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EL Market Report: Do Chinese make the right choice?

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Melanie Butler asks why so few Chinese students choose language travel, and looks at which kinds of centres they go to

As a rule of thumb, 2 per cent of all students enrolled in local language schools in their home country will buy at least one language travel package during their studies, according to research by Student Marketing. With 300 million Chinese learning English and at least 10 million students enrolled in the estimated 50,000 language schools, this would give a potential language travel market of between 200,000 and 400,000 students. 

While China is the strongest international education market in the world for both high school and higher education, its presence in EFL, at least in the UK market, remains small if growing. Only a quarter of accredited language centres report significant number of Chinese students in their British Council inspections and most of those are accounted for by two sectors: the universities and the residential summer school operators. So where are the Chinese? As the first  figure (below) demonstrates, on average Chinese students enrol at more ‘high-quality’ centres, with British Council inspection reports standing as a proxy for quality, than the industry average. However, that is in part due to its high use of the university sector.  When we look at the figures for under-16s course providers (Figure 2 – below), the picture does not look so rosy; there is a large cluster of students in five-star schools, almost always in the boarding school sector, and the majority of the remainder are enrolled in four star schools.p8graph1

The adult market is dominated by the university sector. Sixty per cent of accredited university language centres report Chinese as a significant nationality group. That compares to just 28 per cent of further education colleges, which also offer pre-degree programmes, and just 12.3 per cent of private language schools. The accredited university language centres sector is both consistent and high performing: 87 per cent score between five and twelve points of strength, which puts them in either the four- or five-star band, meaning they range from very good to excellent. 

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However, neither university language centres nor further education colleges offer the kind of short general English courses that make up the majority of language travel. Courses shorter that three months are the almost exclusive territory of private language schools, 52 per cent of which are now members of chains. Chain schools outperform independent private language schools on average but are generally inconsistent in terms of the quality metrics used by the British Council. Chinese enrolment in chain schools reflect this inconsistency.When Chinese students or their agents do choose independent language schools, they choose badly. Two thirds of all the language schools with significant Chinese enrolment rank below average. Only one five-star school is popular with the Chinese: the Lake School of English in Oxford. Yet the top of the rankings is dominated by the well-established independent centres like the members of Ten (The English Network), an association of independent centres which consistently outperforms all the chains of a similar size. No member of Ten reported a significant number of Chinese enrolments in their most recent inspection. If we discount the students enrolled in university language centres, most of which essentially offer preparation programmes for further study, the number of adult Chinese coming to study English remains extraordinarily low. By contrast, there is little doubt that the Chinese junior market is large and growing: over 40 per cent of the specialist vacation course providers report Chinese as a significant market for enrolments, and figures are similar in the boarding school sector. Based on an analysis of the providers involved it seems that residential summer vacation courses make up the largest sector. There are also growing reports of closed groups, often from the same high school, looking to book residential courses all year round. There is no evidence of Chinese enrolments in any of the specialist private language schools which run children’s courses year-round.

The profile of Chinese enrolments in under-16s courses is very different both from that for adults and from the junior market as a whole. It is divided into two clusters, with about a third of providers at the top end the quality scale and nearly two thirds clustering towards the bottom. The providers at the top-quality end are dominated by boarding schools, while those at the bottom are dominated by vacation course providers who rent boarding school or university accommodation in the vacation periods. With 90 per cent of parents sending their children via agents and most agents white-labelling the product, it is likely that many families, and possibly high school principals, are being promised boarding school courses but are being sold courses run by private providers in boarding schools.  There are over twenty high-quality vacation course providers in the EL Gazette rankings, but only four of them report significant Chinese student enrolments. By contrast over a third of the major providers are white label organisations enrolling Chinese children which do not sell direct to the consumer, suggesting that commission levels, not quality, may be driving agent choice.

In the junior market it is not only the quality of the course that counts, it is also the strength of their child protection measures. There is some evidence that Chinese agents are not paying sufficient attention to the British Council information in this area. Nearly 10 per cent of all providers reporting Chinese juniors have not yet been inspected for child protection. In one case, a provider whose largest market was China failed child protection on its first inspection under the new regulations and had its accreditation put under review. In another case, a spot check of a private language school running its first residential course found that the Chinese group leader had left the boarding school campus where the course was taking place without informing the operator on the very day a Chinese child went missing. So far, there is no evidence that any Chinese child has come to serious harm, but all parents would be well advised to demand the name of the provider running the course from the agent and check its child protection status on our consumer-based website EL-go.com before allowing their child to board the plane.


Pic caption: The data shows that, when Chinese students choose independent language schools, they generally choose badly 
Pic courtesy: Montgomery County Planning Commission