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UK ELT bullish for future but Brexit headaches linger

Policies in the UK introduced as a result of the country leaving the European Union are limiting growth in English language numbers, with Ireland and Malta gaining marketshare, according to stakeholders.

English UK's StudyWorld returned with its in-person event in March. Photo: The PIE News

Previous English UK data from late 2022 has showed a 83% drop in junior groups to the UK compared with 2019

While the UK sector continues to recover “gradually” following the pandemic, the UK government could apply measures and initiatives to aid its return, schools say.

There are worries that school groups are opting to study in other English-speaking destinations. English UK, representing 450+ schools in the country, highlighted that it is not only the cost associated with having to obtain passports post Brexit that is leading learners to look elsewhere.

Chief executive of English UK, Jodie Gray, said students are “definitely” choosing Ireland due to the current UK visa regime.

The TourismAlliance, along with English UK, continues to push for a collective passport option, which would allow school groups containing a mix of EU citizens as well as third-country nationals that have resettled in the EU.

Inclusivity requirements in some EU countries – such as a 10% limit in Germany – mean school groups cannot choose English language providers that exclude some individuals who may not have passports or have third-country papers, Gray told The PIE at StudyWorld in London on March 9.

“They are no immigration risk whatsoever”

Previous English UK data from late 2022 has showed a 83% drop in junior groups to the UK compared with 2019.

“They are 14-year olds coming to the UK to study,” Gray said. “They are no [immigration] risk whatsoever.”

The eligible countries included in the Youth Mobility Scheme for 18-30 year olds could also be extended to include key countries, she said.

Justin Quinn, chief executive officerCentre of English Studies, noted that Ireland is “doing remarkably well”, but emphasised that the country is not only benefiting from Brexit.

“We’ve had a very large upswing in business, particularly in the 25-week study and work programs, for students coming from all areas of South America and from Turkey,” he explained. “That gives us a continuity of supply.”

Additionally, Ireland’s over €13 an hour minimum wage makes the country “very attractive”.

“Over the last five years, Ireland has created 600,000 new jobs, of which 300,000 are being taken up by international people who’ve come into the country. It’s a very good country to be working and living and studying in,” he said. “You can see why there are so many students travelling to Ireland.”

“Malta is definitely doing very well and I can see absolutely no positives coming out of Brexit for our industry,” Andrew Mangion, executive chairman and CEOEC English Language Centres, also told The PIE News.

The island nation in the Mediterranean also benefits from its weather, in addition to being more affordable, Quinn continued.

“They do very good rates for long-term good quality programs, and you’ve got the sun,” he said.

“Unfortunately in the UK, we don’t see the same number of adult students coming through. There seems to be a reticence to come over to the UK. I think Brexit has had an impact… but thankfully our young learner winter business has come back with a bang.”

The importance widening the Youth Mobility Scheme to include EU countries is important as previously schools could source staff from the EU, English UK maintained. Many are now concerned that they will not have sufficient staff in 2023, especially for summer programs, stakeholders have warned.

Asked how providers can rebuild the pipeline of staff and teachers and where they are going to come from, Sam Bufton, sales and marketing director at Bell English, replied simply, “Well, exactly. Excellent point”.

While the provider has “been lucky” retain key staff for its young learning program, recruiting “specifically for young learner courses, activity leaders, people to help with airport coordinators” is really hard, he told The PIE

“[They] previously came from Europe. That is one of those Brexit dividends we’re all enjoying. The fact that we can’t hire hardworking, dedicated people like we used to.”

International House is one provider looking to make headway with a IH portal, launching in April, to offer lifelong learning opportunities for ELT teachers to support educators.

In the UK, CES has been able to fill most of its schools and keep teachers and administration teams employed.

“Honestly, I expect a strong 2024 for the UK”

“We see us getting much stronger in 2023,” Quinn added. “And honestly, I expect a strong 2024 for the UK. I think things will change. UK is going to knock itself back on the market. I was in Italy last week, huge interest in the UK, summer, end of the year, a lot more enquiries than this time last year. So very confident for the UK.”

The fact that European students can no longer supplement their ELT programs with paid work experience, however not only “makes life just that little bit more difficult”,  but is “another impediment to students coming to the UK”, he acknowledged.

“One of the issues is that traditionally an Italian or a Spanish or a French or a German student could come to the UK, do a language program, work in Pret a manger, or get a job in Costa, extend their stay. And that’s all gone,” he said.

“They look at Ireland [where] they’re allowed to work,” Quinn said, where the adult school is “more or less” full. Ireland is facing its own difficulties, in its accommodation crisis.

Stakeholders are also concerned about shortages in accommodation in the UK, particularly among host families, limiting the recovery of the sector.

However, recent figures from English UK showed that a 44% rise in student weeks in Q4 2022 compared to the same time in the previous year. UK stakeholders are optimistic for the year ahead.

For many of the recommendations English UK is making to government, there is “no objection [from authorities] but it needs to be dealt with”, Gray concluded.

“[But] the home secretary Suella Braverman is focused elsewhere,” she adding, pointing to the ‘small boats’ that prime minister Rishi Sunak is prioritising. English UK is beginning to refocus its lobbying efforts on the Labour Party, which polls suggest is likely to win the next general election that has to take place by December 2024.

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