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What do Cyprus, the Philippines and India have in common? New destinations for ELT

With blue flag beaches and 320 days of sunshine a year, Cyprus is positioning itself as the ultimate study-holiday spot: “a place chosen by the Gods as their playground”, boasts the Cyprus Tourism Organisation’s website.

Photo: Columbia Private Institute, Cyprus.

Around 80% of the Cypriot population is reported to speak English, compared with Malta’s 88%

“It is culturally rich with breathtaking beaches and historical sights and, as an ex-British colony, it maintains a strong connection with the English language,” says Anna Athanasiou, director of Columbia Private Institute in Limassol.

“Like Malta, Cyprus is becoming another enticing option for this larger tendency to travel around the world and study the language,” she adds.

“Now we don’t have the national airline carrier, we cannot make a strategy for four or five years”

The comparison with Malta is a common one, as Cypriot providers consider it their main competitor. It’s a bold claim – Malta’s industry association FELTOM recorded 77,550 ESL student arrivals in 2014, while Cyprus is aiming for 4,000 this year – but not ridiculous.

Around 80% of the Cypriot population is reported to speak English, compared with Malta’s 88%, and some schools have catered to international students for around a decade.

In addition, Cyprus is nearly 30 times the size of Malta, where it might become saturated in summer, Athanasiou posits. “No fear of that here!”

Half-day teaching programmes are increasingly popular with families, enabling parents to relax in the morning and spend time with their children in the afternoon.

Around 70% of foreign ESL learners are aged 12-17, while 18-25-year-olds make up a further 20%. The under-10s are also gaining ground thanks to this ‘education plus’ offering.

Columbia Private Institute opened its intensive English course and a roster of packages aimed at overseas students last year, following 30 years of domestic provision. By the end of 2015, it will have taught more than 200 foreign students in its first year, coming mostly from France, Italy, Russia and Greece.

These are traditionally strong markets for Cyprus, and the focus of the CTO’s marketing efforts to date, according to head tourism officer, Antigone Kapodistria.

Direct flights make travel easy for students in these countries, which, combined with the ease of obtaining a visa and a high standard of education, means there are “tremendous opportunities” for growth, she states.

Russia in particular is a huge potential growth market. “If all goes well in the European arena and the rouble recovers then we see no reason why student numbers to Cyprus should not increase in the future,” predicts Athanasiou.

The CTO is also looking eastwards to countries like Lebanon, Israel and the Emirates, working with the newly-established English Language Schools Association of Cyprus to promote the sector using social media and print campaigns, press and fam trips and participation in global fairs.

“Boracay in particular has one of the best beaches in the world”

ELSAC was established last year amid concerns that a lack of a joined-up approach was hampering the island’s competitiveness.

“There are a few schools in Cyprus that have worked in this sector for a few years, and they knew that individual efforts were not enough to capture the eye of the market,” George Phylactou, director of Xenion Education, one of the association’s founding members.

It was also in response to calls from stakeholders for greater regulation of the sector. ESL provision for foreign visitors was until recently “outside the law”, Phylactou says, and ELSAC plans to develop an accreditation framework to prevent “pirate schools” cashing in during the peak season before disappearing for the rest of the year.

There are also other challenges facing the sector. Last year Cyprus Airways folded, scuppering several flight routes. “Now we don’t have the national airline carrier, we cannot make a strategy for four or five years,” laments Phylactou. “We can only plan for one or two years ahead.”

However, low-cost airlines offer some hope, and optimism for growth remains strong.

“There is a huge potential for Cyprus,” says Phylactou, noting that the country is now recovering from its 2012-13 financial crisis, which may have dampened growth to date.“I would say that most markets would still be on the uprise in the next few years.”

Another destination capitalising on its holiday hotspot status is the Philippines, where a thriving ESL sector is backed by the Department of Tourism. The DoT hopes the industry will help to attract 5.5 million tourists this year, drawn by widespread English use and amazing scenery.

“Boracay in particular has one of the best beaches in the world,” extols Claus Bauer, founder of Paradise English Boracay, which teaches 400 students annually, mostly adults.

The school’s budget courses are most popular with Europeans – from Switzerland, Germany and Spain – while Korean and Taiwanese learners more often opt for intensive courses.

Geography plays an influential role, with Japanese and Korean students making up the majority of incoming students countrywide. A flight from Seoul to Manila takes just four hours, while the trip from Tokyo takes less than five.

“Many Japanese students can only come for one or two weeks so it would be hard to go to the US or the UK,” points out Mark Hudson, who has taught at multiple ESL schools in the Philippines.

“Many Japanese students can only come for one or two weeks so it would be hard to go to the US or the UK”

And the government-backed ESL Tour Program, which embeds English language learning into tour packages, has seen yearly growth since its launch in 2005 thanks to direct marketing to the country’s Asian neighbours.

The most recent statistics show that 31,000 Special Study Permits were issued in 2012 to students on short courses of less than a year, the bulk of which were ESL courses.

Some 24,000 went to Korean students, up by a third since 2005 despite an overall downward trend in outbound mobility as Koreans increasingly eschew more costly destinations.

Finding credible student data is a challenge; since the 2012 figures, the only concrete statistics the Department of Tourism has managed to obtain are from an association of schools selling to the Japanese market, showing that some 35,000 Japanese students came to learn English in 2014.

For schools, a lack of an accreditation system is a bigger issue. “As the demand for learning English grows, there are more and more schools being set up,” notes Reyes at the DoT. “Some are not of the quality that we expect and give a negative impression of the Philippines as an ESL destination.”

The DoT has made strides with both the promotion and regulation of ESL schools, according to Reyes, which must now be authorised by government to accept overseas students, but there is as yet no scheme to regulate teaching.

“Since nobody’s policing [providers] it’s quite easy for them to recruit learners from other countries,” observes Mike Cabigon, manager of English for education systems at the British Council in the Philippines.

“[Government] education agencies in the Philippines are designed to work only with local clients or providers to Filipino citizens,” he explains.

As private businesses catering to foreign students, ESL schools fall outside the remit of both the Department of Education and the Technical Education and Skills Development Agency, which only accredits TVET programmes.

The DoT is in talks with the British Council – which is keen to involve more organisations such as the US Embassy – about introducing quality assurance measures, and there appears to be some consensus that such a scheme would lend credibility to the sector.

However, it is unlikely that the country will see an immediate influx of students from further afield.

“The diversity in culture is the first thing that attracts a visitor to India”

“I think it will take time to convince potential students from outside Asia that the Philippines is a good alternative to the US, the UK, Australia etc. simply because people know so little about the country and the fact that English is widely used here,” says Bosteen.

For students looking for a truly alternative ELT experience, with 29 states, “India is more like a continent than a typical country, due to its immense size, its rich cultural diversity and its unique heritage,” notes Mark Branov, director of ILSC India in New Delhi.

Students who travel to India to learn English are keen to expose themselves to new cultural experiences; Change Institutes International in Bangalore, for example, often sees a spike in international enrolments around Diwali.

“The diversity in culture is the first thing that attracts a visitor to India,” comments its CEO, Roshni Javiad. “Language learning comes next.”

This may explain its popularity among adults over the age of 40, who make up a significant proportion of learners at Incredible English in Goa, suggests its owner and director, David Anthonisz.

“I think slightly older students are likely to have already spent time in cities like London or Brighton and are looking for a more exotic location,” he contemplates.

One influential factor for many of India’s key markets is that it is closer to home than, say, the UK or US – particularly for neighbouring Nepal and Tibet. The Bureau of Immigration does not release granular student visa data, but Japan, Thailand and the Middle East are also consistently named among the top sending countries by English language schools.

Due to their relatively low numbers, international students often study alongside their domestic counterparts, which, along with India’s cultural diversity, helps to foster cross-cultural communication skills, observes Javiad of Change Institutes.

“India is and will likely remain an affordable and exotic niche market in the short-term, compared to other destinations”

“We as a population expose ourselves to cross-cultural communication within the country, and so we are more approachable when we talk about it,” she observes.

“The flexibility or the level of comfort that Indians as trainers provide is quite high compared to native speakers,” she adds. “They’re more accommodating.”

A lack of a national strategy may be limiting the sector’s ability to recruit international students, however. “If there were support from the government, we could beat the Philippines,” asserts Javiad. “We lack government support.”

India also has no ESL schools association, though there is some informal coordination between schools, according to Branov at ILSC. “In India, private language schools of our type are still few and far between, but we do maintain cordial relations and dialogue with counterparts, comparing notes on how to tackle mutual problems,” he says.

ILCS’s Branov identifies Japan and Korea as potential growth areas, given their heavy investment in the Indian economy in recent years. “For HR managers from large Korean and Japanese companies, having staff learn English in Delhi is seen as particularly valuable, since it is not unlikely that these staff will go on to take expat positions in India.”

“Demand is definitely on the increase and I predict that this will continue as India becomes more of a mainstream study destination and students look for better value and a different experience,” says Anthonisz of Incredible English.

However, others are more cautious in their predictions. Says Branov: “India is and will likely remain an affordable and exotic niche market in the short-term, compared to other destinations.”

  • This article is an abridged version of the original which is in edition 7 of The PIE Review.

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