With problems unravelling around the world this year - economic slowdowns, national strikes and serious crises such as the Iraq issue - there is an overiding feeling of global cautiousness that is reflected in the international media.
It is this sense of global suspense, which has been present since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, that is responsible for less-than-buoyant sales in the language travel market, say agents, and agencies in Italy point to uncertainty in the international market and fear of flying as two reasons for the market's downbeat performance last year (pages 12-13).
Still, weighing in as a factor bucking the trend for falling sales is the international appetite to study abroad or gain a qualification overseas. Even Italian agents acknowledge that their clients won't put off their overseas study plans forever, and they forecast a more positive market performance this year.
Elsewhere, there are indications that markets are growing thanks to students' desire to study overseas. In Germany, schools point to the fact that there are no tuition fees at university in Germany as a key motivation for students enrolling at German language schools, and agencies confirm the trend (page 21).
In our France Feedback survey, the number of students in France wanting to continue on to university there has also increased by five percentage points since 2001 (pages 16-17).
And agents from a number of countries in central and eastern Europe that are likely to become European Union (EU) members next year, are forecasting a surge in the number of students from their countries applying to study in other EU-member countries, due to decreasing costs (page 19).
Trends in the exam sector of the marketplace underline the increasing demand for certification of language skills prior to entering universities or colleges overseas. The number of Ielts test-takers, for example, was up by 40 per cent in 2001 on the previous year, and exam bodies are updating and improving their exams as they seek to stay competitive in the field.
The company responsible for the Toefl exam has recently launched a new speaking test and is working on a new scoring system. Trinity Colleges London, another exam provider, has also introduced a new suite of exam products, which encourage the use of computer technology (pages 24-30).
Given that the competition is intense for exam applicants and for students themselves, US providers will not be heartened to read that a task force in the USA has concluded that serious efforts need to be made to halt the decline in the country's market share of international students. Nafsa's task force calls for a coordinated, inter-departmental marketing strategy from the government and a sympathetic visa process for genuine applicants (page 4).
As competition continues, it is likely that students will start weighing up rating criteria for education systems around the world and not make their future academic plans based only on cost and reputation. If so, the USA might have more to worry about, according to results from a Unicef survey about the efficacy of worldwide education systems (page 4). The USA was rated at 18th place in the survey, followed by Germany at 19th position, while Canada and Australia were situated in the top five, behind the Asian countries of South Korea and Japan, and Finland.