Will China Hoover Up the Native Speakers?

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British Council, Dubai

Melanie Butler explores the effect of local markets on English language teaching

“The local supply of English language providers … is increasing.” So Patrik Pavlacic of market analysts Bonard tells us on page 19. But is it?

There is notoriously little market evidence on global trends in Private Language Schools (PLS) operating in local markets because the evidence is – well, local. It may be possible to track numbers of new PLS in Vietnam or student enrolment in Spain but, save for those optimistic growth forecasts produced by commercial franchise operations, there is little evidence on multinational trends.

The best proxy for global growth rates comes from the British Council’s annual reports. The 2018-2019 figures for student enrolment in Council teaching centres in 50 countries shows growth of up to 5 per cent year-on-year, to 420,000. In contrast, the entire UK accredited sector enrolled 580,000, according to Bonard.

But the Council’s growth is region specific. The annual report does not break down enrolments by country, but the Council has long had a policy of axing ‘unviable’ centres, closing schools in mature markets and opening them in all the emerging ones … except China.

The British Council only opened its first teaching operation in China in 2017. So its enrolment figures not reflect trends in what is almost certainly the world’s largest PLS market. China now has 50,000 registered PLS, according to government estimates.

China’s PLS sector now employs 400,000 foreign teachers, at least three times as many as all the PLS in the European Union.

Until January 2019, the size of the Chinese market had little effect on the teacher supply to PLS in other local markets, simply because it did not insist that foreign teachers were native speakers of English, because pedagogically there is barely any evidence that they should be.

But bowing to strong consumer demand, China has now enacted strict visa limits. To work legally, foreign PLS teachers must now hold a passport from a native-speaker country, a first degree and either an ‘internationally recognised’ 120 hour TESOL certificate or two years TEFL experience.

And China is prepared to pay. Salaries for a contract with 20-hours of teaching a week average around US $2,000 a month with accommodation often thrown in free.

East Asia easily competes with China on salaries, Europe does not. Polish language schools are offering US$600 per month with accommodation, Spain around US$1500 net without.

“What we want,” one Spanish school owner told me, “is for teachers to work in China for a couple of years and then to come and work for us.”

You can’t always get what you want. Unless you pay for it!

Image courtesy of BRITISH COUNCIL