The PIE: To say the last year has been hard for the UK ELT sector has been difficult is something of an understatement. How long did it take after news of Covid-19 began circulating for members to start feeling the effects?
Jodie Gray: We saw the early impact when students from China and then Italy started cancelling in February 2020, and then other markets followed. We asked our members to close for face-to-face teaching to support the national effort to keep people safe on March 20, 2020. Members were able to start re-opening from late summer onwards.
We’ve seen an estimated reduction of student weeks between January and September of over 80% and lost revenue for the same period is estimated at over £500m as a direct result of Covid-19.
The PIE: Are students still coming into the UK to study? What has their experience been like?
JG: The flow of students has been hugely impacted by the government’s self-isolation rules for arrivals to the UK. The average length of stay for English language students in the UK is relatively short. It’s less than two weeks for those under 18 years, and for adults it’s just four weeks in a typical year.
Obviously, a two-week quarantine period for countries not on the travel corridors list is unattractive and impractical, if not impossible, for most short-term students. The uncertainty created by frequent changes to the travel corridors list has also reduced market confidence.
But there have been some students coming, mainly those studying on longer courses or whose studies now are essential for their education journey or career.
The PIE: Have you seen a significant amount of closures among members?
JG: Since spring 2020, we’ve seen around 8%-10% of our members close permanently as a direct result of Covid-19. This is lower than we feared but each case is heart-breaking.
“We’ve seen around 8%-10% of our members close permanently as a direct result of Covid-19”
The PIE: Has government support helped the industry?
JG: The government’s Job Retention Scheme and the fact that it will continue until May 2021 is critically important for the industry. There are some 35,000 people working in the sector. We estimate that over 95% of staff have been furloughed or impacted by Covid-19 in some other way.
What has been disappointing is the help that ELT centres have managed to get from business rates relief.
Whether or not ELT centres have been deemed eligible for relief is down to local authorities. And the application of the relief has been incredibly mixed across the country. It’s resulted in an unfair postcode lottery with devastating results.
We’ve seen less than twenty local authority areas offer rates relief. Many more areas, including the whole of London, denied business rates relief to the ELT sector. And this is a big problem for many of our members.
The business rates bill can be north of several hundred thousand pounds a year and they have essentially taken zero revenue since March.
The PIE: There were issues last year between agents and schools surrounding refunds for students who couldn’t come to the UK. Could you give us an update on that?
JG: With such an unprecedented and unexpected situation, some issues were regrettably inevitable. Many of these issues were ironed out thanks to open communication between partners and long-standing relationships built on trust.
We’ve seen events like the English UK Summit in September 2020, where agents and members were able to meet one-to-one. We also had panel sessions where agents were able to speak about some of the difficulties in relationships and partnerships.
For ongoing and particularly complicated issues, English UK has an independent student complaints procedure. We gather evidence, arbitrate and ultimately, if a mutual agreement cannot be reached, the independent Ombudsman’s ruling is binding.
One important learning from last year is that there is a need for clear, written agreements between agent partners and education providers.
The PIE: How is the end of Freedom of Movement for EU citizens coming to the UK going to affect the sector?
JG: Clearly, the pandemic hasn’t happened in a vacuum because we’ve also got the end of Freedom of Movement, and 40% of students coming to the UK to study English in 2019 came from Europe.
“We’re putting together a plan for how we can win back some of the potentially lost business in inbound EU students”
We’re putting together a plan for how we can win back some of the potentially lost business in inbound EU students that used to come into UK ELT, mainly in funded teacher development schemes.
But, there are reasons to be hopeful. The changes to the visitor route allowing flexibility of study for up to six months are a really big positive. It’s still easy for EU students to travel to the UK.
The PIE: What do you think 2021 is going to look like for the industry in the UK?
JG: With recent developments in the UK concerning the spread of Covid-19 and the tightening of restrictions, it has not been the start of 2021 for which we were all hoping. It’s clear that at least the first quarter of the year will be very difficult indeed for English UK members.
Following the start of a national lockdown in England, and similar measures being taken in other countries of the UK, we have recommended that our members temporarily switch to remote learning.
We have just published a roadmap to recovery after Covid-19, outlining in phase one how we intend to rebuild the international market for UK ELT. Our goal is to return the UK ELT industry to 2019 student volumes by the end of summer 2022. Our flagship international event, StudyWorld Online taking place in a few weeks’ time, is an important part of this plan.
Our industry’s challenges have increased exponentially in the short space of time since we shared the roadmap with our members. That will probably mean we see results more slowly, but recent developments mean this plan is even more necessary than before to lead our members and the wider industry to rebuild and recover.