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James Perry, CEO, FELTOM, Malta

This year looked like it was going to be a good year for the Maltese ELT industry, until the global pandemic shut down the island’s airport and closed its schools. Speaking with The PIE, the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisations Malta CEO James Perry talks about the development of the country’s ELT industry, how it all came crashing down in 2020, and why he is hopeful next year will pick up again.



"By March 16, we already had 20,000 cancellations. Then it went up to 40,000, then to nearly 62,000 by the end of the year"

The PIE: Tell us a bit about yourself.

James Perry: I studied for my bachelor’s degree in tourism and hospitality, and then worked in a variety of different areas. I was the deputy director of a tourism school and worked doing accreditation for courses. I got my teacher’s degree, and a master’s in international marketing, and I have been CEO of FELTOM for the last three years.

The PIE: What does FELTOM do?

JP: We have three main roles. The first one is sales and marketing, the second is lobbying, and last but not least is accreditation, which recognises our schools as being of a higher quality because we check them every year and ensure they are maintaining their standards.

FELTOM as a federation is also represented in various local and international boards.

The PIE: How was Malta’s ELT sector looking prior to Covid-19?

JP: Our ELT sector started just after the Second World War. Due to the fact that we were under British rule for quite a while, a lot of people used to come to Malta to enjoy the sunshine and practice their English.

The Federation itself has been established for 31 years and it was us that pushed the government to create legislation. Malta is one of the few countries with legislation that regulates the ELT industry, from the opening of schools, the hiring of teachers, even down to accommodation and host families.

Prior to Covid-19, we were looking at about 87,000 students per year, which is quite good when you consider that our island has 500,000 inhabitants. However, we were pushing to get slightly more. On paper, 2020 looked like a fantastic year that was going to break all records.

Unfortunately it broke our records, but not in the way we wanted.

“On paper, 2020 looked like a fantastic year that was going to break all records”

The PIE: What are Malta’s main markets for ELT students?

JP: Our biggest market is Italy. It’s cheap to fly from Italy to Malta, and is 90 minutes by catamaran. However, that is not our only market.

Recently we’ve had an increase in Colombian and Brazilian students, and also seen an increase in students from South Korea and Japan.

In Europe, Italy supplies the most of our students, followed by Germany, France, Poland and Austria. If you look at non-EU countries, Russia sends about 6,000 students and Brazil about 5,000.

Going back to 2011, average numbers were slightly less than 70,000. In 2019 it was 83,000. So it’s been a steady increase.

If you look at bed nights, because the duration is very different, you realise that after Italy, Colombia is the second largest market because they stay for longer.

The PIE: What’s the appeal of studying English in Malta?

JP: Normally Malta is chosen over other destinations because it’s a small, sunny island. Secondly, students realise the high standards that we have here.

I don’t know if it helps, but the fact that we speak two languages does make for a better understanding of how the student is feeling. For us, it’s very normal that everybody speaks at least two languages. We have to speak Maltese and English, and then in school we normally learn two more.

Students have said they are not shy because they know that we have passed through that experience as well, which is quite an interesting concept.

The PIE: What happened this year with regards to Covid-19?

JP: Covid-19 hit us at the end of February. Our schools were closed by March 13 because the government closed our airport.

It was a devastating year. At FELTOM, as we started feeling the hit, we did a study to see how it was affecting us.

We did a second study just after the airports closed and realised that by March 16, we already had 20,000 cancellations. Then it went up to 40,000, then to nearly 62,000 by the end of the year.

We are expecting an 80% loss for this year.

The PIE: Did the sector receive emergency support from the government?

JP: At FELTOM, we lobbied for two things. One was getting financial aid for the sector. The second was to make sure that the industry is kept alive.

We did get the wage supplement, and now we are working with the government to create a marketing promotion in order to encourage students to come.

The biggest part missing was the assistance for ELT businesses. The wage supplement kept staff on the books, however it doesn’t cover national insurance or tax, and does not support the business from a financial perspective.

I think the government did quite a lot. They opened the economy to try to keep us going. But they failed to assist more at the business and school level.

The PIE: What was it like for schools after they reopened?

JP: Our schools opened again on July 1. Since then, schools have had systems in place in order to ensure that if there is a case, they can deal with it.

That brought a bit of positivity to ensure that the industry does not die down. However, it creates new expenses in operations.

The PIE: How many students have you seen arrive this year?

JP: About 10% of what we saw last year. Last year from January to September we were looking at 67,000 students. From January to September this year we only saw 15,000.

In April, May and June, we had students who were still in Malta, which numbered 200-300. In July, we had 2,700 and in August 2,000.

When you consider that there are 38 schools, this is nothing.

The PIE: Did any schools close permanently?

JP: Two schools closed down but they were already in trouble prior to Covid-19. This was the final nail in the coffin.

The PIE: Did schools switch to online teaching?

JP: All schools switched to online because they needed to give services to the students that were still in Malta.

However, students want the travel experience, to get to know the place and the immersion process. Online is not a nice option.

“Students want the travel experience, to get to know the place and the immersion process”

The PIE: What does the next year look like?

JP: We’ve tried to keep up to date as to what’s going on, and inform our schools to ensure that they have information and can continue their marketing efforts.

The fact that we were open gave us the possibility of some students coming in and generating a bit of income.

We are expecting Q1 and Q2 to be the same. We are hoping that, especially with the vaccine, maybe around Easter we can get somewhere and it will be a positive year.

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