Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
25th Mar 2020

Language training moves online as COVID-19 forces suspension of face-to-face programmes

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The ELT sector has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, with programming in the current quarter disrupted and with the prospect of summer programme cancellations on the horizon
  • Many centres are moving instruction online to maintain programming as students’ travel and study plans continue to be affected through late-March

Schools across the world’s leading English Language Training (ELT) destinations are suspending in-person classes in the wake of quickly unfolding travel restrictions and government directives designed to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

An earlier analysis from British Council highlighted a range of potential impacts from the pandemic, most of which hinged on how long the outbreak persists into this spring and summer. Moderate-to-high impacts were forecast through the end of March and into end of June, raising the prospect of the cancellation of summer programmes and other short-term courses, including language studies.

Needless to say, this analysis has been borne out as of late-March. Widespread travel restrictions, and a correspondingly dramatic drop in flights and flight routes, have caused some students to delay planned language studies or to pause their programmes to return home earlier than planned. In other cases, schools have been obliged to suspend in-person classes by government directives that have closed all schools in a region or country.

To put it mildly, the impact across the industry is significant. As with most other sectors of national economies today, the true scale of that impact will depend on emergency measures introduced by government and designed to forestall large-scale layoffs and business closures as the pandemic runs its course.

Here then is a quick overview of the current situation for ELT providers in key destinations.

United Kingdom

The British government has ordered that all public and independent schools at all levels of education be closed as of 20 March.

English UK subsequently advised its member schools to suspend in-person instruction as of the same date in compliance with this directive.

In a joint statement, Chair Steve Phillips and Interim Chief Executive Jodie Gray said, “This is a public health emergency: we believe it is vital that our sector follows national advice as our priority must always be our duty of care to students, staff and the wider community…These are unprecedented times. We would like to thank our members, international partners and the wider sector for their calm, considered and public-spirited response throughout this crisis.”


In-person instruction has been suspended across Canada, and this applies to language schools as well. While a number of schools have transitioned, or are transitioning, to online instruction, Languages Canada highlights that it is “pursuing relief funding from the government to help our sector weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding that the need for this support is particularly dire among our private sector members.”

United States

The current situation with respect to school closures is more mixed across the US but here too many language centres have moved to online instruction, or are in the process of doing so.

In letters sent to the US House of Representatives and US Senate on 24 March, English USA Executive Director Cheryl Delk-Le Good set out an urgent case for financial assistance for the country's ELT providers.

"With strategic support," she said, "the number of language schools ready to reboot after the COVID-19 crisis will be much higher, and as a nimble sector that revived after 9/11, we are confident we can rebuild in 1-2 years. International education and exchange is essential to US leadership, global competitiveness, research and innovation, intercultural understanding, and public diplomacy. As you consider providing financial assistance to critical sectors negatively impacted by this crisis like the travel industry, we urge you to ensure that support for international education, including post-secondary English language programmes in the private sector and those governed by higher education institutions.”


The situation in Australia is similar to the US in that policies vary from region to region in terms of school closures. The national government has so far resisted calls to close schools of all types throughout the country.

A number of states, however, have opted to close their schools, including Victoria (as of 24 March) and Australian Capital Territory (also as of 24 March). Others are implementing partial closures.

Language school closures tend to follow that larger pattern across the education sector, and English Australia advises that many member schools have continued with in-person instruction through March. However, adds CEO Brett Blacker, “The vast majority of Australia’s ELICOS colleges are moving to online course delivery. Our Department of Education, Skills and Employment and national regulators have been very supportive during this period. They are being as flexible as feasible in their approach to ensure providers can adapt but also ensure we do not comprise the delivery of quality. The key objective is that the student can still achieve the learning outcomes for the course they are studying.”


The Irish government closed all schools in the country on 12 March, and ELT centres were included in that directive.

Peak body Marketing English in Ireland advises that all of its member schools duly suspended in-person classes as of that date until the proposed re-opening date of 30 March. “However,” an MEI statement adds, “the re-opening date is tentative and depends on the containment and occurrence of COVID-19.”

In a related statement, MEI advises, “The Department of Justice and Equality has recently confirmed that everybody with immigration permissions which expire between 20 March 2020 and 20 May 2020 will be granted automatic renewal. This renewal is on the same basis as existing permissions and the same conditions will continue to apply.

Many international students have immigration permissions that are dependent on their attendance at language school. Where an English language education provider has closed due to Government advice regarding COVID-19, all international students will be considered to have met their attendance requirement for the shutdown period. All other rules will remain in place and students will be required to renew their registrations as usual.”


The Government of Malta also directed the country’s schools to close as of 13 March, and again ELT schools were explicitly included in that guidance.

A statement from peak body FELTOM says that, “The daily increase in new cases globally is surely having an unprecedented impact on Malta’s ELT industry. As a federation, FELTOM has been monitoring developments both locally and abroad and is working closely with various ministries to ensure that the industry is as informed as possible.”

South Africa

The South African government also moved to close the country’s schools as of 18 March. The ELT sector followed suit with all members of peak body Education South Africa suspending in-person classes as of mid-March.

Most member schools have transitioned to online delivery for the time being, explains EduSA CEO Torrique Borges. “In the face of uncertainty and financial insecurity, our centres have shown a serious commitment to their civic duty through the school closures and subsequent measures taken. As with the rest of the educational and tourism industry, we have pulled together and continue to show solidarity with one another and the rest of the country. The hard work starts now and we will be working tirelessly on business resilience in the face of this inconceivable challenge.”

For additional background, please see:

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