or you had too many teachers and some had to be told "Sorry, we were wrong, we don't have any work for you for tomorrow or the next 4 weeks." Imagine not knowing if you have work tomorrow or not? Pretty stressful.

I'm not sure why the numbers were different, I never found out but my guess is the agents were booking one student for multiple schools.

Agents Have The Power

The schools depend on the agents to send students. No agents, no students. No students, no money. No money, no business. The end. That's why schools are reluctant to say "no" or push back against agents. The student is the customer. If they don't like something at the school they can complain to the agent. The agent will complain to the school and put pressure on them to make the student happy. The school will put pressure on the teacher and so on.

One time when I was teaching in Sydney I had a class where the students were getting lazy and turning up late to class. I needed to make sure they were on time so we could start together and the students who were on time weren't getting punished. The students who arrive on time will often complain (as they should) if the teacher isn't being strict and starting classes on time. I think they're right, they've paid a lot of money to learn so they shouldn't be disadvantage because someone else breaks the rules.

So I started being stricter about being to class on time. When a student arrived late I said: "Why are you late?" Usually there was an excuse about using the bathroom or something like that. So I said: "You can use the bathroom earlier, you know when class begins, don't be late again." I'm usually very cheerful but when I do this I'm serious and not smiling. I'm not mean or yelling, just not friendly. It's a very soft way to make a point.

The first three students quickly apologized, promised to be on time and we continued the lesson. The 4th student didn't like it so she left the room and called her agent in her home country. During the break time my manager called me and the student into a room and made me apologize to the student. We had to keep the agent happy.

The lesson for students: we say in English that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Complain more and you will get more.

How You Can Save 30%

The agents take 30% of the total booking fee of the student's first 6 months at the school. That means that if you book with the school directly you have a lot of room to negotiate -- if you show them you understand how the system works. In practice this is hard to do when you're still in Japan. The schools are careful not to upset the agents but at the same time they make a lot more money when students go directly to the school.

So the school makes more money and the student saves a lot of money. So why doesn't everyone do this? That's simple -- the schools don't have the resources and knowledge to advertize directly in other countries and the students just don't know about this.

There are some large companies where the school and agency have the same owner. In that case they still charge the same amount overseas and they just keep a larger percent of the profits.

The best way to save money then is to contact several schools. Let them know you understand how it works (you can even link to this blog post in the email) and ask what the best price is they can do for you. From here it's all about how to negotiate and I would recommend reading and learning how to do that (it will be useful for your entire life).

Walk Ins Are The Best

In ESL schools their favourite way to get students are through walk-ins. A "walk-in" is when a new student literally walks into the school and asks about enrollment. The make the biggest profit margin because they don't have to pay the agent anything and the schools absolutely love walk-ins.

Different Nationalities = Different Prices

This is the part that will probably piss off the most people. Schools will charge different prices for different nationalities. This makes sense for getting students from agencies. The economics of different countries make this necessary when a student is going through an agency.

The part that makes a lot less sense is that they do this for walk-in students. I'm not sure how widespread the practice is but I saw this at at least one school I worked at. If you walk in and you're from Brazil they will give you a different price than if you walk in and you're from Japan (the Brazilian student will pay less).

One time a Japanese student walked into reception with her Brazilian friend. The Brazilian friend wanted to study there and the receptionist quoted a price. The Japanese student had to say "Why is she paying so much less than me?" The receptionist didn't have a good answer.

So you should ask the receptionist about this directly. Or, get a Brazilian friend to go and ask for the price. Then go back with them and ask for the same deal. They won't be happy but they will give it to you.

A lot of the receptionists are former students of the school and a lot of their friends are current students. If you're smart about networking then you can meet them socially. Once they know you better they're more likely to give you a good price. Almost nobody does this (so it's not something receptionists deal with) so I'd say this will probably work best.

The Visa Issue

Of course, to get into Australia on a student visa you need to show them that you intend to study. I'm not a lawyer and I don't know what the rules are but I can understand that it might be difficult if you can't show them that you've booked classes. The way around this is to book classes you can cancel or to book the first month and explain that you want to evaluate the school before committing to longer. You'll have to prove you have the funds to sustain yourself for your trip.

I have no idea if this will work or not so best to check with anyone you know who has been through Australian immigration on a student visa.

If you're on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV) then this will be easier.

Agents Aren't Always Bad

It might sound like I am being very negative about the agents. I don't think they add a lot of value but it is worth pointing out that they have some benefits. When you don't speak English it can be very scary to have to negotiate with the school directly especially if you come from an authoritarian culture. You also just don't have the language skills to negotiate in English (that's why you need the school to begin with).

A great agent will help find the right school for you, they'll also provide support and make sure you get what you want from your time in Australia. If you value your time and the money doesn't mean much for you then this may make sense.

In theory agents help with these things. In practice most of them just see students as a commission cheque and once you've paid they won't help you much any more. The only reason they have to care is because you might refer more students to them if they're nice.

My honest opinion is that they aren't worth paying 30% more to. This is your overseas adventure and opportunity for growth. It might be harder without them but you're not going to Australia because it's easy -- you're going to become a better person, have adventures, make new friends, experience a new culture and see the world. Take off the training wheels and live your life.

Good Schools and Bad Schools

Some schools are what we call "visa mills". Basically they don't care about education. You pay the school and you get a visa that gets you into Australia. They won't give you an education and these schools are not fun to attend. You don't meet other students and the teachers are depressed. It's also illegal even if the government doesn't do much to stop it.

Good schools care about the educational experience. They treat their teachers well and you feel good when you're in them (both for students and teachers). The good schools will cost more than the visa mill. Pick the good schools, you get much better value for money and you'll learn a lot more. You'll also be much happier.

Good Schools I Would Recommend In Sydney From My Experience

Schools I Would Not Recommend In Sydney

  • NSEC in North Sydney - The staff were dedicated and hard-working but the administration was not. I know it took them a long time to ever pay me. Let's just say I used to secretly wish they would get audited by English Australia. I could have complained to English Australia at the time but I never did. Like all the other teachers I needed the money too much and I was desperate. When I finally got to work at SELC I thought I was in heaven.

  • APC in Bondi - I never worked here but one of my co-workers was a student there. She didn't have many good things to say and she knew the ESL industry extremely well.

  • SCE in Broadway - When I worked there it was a revolving door of teachers. I did teach two study tours including a group from Japan. That group was the loveliest group I ever taught. If you do a translation of this piece then please let me know in the comments section and I will include it here.