When being careful is being reckless: a call to embracing change

by Nadine Baladi

Notes to the EnglishUSA board, Jan 16, 2019:

Prepping for this meeting, I was considering the amazing contributions of everyone on this board, and our personal stories that have brought each one of us here today and I realized that ½ of us have changed jobs in the last year. Half of us! Marcel moved from Colorado to Georgetown U in DC, Joy joined a fabulous Associate member, Emma at EF now focuses on Junior summer programs, Alan moved from Approach International to SHOWA, Lisa and I have been riding the roller coaster of expansion and contraction… And this led me to think about our industry:

  • The Saudi numbers haven’t recuperated
  • New enrollment numbers are down for the second year in a row
  • EC bought Embassy and shut down Embassy’s USA campuses as a result
  • Stafford House bought Omnicom to expand into Canada (a few years ago now)
  • ILSC shut down its USA operations
  • ELS has dropped from mid-60 centers to mid-40 centers
  • 2019 is rumored to be a “selling year” for more than 3 of the larger equity-backed Education groups, leading to new investments
  • In addition to strong in-USA programs, ELS, EC, CEG, and Shorelight are focusing their attention to transnational education, growing their offshore ventures
  • Into, Study Group and Shorelight continue signing Pathway deals with large top-ranked Higher Ed institutions … and even more universities are launching pathways on their own
  • Junior programs and High School Pathways are considered the next frontier and agent fairs like ICEF are creating spaces focused only on those types of programs

And the list goes on….

We know that our perception of the world is shaped by the language we use. Our attitudes, our insights, and forecasting depend on the words we choose to adopt. Let’s think about the language we’ve used to describe our industry in the last two years: “it’s changing”. We talk about “diversifying our student base”. We reflect that “this is just the natural ebb and flow of the industry” and “we saw this happen after 9/11”. We talk about strategies to “weather the storm” and to “keep our head above water”. We say, “This too, shall pass.”

But the facts are these: equity has found our industry out and wants to invest in our institutions. There are consulting firms forming to advise universities not on whether universities should partner with the private sector, but how to best do it, and with whom. There will be more mergers. There will be more acquisitions. There will be more public-private partnerships. And yes, there will be school closures but there will also be new models of international education to embrace.

In our industry, change is the new constant and running fiscally responsible businesses is the new normal. This is true for independent institutions, equity-backed institutions, and public institutions.

And while some of these mergers, partnerships and innovative models might fail, we have to recognize that many of them will thrive. This isn’t a passing storm from which to cower. This is a giant new wave and we must learn how to surf it. We must recognize that our new industry isn’t “in flux” – rather, it’s creating opportunities. This isn’t a passing storm. This IS the new normal.

Not only do we have to surf the wave and embrace the new normal but we, as EnglishUSA, have a responsibly to lead the pack. It’s up to us to inspire our members – to embolden them and to model the behavior that they will need to adopt in order to survive – no, to thrive.

Many of us might view the safe route as “not rocking the boat” for our members, and as “sticking with the status quo” because we’re aware that we, our colleagues and our staff might resist change. But in this new normal, being careful is actually being reckless. Sticking to the status quo will lead to our demise. This is true of our IEPS and it is true of EnglishUSA. With this in mind, I invite us to tackle the board meeting agenda with a fresh and forward-looking mindset. A mindset that doesn’t refer to the current changes as challenges but rather as opportunities. Let’s debate new ideas with an open mind and let’s embrace change when it makes sense. We might not have 100% of the answers needed to realize 100% of our ideas but lets at least agree to walk down this path side by side and explore the possibilities. And hey – we might even have a little fun on this roller coaster, while we’re at it!