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January 2004 issue

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Steady Spain

In comparison to many other European language destinations, the Spanish market performed relatively well in 2003. While some student provider markets suffered, others showed vitality, and schools testify that interest in learning the Spanish language remains high. Amy Baker reports.

Language schools in Spain report varying experiences for 2003, with some recording a 15 per cent drop in student numbers and others notching up a 40 per cent increase. Nevertheless, most schools agree that the year was quite slow, owing to difficult market conditions.

The market seems to be attracting increasing numbers of serious academic-oriented students, and accordingly, it was a language school based at a university, Escuela de Idiomas de la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), which reported the biggest rise in bookings last year.

Other schools generally talked of stagnant student numbers. 'More or less, overall student numbers remained the same as [the previous year],' relates Anja Finkel, Sales Manager of the Don Quijote chain of schools in Spain. '[Trends] were distinguished across different markets, but in general we noted growth of one per cent at [the time of going to press].'

One of the key trends experienced by all language schools was a decline in German students because of the depression in the German economy. 'The German economy had a worse effect [on numbers] than the Iraq war,' says Juan Manuel Sampere of Estudio Internacional Sampere, which has four branches in Spain. Cristina Sainz, Director of Gadir, Escuela Internacional de Espanõl in Cadiz, also points to a decline in the summer months of German enrolments, which have traditionally accounted for the largest share of the Spanish language teaching market (see above).

Student numbers from Scandinavia, the USA and Eastern Europe, on the other hand, were all reported to be on the increase. Santiago Alias, Director of UAB Barcelona, says that the war in Iraq in the first quarter of the year actually boosted bookings from students in the USA. '[Rather] than affecting us in a negative way, it was the opposite,' he says. 'Lots of American students decided to travel to Spain and cancel the trips they had planned to France or Germany.'

Bob Burger, at Malaca Instituto in Malaga, says their school saw the UK performing well, although he acknowledges that Western European bookings in general were slow. He also notes increasing interest from Korea, Taiwan and China, although there are complications with visa issuance, particularly for Chinese students, he says.

Other schools agree that a slow and restrictive visa process is impeding bookings from Eastern Europe and Asia. 'It is a huge problem,' says Finkel. 'We often have the booking here, payment registered and then have to cancel [it all] due to visa restrictions.'

Despite rising numbers from other markets, Western Europe remains a key student nationality for the Spanish market, and as a result, short-term vacation-type courses continue to be popular at schools across the country. Burger says, 'Our summer course for 16-to-20 year olds was a star programme this year.' However, backing up Alias's assertion that academic and career motivations are becoming more typical, Sampere says that last year, their schools introduced university placement as a new service, alongside work experience.

Alias explains that UAB Barcelona also introduced a new course in 2003. 'We have included an MBA in English for those students who want to come to Spain for a year and really want to make the most of their time here,' he says. 'As their level of Spanish in the beginning is not [adequate], they can learn Spanish in the mornings and study for an MBA in the afternoons.'


Interest is high

'We noticed a lot of hesitation [about booking] at the beginning of the year, although enquiries were still going up - the interest [in Spanish] has obviously always been there, even increasing,' states Anja Finkel, Sales Manager at Don Quijote schools in Spain. Bob Burger at Malaca Instituto in Malaga agrees. 'In general terms, interest in Spanish is increasing,' he asserts.

Spanish as a foreign language is, schools claim, a booming industry, although factors such as economic conditions and concern about travel during the war in Iraq impacted on student numbers last year. School representatives offer different reasons for the language's popularity. Finkel suggests one interesting theory: the move of British footballer, David Beckham, from Manchester United to Real Madrid last summer.

'Funnily enough, we have got a higher number of bookings from Japan in our Madrid school since Beckham has been playing for Real Madrid,' she says. 'Beckham is popular in Asia and the Spanish culture is too.'

She also points to the low-cost airlines that are now widespread in Europe as another reason for growing enrolments from some markets. 'The last few years have shown more and more of a last-minute booking mentality,' she explains. 'Especially in traditional markets, this was not the case before - low-cost airlines have helped to increase [this].'

At UAB Barcelona, which is part of a university, Santiago Alias offers another reason for growing interest in the Spanish language: further studies in the university system. 'Chinese students are going to increase next year mainly because of a project of collaboration between Spanish and Chinese universities,' he says, adding that US students also come to Spain because they realise they can gain credits from their home university.

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