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Asians head for the Med

Matt Salusbury looks at the broad nationality mix in Maltese ELT

Korean and Japanese nationals don’t need a short stay visa for Malta, but the flights from south-east Asia to Malta are long haul (Turkish Airlines now has direct flights from both Korea and Japan to Malta, with just one stopover). Despite the long journey, south-east Asia has become an important enough market in Malta’s tourism sector for niche market corporate travel specialists such as Special Interest Travel (the clue’s in the name) to have a Japanese division, with Malta-based staff who are Japanese and Chinese nationals.

The most recent figures from the Office of National Statistics Malta (from April 2014, covering 2013) noted an overall decline in ‘Asian’ enrolments for EFL courses on the islands – down by almost a half on the previous year. The term Asian means mostly South Korean and Japanese – arrivals from China and India aren’t significant enough to take them out of the ‘other countries’ category, although some language schools will in any given month have more Chinese across their classes than Koreans or Japanese, and EC Malta told the Gazette it hoped to have more in the future from China.

Despite this fall on last year, numbers of Japanese and South Korean students coming to Malta are still healthy. Japan ranks twelfth on Malta’s list of sending countries, bringing in 1,410 students – 19 per cent of total EFL enrolments – in 2013. In the same year South Korea sent 718 students, which represented 11 per cent of EFL students in Malta. Looking at the figures by month, there were proportionally more Koreans and Japanese in the low season months – between January and March in particular.

Those Koreans and Japanese who come to study English in Malta are overwhelmingly between the ages of 18 and 25. For both nationalities, a comfortable majority were female.

What brings visitors from south-east Asia to study English in Malta? Students from South Korea’s prestigious Hanyang University were interviewed by EC Malta about the six weeks they spent studying and working as (unpaid) interns at the school. Korea has a ‘weak graduate job market’ according to a report by the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, so any work experience abroad would presumably be viewed as giving graduates a competitive edge. A more important factor was that Malta was ‘much cheaper than other European countries’, in the words of one Korean student.

Another apparent draw was the cosmopolitan make-up of the classes. Many Maltese schools’ websites have infographics showing the nationality mix of their classes. EC Malta gave its nationality mix as 9 per cent Japanese and 7 per cent Korean, according to its website.

The website of Chamber College presented a nationality mix that was ‘Japanese 6 per cent, Korean 8 per cent, Chinese 9 per cent’. The biggest single nationality was Spanish at 12 per cent, followed by Libyan (Arabic-speaking) at 10 per cent. The biggest demographic in Chamber’s nationality mix is the presumably multilingual ‘other 31 per cent’, a class composition which the Japanese and Korean students in particular would appreciate.

At a conference for agents last March organised by Malta English schools association Feltom, the Malta Independent interviewed Kanae Matsuoka, a Japanese agent, who said the distance between Japan and Malta ‘might discourage many young students’. But Matsuoka estimated that ‘around 20’ from a total of ‘1,000 students we sent abroad each year’ come to Malta, and added she would ‘definitely be sending some families’ to Malta in the future.

Speaking at Feltom’s AGM in January, Malta’s tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis referred to ‘the emergence of new markets that show a great deal of promise, including those of Brazil, Turkey and Japan’.

EC Malta’s sister school, the secondary school St Martins College, has a longstanding exchange with Kindai Junior School in Japan, whose secondary school students come over in mid-March for a couple of weeks and take part in regular classes such as physical education, art, drama, history and environmental studies.

While the most recent figures revealed a slight drop in enrolments overall, these also flagged up that Koreans are the nationality with the longest average stay for a language tourist or student in Malta – 14.5 weeks on average. And the Koreans are actually staying longer in 2014 than they were in 2013 – their average length of stay was up over 80 per cent.

Sophia Fergus, marketing manager of EC Malta, confirmed to the Gazette that as of early 2015 the relatively low costs of living and studying in Malta, the nationality mix and living in homestays are the main draws for students from Korea and Japan. EC’s Anna Camilleri added that most of their Korean and Japanese students ‘stay for up to six months and not usually less than eight weeks’.

The most up to date statistics for foreign nationals enrolled in ‘tertiary education’ (overwhelmingly at the University of Malta) are for academic year 2011–12 and show 138 ‘Asians’ (not broken down by nationality), all of whom were undergraduates.

The University of Malta has exchanges with Japanese universities. The international office at the University of Malta now has a Chinese study advisor whose tasks include assisting in the ‘development of the new links with the People’s Republic of China’. And, appropriately, Malta and China have signed an agreement recognising each other’s university degrees.