Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
17th Mar 2021

UK ELT providers revise outlook for sectoral recovery to 2022

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Revenues fell by more than £590m and more than 50% of staff were laid off in 2020
  • ELT providers no longer anticipate any meaningful recovery for their sector until at least 2022
  • English UK reiterates urgency for government to provide relief to providers

English-language schools in the UK lost more than £590 million in 2020 as a result of COVID restrictions and laid off more than 50% of staff, according to new data from research conducted for English UK. Student numbers fell by 79% and student weeks by 65% compared with 2019.

Altogether, the research shows that 91% of ELT staff in the UK were adversely affected by COVID in 2020 (e.g., through job losses or furloughing).

On top of the direct revenue losses experienced in the sector last year, the impact of fewer ELT students was still more severe in 2020 when the loss of student spending in the overall UK economy is considered. In 2016, the direct and indirect economic impact of students coming to the UK for English-language studies was estimated at £1.4 billion.

The new data is based on an online survey conducted among 184 member centres of English UK by Bonard Research.

Hopes for a recovery in 2021 dim

ELT respondents to the latest survey are now much less optimistic about a recovery in 2021 than they were last summer.

In the summer of 2020, 43% had anticipated the market to regain up to 60% of its pre-pandemic volume during 2021. An updated survey from February 2021 now finds that this kind of recovery is not expected until 2022. Fewer than half of ELT providers expect business to return to even 20% of what it was previously in 2021. More than a quarter do not expect any kind of recovery this year.

Most ELT providers think that the sector will experience a complete recovery in 2023. But, of course, 2023 feels like a long way from now, particularly if you’re one of the many ELT professionals who are either furloughed or in a precarious position as we speak due to COVID.

Percentage of respondents anticipating the indicated market recovery trajectory by year. More than a quarter of UK ELT providers surveyed expect no recovery for the sector in 2021, and less than 10% expect a full recovery to occur in 2022. Source: Bonard/English UK

In the year before the pandemic (2019), the number of English-language students travelling to the UK for language courses had ticked up by 1%, marking the third year of gains for the sector. The UK was also the only leading ELT destination to register an increase in ELT students that year.

Not enough government relief

The ELT sector is one of the hardest hit areas of the UK economy by COVID, as it is almost entirely dependent on students being able to come into the country to study in-person. Even with the rapid expansion of online delivery over the past year, the recovery of the sector will thus be largely determined by the extent to which travel restrictions ease over the coming months – a process that will be uneven and on a country-by-country basis. Student mobility from China, in particular, is not expected to resume until the second half of 2021, which is worrisome given that China is the second-leading source of ELT students for the UK.

As much hope as there is for the vaccines to spur borders opening, there is also the threat of COVID variants that vaccine formulations may not yet be able to target. The forecast is therefore still uncertain when it comes the extent to which we will see economies (e.g., stores, restaurants, cultural and recreational events) and borders open over the course of this year.

Many UK ELT providers are still being taxed at the same rate as they were before the pandemic despite their complete inability – due to imposed travel restrictions – to maintain their source of revenue. This is despite a government announcement last year that tax relief would be extended to businesses across travel and leisure industries in the UK.

Jodie Gray, English UK’s chief executive, said of the new research:

“This latest report lays bare the devastation wrought by COVID-19 on a thriving industry full of otherwise viable businesses, and to staff who have been so badly affected. Most of these businesses are on their knees, waiting for a change in travel restrictions which would allow students to return in significant numbers. 
We and our members were bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Budget to officially extend the business rates holiday to ELT centres, and by the possible restriction of grants to businesses which were officially ordered to close. We are redoubling our political lobbying and urging our members to do the same.” 

In their analysis of the recent findings, Bonard noted that for a recovery to occur,

“Government support will be critical, as will the implementation of policies by all stakeholders to restore market confidence in the UK as an ELT destination.” 

English UK is asking for three sources of help from the government: “targeted business support, tailored visas and immigration with clarity on the resumption of inbound travel, and marketing of UK ELT on a national scale.”

On top of COVID, UK ELT faces the prospect of diminished travel from EU/EEA countries due to the end of free movement and ID card travel entailed by Brexit; new restrictions come into effect in October 2021. Italy is the #1 source market for ELT providers in the UK.

For additional background, please see:

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