The PIE: You have just come back from Italy – can you tell us about it?
Henry Tolley: It was a fruitful trip. I have met up with many agents – including Lorenzo Agati, [former] IALCA president. Now I am working on a letter, which will be sent to 27,000 Italian state school teachers. It will have a PON template, contacts of accredited agents – which schools need to use to book courses abroad for PON programs – and a link to accredited exams students can do at the end of the course – including ours, of course. We offer the only four skill on-demand exam, which is convenient for language schools as students only stay in the UK for three weeks.
“The region of Molise is going to be very interesting”
Agati was telling me that he was saying to another exam board: ‘yes, we’d like to use your exams but they are on fixed dates and students are going for three weeks, and we don’t know when they come and when they go.’ I have given him a solution to the problem.
The PIE: Last year the PON programs requirements changed a little and not many people knew about it. Can you tell us what changed and what do you think people in the UK struggled the most with?
HT: I think the big change was raising the language level from CEFR A2/B1 to B2. Also, the length of stay was shortened to three weeks and funding was increased to about €3,100. So, the money is better, the time is shorter – but the expectations are higher.
But this is good news for the ELT industry. Because the level is higher, agents feel that the majority of students will choose English instead of other languages such as Spanish or French.
The other major change was that funding went from four regions in the south of Italy to 20 regions. But there is still an emphasis on the south. The four original regions in the south and Molise will get 70% of the money, the remainder will be split between the remaining 15 regions.
The region of Molise is going to be very interesting. Proportionally, it would get more money than any other region in Italy. For a region that has never participated in PON programs, that would be an important place to focus on.
“If you get a 10% increase in Italy you get 10,000 more students. To me it’s a no-brainer”
Many didn’t know about these changes – the tendency for lots of schools is to keep looking for new markets. Often they end up neglecting the old ones, the ones that are on the doorstep. And Italy makes up 25% of our numbers.
The PIE: Do you think Italy’s position as the largest market for UK ELT is going to change?
HT: It’s so far ahead of the other source markets! In terms of student numbers, Italy even in 2016 was just shy of 99,000. The second largest country was Spain with 38,000. Even for student weeks, it’s 80,000 more weeks for Italy compared to the second market, Saudi Arabia. I think it will stay number one.
“Italy sent millions of students to the UK over the last 20 years”
And the number for Italy could easily be 120-130,000 students for 2018. You could invest more in Italy and get a better return than by investing in any other European country. With a 10% increase in Saudi Arabia, you get 1,500 more students. If you get a 10% increase in Italy you get 10,000 more students. To me, it’s a no-brainer.
There are 7 million state school students in Italy learning English and we are talking just about 100,000 students coming to the UK. That’s an open mine for making more money.
I think more can be done, for example by twinning UK-Ireland schools with Italy. Agents may not like it – but you need this relationship.
Italy sent millions of students to the UK over the last 20 years. Not hundreds, millions. The chances of increasing that number should be easier than in any other country.
You would have to do something very dramatic for this to change. I think people need to remember that the free movement is a pretty recent thing. When I first went to Italy I still had to register and I am only talking 1997. Back in 97 – we were still taking huge numbers of students from Italy.
“I think there are a lot of mature relationships between Italian agents and ELT schools in the UK”
I don’t want Brexit, but I don’t think it’s going to change Italy’s position for the ELT industry. Italian state school teachers are very much tied to English. They all studied English literature – if you are passionate enough to read English literature at university then that doesn’t disappear. And the teacher decides where students are going on a school trip.
The PIE: How is the relationship between Italy and the UK ELT industry at the moment?
HT: I think there are a lot of mature relationships between Italian agents and ELT schools in the UK. Obviously, there are issues with the pound and the euro, because there are alternatives – Ireland and Malta, and also America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
What you will also hear from Italian agents – they don’t just do ELT but also HE –is a lot of nervousness now that fees will go up for EU citizens after Brexit.
Brexit uncertainty more generally is also upsetting the market. Agents like simplicity, they like to plan the next 3-5 years of income – but no one knows what is going to happen next year.
“Last year, people were saying results demonstrate that the Brits hate foreigners. Now they seem to have calmed down”
The PIE: Is Brexit also causing worries among teachers and students?
HT: Most just don’t understand what it means. I don’t think anyone understands what it means. Talking to publishers and teachers there, they raise the same issue. They just don’t understand what it means and why we would not want to be part of this free market? Going back to the students’ front, I am not hearing so many worries about racism, like last year. Last year, people were saying the referendum results demonstrate that the Brits hate foreigners.
Now they seem to have calmed down because there has been another year’s worth of business and people have not been attacked in the streets because they are Italian or Spanish or Portuguese. So that may overcome some of those ridiculous ideas. And the pound is about 10-15% cheaper than it was – in 2017 many more students have come to the UK than in 2016.