August 2003 issue

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UK steady

Last year saw many UK language schools increasing their average student weeks taught and, in some cases, enjoying a rise in student numbers too. But while the market seemed to be settling, the first part of 2003 brought with it more problems for the industry. Gillian Evans reports.

For the UK's English language teaching industry, 2002 may be described as a year of calm, following a number of difficult years caused by external factors. According to preliminary figures from Arels, student weeks rose by 15 per cent in 2002 to 1,036,477, indicating the sort of student volume seen in 1997, according to Arels' comprehensive survey data.

The market has largely been boosted by long-stay students, particularly from Korea and China (see right). Allan Gray, Marketing Director at Language Specialists International in Portsmouth, points to a 'virtually unlimited demand' from China in 2002. He adds that student intake reflected 'more older students looking for Ielts [courses]'.

At Geos English Academy in Brighton, Jan Aram agrees that Chinese students represent the best opportunities for growth in the UK, along with Brazilian students. Her school saw a 10 per cent increase in student numbers last year, and more long-term students staying for over 24 weeks.

Long-term language courses preparing students for academic studies are now de rigeur at UK schools, as Graham White at the Eastbourne School of English points out. 'Asians are staying longer and longer - one year is now not unusual,' he says. 'Everyone offers study year programmes these days.'

Schools stress, however, that any increase in student stay is also down to their marketing efforts. Aram cites 'a continuous improvement in our marketing approach, wider range of active agents and higher profile on the Internet' as reasons for success.

While many schools might be content about their performance last year, they are quick to point out that 2003 poses challenges. Aram speaks for many when she says that Sars and the war in Iraq dampened demand. At Anglo European School of English in Bournemouth, Brian Brownlee says Italy and Japan were the worst affected by the war, although bookings have recovered since.

The impact of mass media coverage of Sars on the market has also been significant, with students from diverse countries abandoning their plans to take a course in the UK. 'Sars has affected China very badly,' says Brownlee. 'Other countries are affected, even Italy!'

It is the junior market that is likely to have suffered most, says Sue Lim of Home End School in Credley, which saw a big dip in Easter bookings from its junior clients. Lim says parents in Europe have been reluctant to send their children overseas as they may come in contact with students from high-risk areas.

Economic malaise has also stymied growth in the corporate training market. Chris Newman, from the London School of English, says, 'The poor performance of local economies in Western Europe certainly had an impact on the corporate market, where training is always one of the first areas to be affected.'

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. The euro is gaining strength against the pound sterling, which will make the UK more attractive, particularly to European nationalities.

In addition, some schools reported good summer bookings for this year. White says, 'At the moment, bookings for the summer are buoyant. The first quarter of 2003 was disappointing but not disastrous. [We have a] good number of long-term bookings from Asian countries, [so will] probably have about the same student weeks for 2003 as in 2002.'

The growth of China

The increase in the number of students from China choosing to study in the UK has had a marked impact on the English language teaching sector. Brian Brownlee, of Anglo European School of English in Bournemouth, says the increase in Chinese students at their school boosted the average length of stay and age of their students.

The increase in stay is also reflected in the Arels' statistics, which reveal that the average length of stay for adults was up from 6.8 weeks in 2001 to 9.4 weeks in 2002. China's market share increased from nearly seven per cent in 2001 to just over 11 per cent in 2002. And its growth is likely to continue, according to Arels' Chief Executive, Tony Millns. 'China is set to become the largest single market in 2003 if Sars is contained,' he says.

In the long-term, however, Rupert Johnstone, Managing Director of ELS Language Centres, sounds a cautionary note about pinning too many hopes on the Chinese market. 'Students will all head to the USA when visa laws are relaxed there,' he forecasts.

In the meantime, Chris Newman, at the London School of English, points out that current visa policy in the UK is unhelpful to the development of an English language only market, separate from the higher education motivations of Chinese currently in the UK. 'If we could get some improvements in this area, then China has massive potential,' he says, adding that demand is there.

Jason West, of English [Out There!], which offers short-term practical English courses, argues that the academic bias of current courses is limiting the appeal of the UK market, 'since the age range of these targets is predominantly 18-to-30. The world is changing, and there are more older people who have money and who want to learn new skills.'

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