By Matthew Knott, News Editor of Study Travel Magazine

With a UK general election looming in 2015, there was certainly a political flavour to many of the speeches and debates at the English UK AGM last week, and with immigration policy and even UK membership of the EU possibly at stake, the international education industry will be closely following events.

As Robert Syms, the Conservative MP for Poole, indicated in one of the panel sessions, it is highly unlikely that any major changes to immigration policy, or more specifically student visa policy, will occur before the next election.

This means that for now students will remain in the migration statistics as the government attempts to meet an election pledge to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” by 2015. This is despite pleas from across the education industry and from some figures within all of the major political parties for students to be counted separately.

But I can’t help feeling that the migration data is something of a red herring for the industry. If the government removed overseas students from the migration count tomorrow, what difference would that make? None, unless the package of rights and privileges for international students is subsequently modified.

Syms urged all English UK schools to prepare firm data about the scale of the industry and present this to their local candidates in the run-up to the election, warning that very few MPs were aware of the depth or breadth of the ELT sector.

On that subject, Chief Executive of English UK, Tony Millns, presented the 2013 data for English UK members, which showed that there was no great recovery for the association in 2013. A like-for-like comparison of 370 private sector schools operating in 2012 and 2013 showed a 17 per cent increase in student numbers, but only a one per cent rise in student weeks. And overall in the private sector there was a small reduction in average student weeks per centre.

As Millns highlighted, more students are coming, but time and money pressures are leading to shorter stays. It seems that the UK’s relatively high tuition costs, in terms of global competition, hasn’t deterred students and families struggling through the recession, but it has made them more frugal in their course selection.

Interestingly though, we have had confirmation this week of the opposite trend over in Ireland for MEI members: fewer students and more student weeks. It would appear Ireland’s ELT sector is following a similar trajectory to Malta – a maturing of the student body, and an increase in longer-haul students on more academic focussed programmes.

This is no doubt good news for Ireland’s ELT industry, although the MEI schools will be hoping that there is no knock-on reputational effect to Ireland from the closure of a number of unaccredited schools recently – two more have seemingly fallen by the wayside in the last week. Ultimately though, a purge of such schools will be good for Ireland in the long run.

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