The annual MEI report shows that its 65 member schools welcomed 119,119 students last year, compared with 107,129 in 2015.
Welcoming the figures, David O'Grady CEO of MEI, said, "The 11 per cent growth in the ELT sector in Ireland in 2016 is hugely significant as it comes on the back of strong growth in 2015 also. Ireland has a reputation internationally as a quality destination for English language education and the growth in 2016 is a clear illustration of this. The growth was in line with forecasts from MEI and demonstrates the importance of the ELT sector to Ireland."
Young learners from the EU represented half of all students in MEI schools in 2016 (59,837), and increased by 32 per cent compared with the previous year. The junior market as a whole increased by 28 per cent, with growth slightly tempered by declines from non-EU markets.
In the adult segment, there was an overall decrease of one per cent in student numbers. Slight growth from the EU (two per cent) and non-EU 'no-visa-required' cohort, which includes counties such as Brazil and Japan (one per cent), was outweighed by a 19 per cent drop from the non-EU visa-required group, which includes Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.
However, the increasing share of junior business from short-haul markets led to a three per cent drop in overall student weeks for Ireland in 2016 to 626,370, despite the increase in student numbers. Junior student weeks increased by 12 per cent, while adult students dropped by six per cent.
Accordingly, the average stay dropped to 5.3 weeks, compared with 6.1 weeks in 2015. EU students stayed for an average of 2.4 weeks; 17.9 weeks was the average stay for non-EU no-visa-required students; and non EU visa students had a median course length of 10.2 weeks.
Italy remained the largest individual source country with 44,429 students, 37 per cent of the total, and recorded a 25.6 per cent increase last year. Spain provided 24,028 students, a 20.8 per cent rise.
Speaking to StudyTravel Magazine, David cautioned that there was some danger for Ireland in the 2016 figures, as the growth came from the EU junior market, which would be vulnerable to returning to the UK following the post-Brexit weakening of the pound.
Brazil maintained its position as comfortably the largest provider by the student weeks measure, albeit with a slight decrease to 204,029.
"The non-EU market was basically static," David said. Saudi Arabia and Russia both witnessed declines of a few hundred students, and the former was attributable to the cutbacks in the government's scholarship scheme, he said. Commenting on a potential recovery of the Russian market, he noted that an MEI agent event in Russia in October was well attended.
David said 2016 was a record year for nationality mix in Ireland, and welcomed the increased diversity. "The focus for MEI has been to grow the market for international students coming to Ireland to study English and we are delighted that we have done that. Last year, students from a total of 101 countries came to Ireland for quality English language education. This is an increase from the record number of countries in 2015, which stood at 89."
Commenting on particular new growth markets, he said, "There have been really large increases in students coming to Ireland from Argentina, Colombia and Chile. In 2016, the combined number of students from these three countries that came to Ireland to study English was approximately 1,150 - a 400 per cent increase in three years."
The MEI data mirrors the findings of StudyTravel Magazine's Market Analysis article on Ireland's ELT market, which features in the April 2017 edition of the magazine and shows that 60 per cent of students were recruited via agents from the 24 schools participating in the survey.
David said the ELT sector was worth EU762 million per year for Ireland, based on the International Education Strategy for Ireland 2016-2020 released by the government last year, and that it was important that all government departments worked in collaboration with the industry to implement the plans.
"The announcement by the Minister for Education of the appointment of four new 'path finders' to target and develop new markets outside of the EU is most welcome, and MEI warmly welcome this announcement and look forward to working with this new team." He explained that the preliminary plans entail embedding a marketing representative in embassies that MEI was keen to harvest.
He added, "Gratifying as last year was it is now over and we work with the challenges of 2017, and onwards. If we are to achieve the targets outlined in the Government strategy then we need to devote energy and expertise to areas for growth, most of which lie in markets that are visa requiring for Ireland.
"As with all exporters we are very sensitive to currency fluctuations, fluid international political uncertainty, Brexit, changing destination trends and wider security issues, therefore Ireland needs to be constantly alert and nimble in our responses to all challenges."
By Matthew Knott