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Will lack of Saudi students rock the UK and USA’s EFL markets?

The news that the new scholarship scheme for Saudi students will not include funding for language courses in anglophone countries could lead to the closure of up to 20 UK language schools, Gazette research reveals.

In 2019, Saudi students were the third-largest nationality in UK language centres measured by student weeks, and the second largest market in the private language sector, according to figures produced by industry analysts Bonard for language centre association English UK. ]Oman and Kuwait also featured in the top 20. 

In the same year at least 20 small accredited language schools catering largely or exclusively to Middle Eastern students posted losses on their balance sheet, according to a Gazette search of 100 language school financial records lodged at Companies House. Around half of the schools catering solely to the Middle East were micro-business with less than four classrooms enrolling a handful of students all of the same nationality . 

Most of these schools have survived Covid, kept afloat perhaps, by the Saudi students whose numbers halved in 2020, but that still made them by far the largest nationality group enrolled in UK language schools during the pandemic. But can the micro-schools enrolling only Arab students continue to survive without the Saudis?

The UK has dominated the Middle Eastern market for language schools since 2005, when the late King Abdullah launched a scholarship programme for Saudi students to study at universities in English-speaking countries, which includes a one-year language course, later cut to six months.

US universities took the largest percentage of Saudi scholarship enrolments and most of the students who went there took their English language classes in university language centres or campus-based chain schools. Meanwhile in the UK, the second biggest market for the King Abdullah scholarships they enrolled in private language schools outside the traditional EFL destinations, often in university towns in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales.

Under the new Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques programme, the Saudi government aims to send 70,000 students to universities overseas in the next 10 years, with all the English language programmes delivered before they leave. This may not be the ideal answer: a meta-analysis of study abroad programmes published in 2017 and reported in the Gazette found that long-term study abroad programmes which lasted more than 13 weeks were significantly more effective than similar programmes delivered in the student’s home country. 

Is UK’s dominance of the Middle Eastern market for language schools at an end? Possibly, but since the combined citizenry of Saudi and the Gulf states is in total less than the population of Poland, it was never a big market overall compared to, say, Japan, Korea or Brazil alone. 

The importance of the Middle East  to the EFL industry in the UK and the US is that the region is the only long-haul, long-stay market where students are not reliant on work rights to fund their stay. Unless there is a dramatic shift in their respective governments’ policy, neither county can replace the Saudi market with other long-stay students.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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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