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The teacher lowdown, down under

An anonymous contributor, who has been working in Australia for the past six months, sheds light on the Australian teacher shortage from their personal point-of-view.

In July 2022, Melanie Butler reported that the ESL/ELICOS industry in Australia is experiencing a teacher shortage. A year later, not much has changed.

Historically, the ELICOS industry in Australia enjoys a supply of teachers coming from the UK, US, or citizens of other countries who can get a Working Holiday Visa (WHV). It is a really attractive option; friendly weather, a lot of teaching hours, high hourly salary, multilingual classes, a chance to travel to a very different part of the world with essentially no need for learning another language.

Teacher training and CELTA is not a really big business in Australia; there is a steady supply of local teachers completing CELTA, but the primary stream of revenue is from international students doing ELICOS. The language schools are not known for sponsoring a work visa, since they have several reliable ways of recruiting teachers.

However, all of that had to stop during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and teachers are not able to come to Australia anymore and a lot of language centres had to close or downsize. Many of the local teachers retrained for different jobs.

Now that the pandemic is over, the industry has been recovering, but many of the local teachers did not go back to teaching. On top of that, there are not that many teachers with WHV anymore, though the reason for this remains a mystery to this author. The shortage of teachers is so severe, that for the first time in history, the TESOL profession is listed in the Department of Immigration’s Skilled Occupation List: a list that contains professions in shortage in Australia. Professions such as accountants, engineers and scientists, primary and secondary school teachers, and virtually all medical professions have been on the list for a long time, and these occupations have a number of visa options, including permanent resident visas. The shortage of TESOL teachers is taken seriously because Australia’s economy heavily depends on international students: These students keep the economy running through tuition fees, and many industries rely heavily on those with student visas who are most likely willing to work for $25AUD (~£12GBP or $16USD), or so, per hour.

ELICOS = English Language Intensive Course for Overseas Students: students come to Australia for intensive (20 hours/week) English courses, as opposed to studying for, typically, 3-4 hours/week in a language centre in their home country. These students are likely on a student visa, and are mandated to study full-time. Student visa holders are also permitted to work for a maximum of 48 hours/fortnight.

This author, so far, has worked in cities in five different Australian states since the beginning of 2023. The ELICOS industry, despite the strong recovery – student numbers recently have been higher than pre-pandemic levels – does not know how to respond to the teacher shortage. ELICOS is highly casualised; some of the schools this author worked at employ all their teachers as hourly-paid/casuals. This has worked really well for the industry for a long time, but it makes little sense; some teachers the author worked with have been a casual for five years, and somehow the school is able to keep avoiding the legal obligation to offer them a fulltime contract, essentially voiding the teachers from getting annual leave days, sick leave, and the general security and stability of a contract. Some managers are even proud to be able to offer ‘flexibility’. In reality, this is just avoiding paying a teacher when they could not get to work.

Imagine you are a hiring manager at Amazon or Google. You find a very qualified and experienced engineer, but instead of offering them full-time, you tell them that you want them to work casually first for a few months to see if they are any good, and then you might consider offering a fulltime contract. Sounds ridiculous! Yet, this is exactly what some schools have said to potential teachers; teachers who work very hard and hold DELTA and MA, but get little more respect than a teacher who just finished CELTA.

This author is seeking for a full-time contract, as it is one of the requirements to apply for a permanent visa, but most schools just do not understand why it is necessary. Perhaps there are management-related reasons that were not communicated with the teachers; after all, they are all businesses in the end. On one side, the Department of Immigration asks for a full-time contract as a blanket statement for most permanent visa applicants. On the other side, in a highly-casualised industry like ELICOS, full-time contract is rather unusual, and normally could only be offered to citizens and permanent residents, resulting in a chicken-and-egg situation.

There are benefits of casual work for some people; for example, postgraduate students or homemakers who need extra income. But there are others who do this as their career, and sometimes they do not know whether or not they have work next month! It is quite normal for a teacher to be on casual/ relief for 5+ schools, and they just wait around for what comes up next month. So, with the lack of stability it is natural that some teachers decided to leave the industry and never came back.

In short, the ELICOS industry seems to be fully aware of the teacher shortage. However, most language schools are happy with operating like they did prepandemic: with no intention of revising their working conditions or seriously addressing the shortage. It is about time they received a wake-up call!

Image courtesy of Library
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