December 2010 issue

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Ireland’s initiative

After a hugely disappointing 2009, surviving 2010 was always going to be a challenge. However, by identifiying some new source markets, Irish providers have managed to gain back some of the ground lost. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

After enduring a very tough year in 2009, Irish language schools have experienced varying degrees of improvement in 2010. While some report a minor rise in student numbers, others have experienced significant increases, and, at Berlitz Language Centre in Dublin, Director, Mary Fitzpatrick, records a rise of around 20 per cent against the previous 12 months. At the same time, however, the seasons appear to have polarised, according to Cork English College’s Micheline Bradley, who notes, “As with most EFL schools, low-season numbers were down on previous years, but high-season is proving to be very successful.”

In terms of source markets, schools have needed to respond to changing circumstances in order to rebuild business levels. As Marketing English in Ireland (MEI) Chief Executive, David O’Grady, highlights, “MEI schools are looking outside the traditional EU/EAA markets as a long-term strategy, now made more immediate because of recession in those markets.” Targets have included Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Libya, while, in terms of Latin America, he identifies a focus on Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Schools continue to work in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, O’Grady adds, although Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Kazakhstan recruitment has been adversely affected by Irish visa policy.

While language schools continue to attract a high number of Europeans, efforts to recruit outside traditional markets are reflected in recruitment figures. Saudi Arabia features among the top three source countries at both CES Dublin and English Language Ireland, Carlow, and the biggest increases at CES, according to spokesman, Jonathan Quinn, have come from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Korea. “Students from the Middle East are now beginning to recognise Ireland as an alternative destination to the UK,” echoes Bradley.

Visa changes and other specific initiatives have played a part in the changing market profile, and will continue to do so, with Ruth Coffey at English Language Ireland in Carlow, reporting that visa restrictions for Turkish junior students have been eased. In addition, an MEI initiative (see inset) has also paved the way for increased recruitment of Turkish students. Furthermore, “The new visa-waiver status of China and the continuation of Saudi education grants has meant that a number of new markets are open to us,” comments Rory Curley at the Galway Cultural Institute.

The upturn is also a reflection of other factors. First of all, “It seems Ireland benefited with the recent rise of the pound and the continuing poor performance of the euro. Europeans are more likely to spend in their own currency, rather than bet against the pound, which can change the price significantly from the time they book to when they start their course,” observes Richard McMullen of EFL Ireland, in Waterford. “Outside of Europe, the euro is becoming more competitive compared internationally to the US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars,” he adds, “so many students [who] could not afford a course in Europe two years ago can now make it a reality.”

However, the high value of the euro in 2009 prompted some schools to cut prices or otherwise offer incentives. At Berlitz, “We adjusted our pricing downwards for 2010 in a bid to attract more business – with mixed results,” comments Fitzpatrick. While Bradley notes that the school offered the incentive of free access to its e-learning platform and free return transfers from Dublin Airport to Cork.

Another factor that is partially offsetting the positive trends is a tendency towards the booking of shorter courses. Bradley, for example, notes increasing requests for two and three-week programmes, while Coffey highlights the fact that “course duration of four weeks seems to be changing to a bigger demand for three-week courses”. Elsewhere, Irish language schools are also seeing an increase in late bookings. Curley notes that there has been a slightly shorter lead-in period for European students, and Coffey observes that, “Agents are slower to ‘close’ their groups”, with details arriving very late.

MEI’s lead

Member language schools have received practical support from Marketing English in Ireland (MEI) this year in their efforts to beat the downturn. As association CEO, David O’Grady, explains, in June 2010, an MEI-driven pilot programme with the Irish department of Justice was launched for Turkish university students coming to Ireland on intensive English courses provided by MEI member schools. Students undertaking the programme – who must be university students with a full-time course to return to – will obtain a 90-day visa, to be issued at the Irish embassy in Ankara. According to O’Grady, this is “an exciting departure” for MEI, which should benefit member schools for the period of the pilot and beyond. “That is an advantage of membership,” he underlines. The scheme will be piloted for 12 months, and will then be subject to review.

Another initiative is a programme for primary and secondary school teachers from Spain, to upskill their teaching methodology. Overseen by ACELS/NQAI, this programme was being piloted during summer 2010 in MEI schools, whom, O’Grady believes, it will greatly assist. “We have also been deeply involved in developing the MEI foundation course, which [was due to go] on stream this September,” he adds.

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