UK ELT sector preparing for Brexit

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Nearly six in ten ELT students in the UK come from within the EU/EEA
  • The current guidance indicates that those students will be able to travel to the UK as they do now during a post-Brexit transition period through December 2020
  • From early 2021 on, EU and EEA students are expected to need a passport and an Electronic Travel Authorisation to enter the UK

As this post is published, on 2 October, there is less than a month to go before the 31 October deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. To put it mildly, a number of important questions remain as to how the transition will unfold.

Speaking at a Conservative party conference in Manchester today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out some of the details of a Brexit plan that essentially represents the government’s last-ditch effort to secure a negotiated deal for Britain’s exit. At the same time, the Prime Minister continues to insist that the UK will exit on 31 October, with or without a deal.

All of this leaves the British economy preparing for one of three scenarios: that the UK leaves the EU under a negotiated agreement, crashes out without a deal, or that the deadline for leaving the EU is extended once again. The country’s English Language Teaching (ELT) sector is no exception in this regard and English UK, a peak body representing more than 400 member schools, has been front and centre in sector advocacy and readiness planning as the Brexit deadline approaches.

The important backdrop to all of this is that the UK remains one of the world’s top ELT destinations. More than 500,000 students enrolled in English UK member programmes in 2018 for a total of nearly 1.9 million student weeks. The economic impact of the sector is valued at £1.4 billion (US$1.7 billion).

Students from within the EU accounted for 57% of enrolments last year – which amounts to nearly 290,000 students – and 37% of all student weeks booked. For those students, and for the ELT schools that receive them, there are at least two significant issues around Brexit.

First, how will the UK transition with respect to current provisions around freedom of movement within the EU? Second, how will the UK’s planned immigration reforms affect ELT students after Brexit.

The English UK website provides detailed guidance for students and agents around these questions, while recognising as well that the situation is fluid as both political events and government policy continue to develop in the coming weeks and months.

For the moment, English UK draws much of its guidance from an Immigration White Paper published by the UK government in December 2018 as well as related official announcements.

Freedom of movement

If the UK leaves with a negotiated deal in place, those deal terms include a provision that all travel arrangements for EU or EEA citizens entering the UK will remain as they are until December 2020 (this particularly refers to EU/EEA students needing nothing more than an ID card to enter the UK).

In the event of a no deal exit, the British government has announced a transitional period for the current freedom of movement provisions within the EU, such that, from Brexit Day until December 2020, anyone coming to the UK from the EU or EEA for under three months can still enter the country as they do now. Those students who wish to stay in the UK for more than three months will have to apply for a European Temporary Leave to Remain, which will be valid for a period of three years.

That previously announced transition period through December 2020 has come into question more recently as the government has signalled that it may proceed with a much shorter window.

“There have indeed been some confusing messages,” agrees English UK CEO Sarah Cooper, “but until we are specifically told otherwise, we believe that some kind of transition period will be allowed, as per the draft policy published at the end of last year.”

“However, we are very concerned that this period may be shorter than previously promised, and so are urgently seeking clarification. EU students comprise 60% of our half million students who come here each year, and of course the majority use their ID cards, especially those under 18.”

The outlook from 2021

The UK’s reformed, post-Brexit immigration system – which for the moment is set out in the government’s Immigration White Paper – is expected to come into effect in early 2021.

While the current plan indicates that it will still be relatively straightforward for EU/EEA (and Swiss) students to enter the UK, there will be some changes under the new system.

In particular, all students will at that point require a passport to enter the country, and will need to apply in advance of travel for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA). On arrival in the UK, students will be issued a short-term study visa.

The important thing to note in this respect is that the UK’s new immigration system has not yet been finalised, and so all provisions and requirements are subject to change during and after the Brexit process. However, English UK has been closely engaged with these questions in its ongoing discussions with government officials, and expects that the new system will preserve entry options for short-term study so that students will not need to obtain a longer-term Tier 4 visa (nor will most ELT schools be required to obtain Tier 4 sponsor status).

Ms Cooper adds, “Currently we still believe that the intention is to include EU ELT students in the existing short term study route. English UK sits on the Home Office Education Advisory Group and we are confident that there is recognition and good understanding of this student route. We do not expect that this will be subsumed into the Tier 4 route.”

For additional background, please see:



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