October 2005 issue

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UK's aspirations

After a mixed performance in 2004 overall, because of logistical problems in some countries, the English language teaching market in the UK picked up considerably in 2005, until mid-summer at least. Gillian Evans reports.

According to Tony Millns of English UK, a Risk Assessment Unit was set up in China in 2004 by UKVisas to monitor student visa applications because of an alleged increase in the number of forged documents submitted. This led to a high number of visa refusals in China. And as a result, visa issuance problems, particularly in China, continued to compound market growth last year.

Jonathan Seath, Principal of Colchester English Study Centre and International Language Holidays confirms this, saying that for them, the Chinese market "collapsed" in 2004, which was one of the main factors for the school';s five per cent decrease in student numbers (Seath also points out, however, that 2002 and 2003 were "massive years" for the school).

Schools encountered other challenges last year too. For Foyle Language School in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, the change to visa regulations that prohibits short-term visitors from changing their visa category to work permit visas once in the country has affected their students. Sinead McCaul at the school explains, "[This change] has caused many problems in relation to our nursing programme where students had to change from a student visa to a student nurse visa before changing to a work visa."

Visa price hikes may also have dampened numbers to the UK in 2004. David Simons, Principal of Golders Green College in London says they are a distinct "disincentive" for students to study in the UK, while Paul Clark at Geos Brighton & Hove believes the price increase for visa extensions in particular may have presented more of an obstacle to market growth. As a consequence, says Clark, "We have introduced a scheme whereby, if a student extends [their course] for 12 weeks, we pay for their visa extension."

While some student nationalities – sources mention Chinese, Jordanian, Japanese and Korean – have certainly been affected by visa issues, many schools report that shortfalls from these countries have been countered by greater numbers from other countries. Paul Johnston at Regent Language Training says their low Chinese numbers were compensated for by increases from other Asia/Pacific countries, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, France, Germany and Poland. Indeed, Millns reports that stricter visa requirements introduced by the USA resulted in the UK regaining market share in 2004.

Another boost to student numbers in 2004/2005 has been the enlargement of the European Union (EU). Johnston says that they have experienced a 40 per cent increase in new EU bookings, and Seath reports that, as well as more Slovak and Czech students – which may also be due to a new agency partnership in Prague – they have experienced more Poles "walking in off the street". However, McCaul has yet to see results from a high level of enquiries. "There has not really been any direct business from Eastern Europe yet but the potential is definitely there," she says. Overall, 2004 was a year of little change for many schools. Johnston reports static numbers last year, and other institutions paint a picture of a busy year-end not making up for a slow start to the year.

By the first quarter of 2005, however, the market was performing exceptionally well, with many schools reporting high bookings for summer and autumn 2005. However, the bombings in London in July took the shine off the market';s performance. In the weeks immediately after the bombings, sources reported some cancellations, particular from Japanese juniors, and schools were bracing themselves for a drop in bookings or enquiries. But Seath is hopeful that, after an initial downturn in numbers, the market will pick up again. He reported no major change in bookings at his school and, comparing the London events with the Madrid bombings in March 2004, he says, "The atrocity in Madrid was much worse but the market recovered quickly."

New industry regulations

In January, the British government introduced a register of bona fide education providers, used by immigration officers to assess whether students from outside the European Economic Area are planning to study at legitimate schools.

Although generally well received by the industry – as Paul Clark of Geos Brighton & Hove puts it, "Anything that helps visa offices to distinguish between real schools and visa factories is to be welcomed" – there has been some concern that the basic criteria for inclusion on the register are not stringent enough. David Simons at Golders Green College in London is damning in his opinion of the register, calling it "a mockery because the bogus schools are still allowed to operate", and Paul Johnston at Regent Language Training in Brighton maintains that quality is the important issue and that the register "gives spurious credibility to bucket-shop operators". 

However, an initiative to introduce compulsory accreditation is widely welcomed. Jonathan Seath at Colchester English Study Centre believes it will result in an increase in standards across the industry. However, Johnston warns, "Quality operators need to be brave enough not to compete on price."

Clark is also concerned that the scheme will not go far enough when launched. "I hope it will kick the cowboys out of the market, to the benefit of [all]," he says, "[but] there are fears that it will not be sufficiently rigorous."

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