Matthew Knott, News Editor of StudyTravel Magazine
Opinion... from the News Editor

It probably comes as no great surprise to language schools in the UK or to most agents that data released by English UK this week outlines a further decline in business in 2016. 

The 11 per cent drop in student numbers and 13 per cent decline in student weeks add to almost identical figures in 2015, representing a sizeable contraction of the sector over the last two or three years.


The large drops from the traditional backbone countries of Italy and Spain - indeed the latter fell out of the top two in 2016 - were neatly mirrored by similar increases in Ireland in the data released by Marketing English in Ireland (MEI) earlier in the year.


So some of the UK's missing customers were just a short Ryanair flight across the Irish Sea in 2016, seemingly. Yes the pound dropped after the Brexit vote in June, but that clearly came too late to rescue the year, with the summer bookings almost on their way by then.


But the decline was not restricted to the EU or completely attributable to the pound; around three-quarters of the top 20 source countries declined in 2016. Further slides from Russia and Libya might have been expected - Maltese schools will share sympathy about the complete disappearance of the Libyan market - but walloping 30 per cent plus drops from Brazil and Colombia will be cause for concern, as will the disappointing returns from Korea, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan.


With these two  particular Latin American countries the UK is already at a competitive disadvantage due to the lack of work rights for long-term language students; an asset that Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have exploited to good effect in these markets. With immigration settings unlikely to change - for the positive - anytime soon, there is not much UK schools can do about that.


We have reported previously that "safety", or the perception of it, is a bit of mantra for the Korean and Japanese markets, and Europe in general was being treated cautiously last year.


But there were some positives in the data though. Saudi Arabia returned to growth to usurp Spain as the second largest market (by student weeks), and China arrived in the top five for the first time. It has been an inconsistency that while China has long been the dominant force in the higher education sector, it hadn't featured as prominent ELT market for the UK, so schools will be pleased to see this belated emergence.


Mexico and Argentina have shown themselves as UK-favouring markets in StudyTravel Magazine's most recent agency surveys, and that has been borne out in the English UK data this year, with healthy increases.


And what we do know, at least anecdotally at this point, is that things are looking up. A weak pound through the whole peak booking season is paying dividends, with most schools I have spoken to reporting an uptick in bookings for the current year.


English UK has promised a renewed focus to assist members through the challenging period, with an emphasis on the importance of industry data. We would certainly concur with this at StudyTravel Magazine, where the combination of data from schools, agents and students is unparalleled.


And just this month we have released the findings of our first ever Global Agency Survey, capturing data from some of the source countries that rarely get mentioned, and overall painting a fairly rosy picture of the general direction of the agency business, something else the UK schools can take comfort from.



Matthew Knott

News Editor