December 2011 issue

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Ireland reconfigures

With the market seeming to have recovered well in 2010, 2011 has produced mixed results for Irish language schools, although initiatives to increase international student numbers are just beginning to show some returns.

An MEI scheme to increase the number of Turkish students attending its members’ schools has so far had no impact at Clare Language Centre in Ennis, County Clare, according to spokesperson, Muireann Neylon. However, at the Centre of English Studies (CES) in Dublin, “We are starting to see numbers coming in – but very slowly. It will take time to build on this initiative,” underlines Marketing Director, Jonathan Quinn.

For the present, Italian and Spanish students continue to make up the major proportion of intake at schools across the country. For Neylon, indeed, an increase in the number of Italian junior students has proved one of the few positives in the past year. Spanish intake has also risen at Bridge Mills Galway Language Centre, Galway, notes Director, Patrick Creed – a fact he attributes to the current poor economic conditions in that country. However, the picture is not a consistent one, with Quinn, by contrast, reporting a downturn in Spanish adult numbers at CES, following the loss of many government contracts.

In terms of nationality trends, schools are reporting rising numbers of Saudi students, thanks, as elsewhere, to the Saudi government scholarship scheme. At London College in Dublin, “A surge of interest in our intensive ELT programme...is largely due to a high demand from Saudi Arabia,” comments Eve Brosseau. However, there are indications of rising numbers from the Middle East generally. CES also highlights Oman and Kuwait, as rising markets, while Danielle Wall of Edgewater College in Drogheda notes an increase from the United Arab Emirates.

South America is also doing well for CES – in particular, Venezuela. However, Brazilian numbers at Bridge Mills have been decreasing, according to Creed, on account of Ireland’s poor economic conditions and its shortage of work opportunities, which, he notes, are vital for longer-term student markets such as this.

The trend towards last-minute bookings is a continuing frustration in all markets, and, says Creed, there have been “lots and lots of last-minute bookings, which are hard to sometimes deal with in terms of accommodation”. In addition, he reports that the school has seen many bookings not requiring accommodation at all. “People are choosing to stay in hostels, or organise themselves,” he comments, “as they believe they can get better value outside of staying with host families.”

Visa difficulties have long been an issue that has limited the potential of the market. The introduction of new visa regulations (see inset) seem, however, to have had a mixed reception. For Creed, “[The regulations] are badly thought out, and will only cause damage.” But Richard McMullen at EFL Ireland in Waterford, disagrees,” Visa issues are getting better, and it’s about time.” However, “We need to make travel from visa countries, especially BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China] easier,” he notes.

That aside, Ireland’s economic climate remains a significant constraint and language schools have needed to remain alert and proactive, in order to retain market share. At Bridge Mills, “We have made special offers to attract students, and done a lot of marketing to stay afloat,” comments Creed. Likewise, at EFL Ireland, McMullen reports, “We have worked to increase demand by offering more commission, and making our classroom structure more interesting and effective, while continually improving our activity schedule.” For CES, becoming an Ielts test centre has helped boost registrations for exam courses, while Edgewater College now offers Aviation English, as well as a new proficiency test.

Following such efforts, schools have achieved mixed results overall. While London College has seen a rise of between 10 and 15 per cent in business in 2011 to the time of writing, others have struggled to remain at the same level as the previous year. For Bridge Mills, business has increased, “But,” stresses Creed, “this is due to a lot of work by us!”

As a result, the industry remains cautious about the year ahead. “We have to watch costs very carefully,” says Creed, “and keep pushing to maintain our market share.”

Industry support

Initiatives both on the part of industry association, Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), and the Irish government have been very forthcoming of late. June 2010 saw the launch of a pilot scheme to bring Turkish students registered in Turkish universities to Ireland to study at MEI schools. This initiative “has seen modest beginnings”, admits association Chief Executive, David O’Grady, but, with approximately 60 students having arrived so far, “it is sufficient to encourage everybody of the market’s potential”.

He adds, “The hope for 2012 is to expand this scheme, and to then apply the template to other markets.” He notes that they also plan to target China and Brazil, places where awareness of Ireland is very limited, or even non-existent.

MEI’s past lobbying appears to have paid off, meanwhile, according to Eve Brosseau at London College, Dublin, as evidenced by a new government strategy, launched in September 2010, designed to increase the number of international students in English language schools by 25 per cent by 2015.

This is part of a broader government initiative aimed at boosting international student numbers in its higher education system by 50 per cent. The strategy includes plans to increase national promotion and marketing through redeveloping the Education Ireland brand. In tandem with this, the government also launched its new student immigration regime, with the aim to be both “strong and competitive”. However, the response from schools to date (see right) has been mixed.

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