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Changing direction

As the Covid dust settles, other factors are determining where students go to learn English, says Melanie Butler

With the Philippines open to fully vaccinated visitors since the beginning of April and the New Zealand government allowing language schools to enrol 1,000 students by October, the beginning of post-Covid language travel has begun.

But what happens now?

At first glance, it looks like the pre-Covid move away from the US and UK and towards the smaller markets is set to continue. The figures on language centre closures during the pandemic are stark: by July 2021, 85 language centres had permanently closed in the US and 82 in the UK, compared to 32 in Australia and just four in Ireland, according to figures released by market analysts Bonard in September 2021.

Remember, however, the numbers of centres in the two biggest destinations are huge. On Bonard’s figures, just 10% of the 854 US centres have closed. In the UK, which had 1,061 language centres – including universities, FE colleges and boarding schools – the rate of closure was 7.6%.

By contrast, South Africa saw 12.7% of centres close by September 2021 and in New Zealand it was 12.1 per cent, the Bonard figures show.

It was the private language school (PLS) sector in the UK and the US which bore the brunt. In the US, closures mostly involved chains cuttings branches, with some, such as Stafford House and St Giles, withdrawing from the States entirely.

“According to schools association English UK, 15% of member schools are now 
permanently closed”

In the UK, outside of OISE, few chain schools closed more than one branch. Dozens of year-round, stand-alone schools, however, have gone down. And the bloodbath continues. According to schools association English UK, 15% of member schools are now permanently closed. Meanwhile in Ireland, the equivalent association, MEI, has not seen one single school shut.

Why the difference? Like most other destinations, Ireland gives work rights to long- stay students and enough students remained in the country after Covid hit to keep schools going: online during lockdowns and in person in the periods they were permitted to open.

In the EFL travel market, only the UK, the US and the Philippines do not offer work rights and, unless they already enrolled local students or had successful online courses, most schools in these countries enrolled few if any students for nearly two years.

With all destinations open again, another major factor comes into play: exchange rates. The English language industry is divided into regional duopolies with different currencies: the US and Canada, the UK and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Enrolment rates between each pair historically mirror currency fluctuations: if the Euro is high students head for the UK; a strong US dollar increases student flows to Canada.

So, where are exchange rates now? With war in Ukraine taking central stage, the markets have run for safety to the US dollar, helping Canada become the first choice destination for university students, according to a report from IDP. Over the pond, Europe’s dependence on Russian gas has seen the euro plummet against the pound while the language schools of Dublin fill up.

Whether students are following the change in interest rate or merely the change in fashions, they are changing their minds about where to study, especially in the EU. The IDP report shows Canada heading the table for European teenagers looking for year-long school immersion programmes. Meanwhile, Europe’s high school graduates are heading to Ireland to do university degrees.

It’s this switch in the EU market for under- 18s which poses the biggest long-term threat to the UK, because before Covid hit the ‘junior market’ made up 50% of total enrolment and the vast majority of those enrolments came from Europe.

While the politics of the US under Biden have improved its approval among international students, the same cannot be said of the UK.

Nobody voted for Brexit so Britain could ban European student visitors, but the British Government is doing its damnedest to keep them out. It left Erasmus and destroyed the teacher training market. It hit universities by insisting Europeans paid full international fees. And as for the high school immersion programmes, except for short school exchanges, it made it illegal for all foreigners to enrol in UK state schools.

Now its insistence on making EU children travel on full passports rather than ID cards not only threatens the summer school market, it’s all but destroying the £3.5 billion school trip sector. But why?

As Kurt Janson, the director of the UK’s Tourism Alliance, has said: “Schoolchildren present no security risk, will not disappear into the black economy and start driving minicabs, and parents who let their children go on school trips are generally quite keen for their teachers to bring them back home.”

Covid wreaked havoc on private language schools everywhere, but in the UK it is Brexit which still poses a threat.

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Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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