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Ireland reports a 73% drop in ELT students in 2020

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Ireland hosted 73% fewer students in 2020 than in 2019 as a result of COVID, and student weeks were down by 51%
  • The Junior sector of the market saw the most significant decrease, with 87% fewer Junior students

The pandemic has badly disrupted enrolment in Ireland’s English-language schools, just as it has in all major ELT destinations. The number of international students enrolled in Irish English-language schools declined by 73% in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to a January 2021 member survey conducted by Marketing English in Ireland (MEI). The survey’s respondents – 59 member schools – also reported a 51% drop in student weeks.

The sector’s losses were both expected and are similar to the level of losses in destinations including Malta, Australia, and the UK. Last year, MEI had projected that industry revenues would decline by as much as 80% in 2020 and that ELT providers would lose between 100,000 and 120,000 students in 2020. The reduction in student numbers of roughly 86,000 is therefore slightly better than the forecast.

Source: Marketing English in Ireland

Overall, 32,031 international language students studied with MEI schools in 2020, down from 118,318 in 2019. The Junior (school-aged) segment was particularly hard-hit in 2020, with 87% fewer students enrolled. Juniors are a key part of the overall market – especially in the spring break and in the summer when students from European countries come to Ireland for short programmes.

As the chart below illustrates, Junior weeks were also down far more than Adults (-81% versus -45%) compared with 2019.

Source: Marketing English in Ireland

The COVID crisis began at the worst time in 2020 for ELT schools, since the peak season from March to September accounts for approximately 70% of their annual revenues. As per government instructions, Ireland’s language schools shut their doors 13 March 2020 and classes moved online. By fall, many were once again providing in-person teaching to adult language students. But then in early 2021, Ireland went back into lockdown and on 8 January Irish Immigration advised that “prospective students seeking to enter the [country] must wait until in-person tuition has been resumed.” Some ELT schools have been advising international students to delay their plans to come to Ireland for study until later in the year. Suffice to say that the changing guidance and levels of lockdown have made it extremely difficult for ELT providers’ businesses this year.

Stronger together

In January, MEI announced that it was merging with Independent Language Schools Group (ILSG) to represent close to 100 language schools throughout Ireland. Previously, MEI’s membership was 65 schools and ILSG comprised 20+.

Colm O’Byrne, Chair of MEI and Director of ATC Language Schools, said,

“Our sector is at a critical point of reset following a traumatic 10 months, but through collaboration we can rebuild and strengthen for the future. MEI will have a stronger voice both domestically and internationally with the addition of the many excellent schools of ILSG.”

More than 150,000 students attend ELT programmes in Ireland every year, and the sector’s total value to the Irish economy is estimated at roughly €900 million. The sector supports more than 3,000 full-time workers and more than 7,000 seasonal and part-time workers.

For additional background, please see:


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