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UK still on top but in decline

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Claudia Civinini explains how Britain is still the number-one destination for English language students but warns the country is continuing to lose ground to its competitors

 The UK is holding its pole position for student numbers in the global ELT market. However, competition from other destinations (mainly the US, Australia and Canada) is fierce, and the UK is losing market share. With the aim of providing a ‘reality check for everyone involved in UK ELT’, English UK has collaborated with Student Marketing to provide its members with a comprehensive survey of the English language teaching industry in the UK.

The report employs data from English UK annual member declarations returned between 2004 and 2014 and data from StudentMarketing concerning the UK’s position in the global market.

General overview           

The UK is overwhelmingly a short-term destination. It figures first in the global market for student numbers, second for student weeks (after the US), fifth for average length of stay (after the US, Australia, Canada and Ireland). Approximately 560,618 students studied at English UK’s 479 state and private-sector member centres in 2014 for an estimated 2,348,116 student weeks – showing a 0.8 per cent decrease in student numbers and 2 per cent decrease in student weeks from 2013. The private sector accounted for 498,072 students for a total 2,000,151 student weeks – a miniscule (0.2 per cent) increase on 2013. The 80 state-sector member centres taught an overall of 347,965 student weeks. The decrease in student weeks from 2013 was almost 15 per cent and was influenced, according to the report, by there being four fewer English UK member centres than in the previous year.


The most popular choice for the state sector is the Tier 4 visa, the private-sector student visitor visa. The reported visa refusal rate was 7.5 refused visas on average per each public-sector provider in that year, compared to 6.2 in the private sector.

Adult vs junior segment

The share of adult learners at private-sector member schools has steadily decreased in the past five years in favour of an ever increasing number of juniors: in 2004 just below 25 per cent, in 2014 47 per cent of all students. This is fuelled by the availability of scholarship schemes, such as the Pon scholarship in Italy, the report suggests. This would also explain why Italy keeps growing as a source market, providing over a quarter of all English language students in the UK. The decrease in the number of Spanish students could similarly be explained with the cuts to the MEC (Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia) government scholarship scheme. There is a global trend towards students taking English courses at a younger age.

Source regions and markets

‘Proximity plays an important role in attracting students,’ states the report. Western Europe in fact provides over 63 per cent of total students and 44 per cent of student weeks. The gap between western Europe and other regions in terms of student weeks is still significant, however. After peaking in 2011, it seems European countries are not sustaining their sending power. An interesting market is the Middle East, which has continued to grow since 2012.

The top source markets in 2014 were Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia, France and South Korea. Markets showing stable development over the past four years include Italy, France, Germany, Venezuela and Mexico. Conversely, the UK is losing market share in Brazil, Colombia, Spain and Thailand – Figure 1 shows the change in the number of student weeks in these markets over the past three years. The UK is also under-represented in China and Vietnam. The situation might change with the new UK and Belgian visa which was announced by the Home Office on 19 June. With this new agreement, Chinese nationals on group package tours will be able to apply for a UK and Schengen area visitor visa at the same time in a single application. Hopefully this will increase the number of Chinese visitors to the UK – the visitor visa allows a total of 30 days of study in the UK, provided it is not the main purpose of the visit.

Figure 1: Selected source markets trends

Average length of stay

2014 showed a general increase in terms of course duration. The average length of stay has increased for both adults (5.6 weeks) and juniors (3.3 weeks). It is important to note that the average length of stay of adult students has increased after five years of consecutive decline.

The top 20 source markets in 2014 accounted for 84 per cent of all student weeks at private-sector-member centres. The average length of stay is 7.2 weeks; however, there are differences between the average lengths of stay of different source markets. Figure 2 shows the average length of stay by source region, with the percentage of total students they represent.

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Figure 2: Average length of stay by market region

Annie Wright, English UK deputy chief executive, concludes the report by expressing the hope that it will allow member centres to make better-informed marketing and business development choices. ‘UK international education is admired globally: it is one of the UK’s greatest export success stories. But now we are losing market share,’ she says. A concerted effort is needed to promote the UK ELT globally.