UK universities will suffer badly if pandemic-hit language schools fail

Summer schools that funnel thousands of international students into UK universities are on the brink of collapse, warns Tim Essex

August 9, 2021
Empty chairs illustrating drop in enrolment at English language school in the UK

The government’s belated announcement that quarantine for double-vaccinated adults from the EU will end is not just good news for UK tourism. It is also hugely significant for the English-language teaching (ELT) sector – perhaps the first glimpse of light at the end of a very long tunnel.

However, an enormous amount of uncertainty still confronts language schools after two years of restrictions, redundancies and closures. And their survival matters for British universities.

While most cities hardly notice them for the majority of the year, language schools are vital for UK plc: they are the entry point to UK education for half a million overseas visitors a year who spend a little short of £1.5 billion among them. That’s a lot of students and a lot of money.

However, it’s a competitive marketplace with frightening overheads and thin margins. Many schools simply don’t have the resources to withstand even a small reduction in the normal flow of students, never mind two years of almost complete shutdown. Sadly, the end of travel restrictions has come too late for this year’s summer season – a period most schools rely on for a high proportion of their income.

Consequently, the sector has been devastated. Its national association, English UK, estimates that in 2020 alone the pandemic reduced student numbers in private language schools by 85 per cent, costing the sector £590 million in lost revenue. One in six of the UK’s 415 language schools – 69 in total – closed in the first year of the pandemic, with many more to follow. Some 54 per cent of the workforce was released, with another 18 per cent clinging on to their jobs through furlough. This year’s numbers will be far worse. In short, it is a catastrophe.

But will it affect higher education? It is true there doesn’t seem to be any research that links students who attend language courses to those who later enrol at UK universities. There should be. It is in both sectors’ interest to understand the role that language schools play in attracting students to the UK.

Anecdotally, the link is clear – helping students with their university applications is a routine part of the day of any director of studies, as are students mentioning their intention to go on to UK universities when we discuss their plans and needs on arrival.

For many young people, a summer in the UK can be the final part of the jigsaw regarding an application to a UK university. Many have contacted us over the years to enthuse about their encouraging IELTS results and recount how their newfound language skills have given them the confidence to consider applying to a British university rather than just their local college.

We are certain that many thousands are inspired by their summer language course to return later in life to UK universities. In this way, perhaps universities should see language schools as a free recruitment system – it might take one, two or even five years but teenagers who stay with us for a month or so will often be back for much longer to spend a lot longer (and a lot more money) with UK universities than they will with us.

In our minds, if this little-appreciated industry – a crucial cog in an international education market worth about £20 billion annually to the UK economy – is fundamentally damaged, British universities will be among the biggest losers.

The lack of sector-specific support available to UK language schools, despite it being one of the sectors hardest hit by the Covid pandemic, is not just disappointing to schools that support some 35,000 jobs in the UK economy, including 9,000 directly. It also threatens to undermine a key plank of the government’s International Education Strategy, published in 2019, which explicitly sought to increase the country’s language-training capacity as part of its ambition to have some 600,000 international students studying in the UK by 2030.

The end of quarantine and opening up of international travel is a first step – perhaps keeping some schools afloat. However, it isn’t enough. We need travel from outside the EU. Business rates should be frozen. Ideally, could furlough not be continued after September to allow schools to get through to summer 2022? A lot of talented teachers are employed in the sector. It would be a mistake to lose them.

Tim Essex is director of studies at Studio Cambridge, an independent English language school.

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Reader's comments (1)

It’s not a free recruitment outlet. Language schools can and do claim commission on students they refer to particular universities.