Claudia Civinini analyses the latest gloomy (and not-so-gloomy) student number figures for UK English language schools
The weak pound has not saved the UK ELT industry from its third consecutive year of decline, figures from English UK show.
Increased competition between host countries, political uncertainty in Europe, Brexit and obstructive visa policies may have all conspired to cause the decline in 2016, the new report suggests.
Both student numbers and student weeks show a minus sign for private and state providers, and the same is true for staple source markets such as Italy and Spain.
However, some interesting trends hide among the doom and gloom: in the past 3 years China has risen from 11th to become the fifth source market for the UK, and junior students have for the first time overtaken adult numbers. Scotland and Northern Ireland bucked the trend and actually registered some growth.
English UK chief executive Sarah Cooper said last month that although the industry faced a downward trend, there was still ‘much to be positive and optimistic about’.
Speaking at her organisation’s annual general meeting, she added that she had been impressed by ‘innovation and enterprise in the sector’ as language schools attempted to rise to the challenge. In a foreword to the report, the third produced in collaboration with Student Marketing, she said it was vital to track market trends closely to build an industry that is ‘professional, innovative, intelligence-led and thriving’.
Janet Galbraith, chair of English UK Scotland, said she was ‘delighted’ to have seen growth in the past year.
She added: ‘We believe that the increase in direct flights operating into Scotland, the safe nature of our cities and a very positive national rhetoric towards overseas visitors has really helped our schools strengthen their position in the market, and the positive trend looks set to continue in 2017’.
Biggest slice of the cake
Two regions have grown their share of the ELT market: Scotland leads the way with an 11 per cent increase from 2015, followed by Northern Ireland with 4 per cent.
London and the south and south-east of England retain the biggest slice of the ELT cake (see graph on the right): 51 per cent of it, to be precise. However, these regions are not immune from the general decline in student weeks.
London is at -11 per cent, similar to Wales, south and south-east England are at -12 per cent, as is the south-west. The sharpest decline is seen in northern England at -14 per cent.
The golden couple, Italy and Spain, no longer dominate the charts. Italy still holds the pole position, despite showing a reduction in both student numbers and student weeks for the second consecutive year, but Spain has given in to a five-year downward trend and slipped to third position. In second position there is a new entry, Saudi Arabia, showing a plus sign for both student numbers and student weeks – which average at an impressive 9.4. Another pleasant surprise is China in fifth position. So, while most of the top-20 source countries show a fall, some upward trends are worth mentioning: Kuwait, Argentina and above all Mexico, which sent 45 per cent more students in 2016 than 2015.
The 20 biggest source markets:
Middle Eastern promise
The Middle East, the region with the highest average length of stay, registered a modest increase in student numbers from 2015. However, all other regions with a sizeable market share show a decrease. The biggest fall comes from Eastern Europe with a 37 per cent drop.
In terms of student weeks, all regions show a decrease – except Australasia, which saw a very modest increase. Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America show the most impressive decline.
Western Europe, the most important source region for the UK ELT industry, has a decrease of 13 per cent in student weeks and 10 per cent in student numbers. However, its market share increased from 44 per cent to 47 per cent in the period 2014–16, while Eastern Europe and Latin America lost ground.
Table 1: Student numbers per region 2015-2016
Table 2 : Average length of stay per source market (weeks)
‘A vastly reduced sector’
In 2016, English UK’s 441 members hosted around 476,920 students, who spent a total of 1,787,380 weeks studying English. This amounts to a fall of 11 per cent in student numbers and 13 per cent in student weeks from 2015. Private language centres suffered a slightly sharper drop than state-sector members. Even the English UK member base got smaller, losing 24 centres since 2015, mostly as a result of closures and mergers. This trend, said English UK chief executive Sarah Cooper, might not only continue but accelerate in the future as struggling centres closed or were acquired by groups. ‘We face the very real possibility of a vastly reduced sector in terms of number of players in a few years time,’ she added.