“The UK market has had a pretty bad time over the last couple of years”
Student weeks were down in the sector’s top two markets, Italy and Spain, by 6% and 16% respectively, reflecting the pressures of the global economic recession.
Private providers account for 370 of English UK’s 478 members, which make up 80% of the UK’s English language market overall.
“The UK market has had a pretty bad time over the last couple of years for a number of reasons, external and, if you count the Olympics, internal,” said English UK’s outgoing CEO Tony Millns.
The news wasn’t all bad, however. Student weeks in the Middle East, 2013’s strongest source market, rose 24%. Russia, Central and South America also saw increases in student weeks.
State providers have fared better over the last year, seeing a 2.6% increase in student weeks and 12% rise in overall numbers.
Incoming CEO-Elect Eddie Byers – aware of this backdrop – used the 10th annual conference to expound his vision for the future, which is refocused on growth.
This means enabling more direct access to international students by focusing on partnerships in key markets.
“We give a lot of money to agents; if we can find ways to reduce that it’d be a good thing for the industry,” he told delegates. “Agents will continue to be important. I don’t want to change that balance, I don’t want to displace agents, just give students other choices.”
He also outlined his intention to carry out annual member surveys on key issues affecting the sector to better enable the organisation to address providers’ concerns.
Timothy Blake, CEO of The London School of English, said that his institution’s Russian business has “fallen off a cliff”
Speaking with The PIE News, he echoed Millns’s sentiment that the sector has had a “tough time” recently. “Confidence has been rocked so this is about helping us get back that confidence that we do the right things, we can be successful and the UK can win again.”
“We need government and stakeholders to get behind that and we’ll be influencing to make that happen. That doesn’t happen overnight so there’s a lot to be done but that’s the journey that we’re on and I’m confident that we can be successful,” he said.
With national elections just a year away, the UK’s policy around international student visas was a dominant theme throughout the conference.
Jeremy Oppenheim from the Home Office said sponsored visa applications for the UK are up 7% on last year “despite what people might think”, trying to assuage concerns about net migration goals and the message this conveys.
Meanwhile Robert Syms MP told the ELT crowd that “no one had noticed” the value of UK ELT to the UK. He urged the audience to lobby more collectively, including host families who also earn income from the sector.
Concerns were also raised that delays under Teleperformance Ltd, the company hired by the government to run its visa centres and process applications, have caused “irreparable damage”, particularly to the sector’s Russian markets.
Oppenheim said that some initial delays were expected and that the company was chosen largely on the basis of the capacity of applications it would be able to handle, not cost alone.
Eddie Byers: “We need to focus this industry on getting back to growth”
However, he was forced to promise an apology to a group of Russian students which one educator revealed had travelled eight hours to a visa application centre, only to find it closed.
He offered to facilitate a meeting with educators to address the decline in applications from Russian students after Timothy Blake, CEO of The London School of English, said that his institution’s Russian business has “fallen off a cliff”.
Oppenheim also spoke about the UK’s new ‘super priority’ visa, offering a 24-hour turnaround on visa applications. Announced in October last year, the visa is due to be rolled out to China through a pilot scheme this summer and will cost around £6,000, he said.
Byers will take over from Tony Millns, who has served as English UK’s CEO since it was established 10 years ago, in June.