Members of Parliament gathered for a debate on issues the UK ELT sector is facing, and proposed solutions to boost recovery following the pandemic.
MP for Ealing Central and Acton in West London, Rupa Huq led the debate in Westminster Hall, emphasising the importance of summer peaks in ELT emersion courses for teenagers.
She called on the government to introduce ID card travel for groups of young learners from Europe and for limited work rights for some to gain employment when in the UK.
“ELT schools are in jeopardy now,” she said. “We’re meant to be going for global Britain, [but] we are [shrivelling up] and putting up barriers, it seems completely wrong. We should be enabling students to study these languages on our shores.”
“ELT schools are in jeopardy now”
The UK’s immigration minister Kevin Foster – whose Torbay constituency has several ELT schools – said that rules and ID card use at the UK border “will not be changing”, and challenged the points brought up during the debate.
“Our generous short-term study offer will remain and that’s perhaps what the focus of future debate should be,” he said.
English UK has urged MPs to support the sector after losing 88% of its usual student number in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid. The UK leaving the EU has also caused additional challenges, the group noted.
It has warned government that “large proportions” of EU teenagers and older students are favouring Malta or Ireland as destinations to learn English.
“Now that travel has resumed, the UK is losing out to other destinations,” the group wrote to MPs.
Its full position paper suggests that the sector – which in 2019 UK ELT brought £1.5bn into the UK economy – would benefit from “simple” fixes, such as those Huq brought up during the debate. It has also called for a Bilateral Youth Mobility Schemes to permit young travellers from the EU to spend time learning and working in the UK.
Speaking at the debate, MP for Cardiff West, Kevin Brennan, appealed for more leniency from the UK government on travel requirements for young learners.
“I don’t remember, during the Brexit debate, on the side of a bus a slogan saying, ‘vote Brexit, and stop all these school children absconding when they come to visit our language schools, castles, museums and other attractions’.
“My fear is that it has become an ideological issue about immigration and Brexit when it’s got absolutely nothing to do with that…
“If the government were to look again at this and let school children come, as they always have done, in a group using their ID cards with a responsible adult, it would not undermine freedom of movement, it would not undermine our immigration system and it might help our tourism and language school sectors, who are begging for action from the government because the woods are burning out there and they are doing nothing about it.”
Jim Shannon, MP for Strangford in Northern Ireland, added that “consideration needs to be given” to fast track visas and additional visa discounts for ELT learners.
“We are disappointed that he did not address the concrete proposals made by Rupa Hug MP”
Although Huq acknowledged that it is “difficult to disentangle” which challenges are a result of Brexit and which are down to the pandemic, the “laborious, ponderous loops” prospective students now have to jump through “seem too much for what used to be a relatively simple thing” when the UK was part of the EU freedom of movement agreement.
Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, warned that without the introduction of collective passports or a youth travel scheme for EU learners, “we could see the collapse of the ELT industry”.
Foster said that the UK has “ambitious plans” to digitise its future border and immigration system through its upcoming ETA, and pointed to EU ID cards previously being “among the least secure documents that used to be seen at our border”.
He also pointed to electronic visa waiver extensions for Saudi and Bahraini travellers and changes to allow short-term study activities to be permitted in the general visa category, introduced since Brexit.
Ignoring calls from the sector, he said that the change in October 2021 to stop accepting ID cards was given with a year’s notice, and indications suggested the change had been “understood and complied with”.
“While we welcome the minister’s proposals on ETA’s for the gulf countries – this will make travel and short-term study from these countries much easier – we are disappointed that he did not address the concrete proposals made by Rupa Hug MP in order to improve access and competitiveness for students coming to study English in the UK,” said Huan Japes, membership director at English UK.
Foster added that before the UK left the EU, the majority of travellers from the continent were using their passports to arrive on British shores. His claims are in contrast with a 2019 English UK survey that found almost 90% of member centres had received under-18s travelling on ID cards only.
English UK described the minister’s position as “expected”.
“We were pleased to have this Westminster debate and keep the issue on the table,” Jodie Gray, chief executive at English UK, told The PIE.
The issue of youth group travel extends beyond ELT, she continued. The Tourism Alliance earlier this year appealed to the DCMS Select Committee, reminding that prior to October 2021, the EU was the biggest market for educational travel to the UK and pointed to the importance of youth travelling on ID cards with responsible adults.
“For the vast majority, this is a no-brainer”
“We still feel positive about a solution to youth group travel,” Gray added. The current situation in government, with the Conservative leadership race, is causing “frustrating delays” around a number of issues that the sector has been raising with government.
English UK has also been calling for all UK ELT centres to be accredited to sponsor visa and short-term study and visitor routes to enable schools to “offer a wider range of courses, allow students to renew visas in-country and generally create a more competitive UK offer”.
“We push on nonetheless,” Gray stated. “For the vast majority, [the solution on youth group travel] is a no-brainer. Youth groups from Spain [and the rest of the EU] do not pose an immigration risk to the UK.”
“We will continue to push for work rights for longer-term adult students, for UKVI to find a solution to the problem of passport travel for junior groups and for an expansion of the youth mobility scheme to encompass our major EU markets,” Japes added.