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UK: 8% slide in ELT enrolments as global market contracts

The UK’s ELT sector has shrunk for the second year in a row as both adult and junior enrolments dropped for the first time and lengths of stay diminished. Figures compiled by StudentMarketing on behalf of English UK show the country hosted 42,000 fewer students in 2015, 8% less than the previous year, who stayed 300,384 fewer student weeks, a 13% drop.

To combat the ELT market's global slump, interim chief executive of English UK Richard Day, told delegates the association will focus more on emerging markets. Photo: The PIE News

All of the top ten student source markets for the country declined, with the exception of China.

The adult student market, which accounts for the largest volume of enrolments, narrowed in 2015 by 10%, meaning juniors accounted for almost half (49%) of total arrivals.

But for the first time in five years, the UK’s junior sector enrolments also dropped. Figures from StudentMarketing show enrolments were down by 4% and the average length of stay was down to 2.9 weeks from 3.3 in 2014.

All of the top ten student source markets for the country declined, with the exception of China. Enrolments and student weeks from top sender Italy dropped by 15% to 111,600 students and 19% to 256,00 weeks.

“It’s not like five years ago with a shotgun approach– like I heard Hungary is good, let’s go there and get some students”

Presenting the statistics at the association’s annual conference, Samuel Vetrak, CEO of StudentMarketing, said, “Last year was a perfect storm,” and underlined that the global ELT market, which the UK still dominates, is now officially in a phase of consolidation when demand is low and competition is high.

“It’s not like five years ago with a shotgun approach– like I heard Hungary is good, let’s go there and get some students,” he advised EUK members. “It should be a rifle approach now to see exactly where you need to spend your money.”

Vetrak said the sector’s over-reliance on western European enrolments greatly contributed to its slump. Western Europe accounted for almost half (47%) of the UK’s market while the region held only a 17% market share globally. However, enrolments from western European countries dropped by 9.6% and student weeks by almost 11%.

“The UK has most of its basket in Western Europe, which is ageing and 60% of the population already speaks English,” said Vetrak, but added that “Europe as such is not increasing. It’s much more Asia and Latin America and the Middle East.”

To address this over-reliance on certain source countries, English UK has made cultivating new markets a key focus of its public advocacy strategy, the association’s interim chief executive and director of English in Chester Richard Day, told delegates at the event.

“We want to do more with emerging markets, to lead the way for you to follow – I’m thinking here particularly of Iran,” he commented, saying that English UK would be working with visa officials to make “real, substantial progress” in this area.

“These are difficult times… but those who have been in the business as long as I have will remember that this is not the first time we’ve been hit”

The attitude of providers attending the two-day conference was one of perseverance despite challenging market conditions. “Let’s put these in perspective – these are difficult times… but those who have been in the business as long as I have will remember that this is not the first time we’ve been hit,” commented Timothy Blake, chief executive of The London School of English group and head of English UK’s Public Affairs Advisory Group.

Dwindling growth in the UK reflects a downward trend in the global ELT industry. Of the top ELT destinations, only Ireland and Australia saw growth while Malta, Canada and South Africa were all in the red. The US could not be compared because their statistic report doesn’t coincide with others but Vetrak posits US enrolments will take a hit, as well, as the Saudi Arabian market downsizes.

Other factors hitting the UK market and contributing to the global decline are visa policy and the strength of the pound.

“We’re certainly not helped by our government; we’re not helped by some of their direct actions and we’re certainly not helped by some of their indirect actions,” contended Blake, adding that heavy-handed rhetoric surrounding the Brexit debate is “one of the major reasons why there has been a decline in summer bookings”.

Changing demographics among students are also affecting demand, Vetrak argued.

Students have started learning English at a younger age creating less demand globally, he said. “The planet is saturated with English. Of the 7.3 billion people, three billion either speak English as a native language or as a second language already and there is greater acceptance of an upper-intermediate level so people don’t bother to go a level up,” he said.

Attacks in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul at the end of the year also impacted parent and student confidence in 2015, said Vetrak.

Meanwhile, in-country political and economical troubles caused difficulties for vital markets including Libya, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine, while funding from Italy’s PON scheme remains inconsistent.

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