Language school sector trends

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(Last updated July 2019)

What has been happening in the English language teaching sector

The English language teaching sector faced difficult trading conditions in the first half of the 2000s. In the early years of the decade this was mostly due to the strength of the pound which meant that most foreign visitors suffered poor exchange rates resulting in them having to pay more for courses in the UK. To maintain student numbers at an acceptable level, many schools had to freeze or even reduce prices. A number of other factors affected the sector during this period, including:

  • the foot and mouth crisis in 2001
  • the terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001 and London bombings in 2005
  • competition from other English speaking countries, such as the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

2006 was a much better year for the sector due to increased student numbers and this improvement continued in 2007. Despite the global recession, turnover of UK schools remained strong during the closing years of the 2000s as the weakness of the pound encouraged students to study English in the UK over other countries. Although the sector faced a number of challenges in the opening years of the 2010s, most language schools continued to perform well. However, 2012 was not a good year, with many blaming the impact of the London Olympics for a quite marked reduction in student numbers, and although student numbers picked up in 2013, the total number of student weeks remained largely the same as in the previous year as people looked to save money by taking shorter courses. The mid 2010s and beyond then saw student numbers and student weeks fall, as the strength of sterling and uncertain economic conditions in key markets started to have a negative impact on demand. The Brexit vote in 2016 has created quite a lot of uncertainty in the market, although some of the negative impact has been offset by the weakening of sterling that occurred in the second half of the year. Some schools also reported a strengthening of demand from EU students as they look to complete their studies before any tightening of the UK immigration laws. The pound remained weak throughout 2017 and into 2018 and there are no signs of any significant improvement in its performance. After a slump in 2015/16, language schools performed well in 2017 and should continue to benefit from increased demand due to courses remaining more affordable while the pound is weak. The possibility that students will be taken out of net migration figures, which now appears more likely, will also help to maintain student numbers.

Between 2005 and March 2009, the Home Office would only grant leave to overseas students from outside the EU to study at an establishment that was included on the DCFS Register of Providers. There were certain criteria that had to be met before a school could be included on the Register. Schools that were accredited under the Accreditation UK scheme or the Association of British Language Schools (ABLS) accreditation scheme did not have to register. In March 2009, a new visa system was launched in the UK and as part of this new system, the DCFS register was closed and replaced by a register of sponsors operated by the UK Border Agency (since replaced by UK Visas and Immigration).

The visa system was further tightened in 2010 and again in 2011. One of the key changes was that all schools that wish to offer courses to non-EU students that require a Tier 4 general visitor visa to enter the UK (for courses over 11 months) must be licensed and hold Highly Trusted Sponsor status and be accredited by a public body such as the Independent Schools Inspectorate, rather than a private organisation like Accreditation UK. Although there was a transition period that allowed existing sponsors that didn't meet these requirements to keep on accepting a limited number of these students, a new school had to meet the requirements immediately.

As a measure to somewhat offset any potential negative impact of this change on the English language sector, schools can now enrol non-EU students travelling on a short term student visa on courses of up to 11 months, where previously the maximum length of time they could stay in the UK was 6 months. To be able to take this type of student, a school must either be a licensed sponsor or be accredited by a private organisation like Accreditation UK. Despite this concession, many schools have reported that the fall in the number of students caused by the visa changes has made things difficult for them. (It's worth noting, however, that Tier 4 students only represent a tiny proportion of the overall number of English language students who come to the UK. The impact of the visa changes have been felt most by schools with a particular focus on attracting students that need a Tier 4 visa; for those that market themselves to students from the EU or to students from outside the EU taking shorter courses so who can travel under a short term student visa, the impact of the changes has been minimal.)

In late 2013, the Home Office made a small relaxation to the visa rules to allow people travelling under a general or business visa to be able to study for up to six weeks (30 days of study) at a licensed or approved accredited institution as long as the study is incidental to the main purpose of their stay. 2015 saw the student visitor visa rebranded as the short term student visa and the use of the term Highly Trusted Sponsor replaced by Tier 4 Sponsor. The visa system is quite complicated, so it is a very good idea to familiarise yourself with it - there is more information available on the website.

The internet has opened up new possibilities for language schools such as increased direct bookings, greater marketing opportunities, online lessons and so on. A well managed website can be an excellent advertisement for a school and many schools are exploiting the benefits of having an internet presence.

Keep up to date with developments

Study Travel Magazine provides in-depth information on of the state of the market as well as any regulatory changes and other developments. The professional association English UK also publishes a number of useful resources.

The Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) publishes the ALTO-Deloitte Language Travel Industry Survey, details of which are available on the ALTO website.

Language fairs

You will be able to obtain a lot of useful information if you attend a language fair. You will be able to meet language travel agents and discuss their terms of business and you will also be able to talk to your prospective students and find out what they expect from a language school. The dates and locations of language fairs are usually published well in advance in trade magazines.

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