May 2002 issue

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Irish success story

Key to diversification

With the arrival of Chinese students, Irish schools are seeing a greater dilution of nationalities and an extension of their business outside the summer season. Given that in 2000, over 90 per cent of Ireland's over-16-year-old students came from Western Europe, it is important that schools continue to work towards this goal.

Muireann Neylon of Clare Language Centre says her school is slowly attracting new nationalities. 'I have long-stay students from Brazil, Korea, Libya and Iran which is a step in the right direction for us.' Paul Mullins of American College Dublin comments, 'Our summer programmes are proving to be particularly popular among students from Eastern Europe and South America.'

Marketing has been the key to unlocking markets around the world, and the Irish industry benefits from solid support from its government, with the Irish tourist board, Bord Failte, and the school association, MEI~Relsa, working together. According to Orla Woods at Bord Failte, English language teaching was allocated 'in excess of E500,000 (US$440,000)' for marketing in 2001.

The marketing efforts of MEI~Relsa have been instrumental in attracting new students. The group's fam trip to Ireland for Korean agents last year was highly successful, and a trip to Spain is planned this year, as well as a tour of Asia in conjunction with the Irish navy vessel that has been sent to the area to raise Ireland's profile. MEI~Relsa will take part in promotional events organised by the Irish embassies and tourist boards in Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. 'The tour is an example of the cohesion between all the industry bodies and the excellent support our industry receives from the Irish government,' says Gill Nother at MEI~Relsa.

The introduction of the euro, new work regulations for international students and the influx of Chinese students have all buoyed growth in Ireland's language teaching market, as Gillian Evans reports.

Although growth rates may have slowed in the English language teaching market in Ireland, many schools report a heathly performance in 2001, with business spreading outside of the traditional peak summer months. 'One reason for the positive performance is the euro,' states Paul Mullins of American College Dublin. 'People like the fact that it is a strong currency and students from Western Europe don't have to worry about changing their money.'

Another factor that has helped entice students from a wider range of countries is the change in part-time work rights in Ireland. All students in full-time education are permitted to work for up to 20 hours a week. '[This] has focused agent awareness on Ireland because we are able to offer something that no other destination can,' claims Mullins. 'Students from Eastern Europe and Asia - although not Japan and Korea - are keen to work part-time in addition to their studies.'

The third significant factor that has boosted Ireland's English language teaching industry is the emergence of China as a student provider country. Relatively transparent visa regulations have meant that more and more Chinese students go to Ireland to learn English and then continue on to further and higher education. As a consequence, at International House (IH) Dublin, Chinese students now make up the largest single nationality. 'In 1998, we had no Chinese students; in 1999, they made up 20 per cent of our total students; in 2000, 25 per cent; and now about 30 per cent,' says Mark Baker, IH Dublin Managing Director.

Overall, according to Gill Nother at industry association, MEI~Relsa, applications for students visas from China were up by 29 per cent in 2001, with a visa approval rate of 62 per cent. 'We should see faster processing of visa applications in 2002,' she says, 'as the Department of Justice has recruited 11 new local officials and two Irish officials for the embassy in Beijing to process the applications locally.'

Traditionally, the Irish market has attracted summer vacation learners from Western Europe, with Spain and Italy each contributing about a third of students to the annual intake. Some sources reported that there has been a slowdown in numbers from Spain, while numbers from Russia have increased. 'Russia is a developing market,' confirms Nother, 'and applications for visas increased by approximately 45 per cent in 2001.'

The expansion of Ireland's international student population has changed the characteristic of the market. For example, the average length of stay at some schools has increased because of the growing number of students learning English for academic purposes. In addition, says Baker, 'There are now more year-round schools in Ireland. It has had a positive effect on the market. [English teaching] is not just seasonal work.' On the downside, he adds, 'there is a strain on host family accommodation - it is one of the limiting factors of growth'.

Another market beginning to bear fruit for Ireland is Korea. 'Korea is starting to come on line as the economy is turning around again,' comments Baker. '[In addition] 100 agents came over on a fam trip organised by MEI~Relsa at the end of last summer and we are getting huge numbers of enquiries from them.' Nevertheless, for many schools outside of Dublin, Western Europeans continue to make up the majority of their students.

Muireann Neylon, who runs the Clare Language Centre in Ennis, reports that although student numbers at her school were up slightly in 2001, she believes that overall growth was dampened by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK last year (with one case in Ireland). Another negative factor has been the general reduction in flights available. 'Post September 11, we have suffered cutbacks on flights into our nearby airport, Shannon, [and] worst of all, Aer Lingus abolished its late-night commuter flight from Dublin,' says Neylon.

Despite Ireland's success story in recent years, most schools are realistic about future growth. 'The dramatic growth of the mid-1990s has stopped,' says Baker, 'but the market outside of summer will continue to grow as Ireland gets better known as a year-round destination.'