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Malta: An 80% drop in ELT students but strong vaccination rollout could help spur recovery

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Maltese ELT providers saw 80% fewer students in 2020, another example of the brutal effect of COVID on ELT sectors across the major destinations
  • Student weeks were down by 74.8%
  • Malta is vaccinating its population faster than any EU country – more than 4 in 10 Maltese adults have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine
  • The country is planning to open its borders more fully in June 2021

Pre-COVID, Malta’s tourism industry had grown to compose roughly 27% of the national economy, and the English language teaching industry contributes a significant portion of those revenues. In 2018, the sector accounted for 8% of total tourist nights and 6.5% of total visitor expenditures. But Malta’s ELT providers, like tourism operators across the country, have been battered by the pandemic, losing 80.3% of their students in 2020 compared with the previous year.

The latest data from Malta’s National Statistics Office indicates that a total of 16,491 students enrolled in a programme delivered by a Maltese ELT provider in 2020 (compared to 83,610 in 2019). Student weeks were also dramatically down by 74.8% for a total of 48,876 tuition weeks (the industry reported a total of 193,832 weeks the year before).

Tourists to be given up to €200

The declines in the ELT sector mirror those across the Maltese tourism industry: foreign tourist arrivals were down 80% last year. But there is hope that this summer will mark the beginning of a recovery. The Maltese government has announced plans to offer each foreign visitor up to €200 (US$240) each if they stay for at least three days this summer.

Malta’s travel restrictions are expected to be mostly retired this June, helped along by the country’s quick rollout of its vaccination programme. Having already provided 42% of its adult population with at least one dose of a vaccine, Malta has the highest virus vaccination rate in the European Union. As we have written about recently, the speed of vaccination rollouts is set to be a major determinant of international student mobility in 2021.

Commenting on the travel incentives planned for summer, Malta’s Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo said, “The scheme is aimed at putting Malta’s hotels in a very competitive position as international tourism restarts.”

The immediate outlook

In 2020, most language students coming to Malta came from the EU (63%), led by Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards. More than a quarter of students (26.5%) were aged between 18 and 25.

Malta’s ELT providers began to feel the effects of COVID in March, when 84% fewer students came to study with them than in March 2019. April, May, and June got worse, with declines of more than 97%. Numbers improved marginally throughout the rest of the year but not enough to prevent an overall 2020 decline of 80.3%.

The COVID effect has been felt across the major ELT destinations, including Australia, where English Australia members reported 68% fewer students and 72% fewer weeks in Q4 2020 versus Q4 2019, and the UK, where student numbers were down 79% and weeks off by 65%. 2020 data for Canada, the US, and Ireland is forthcoming.

For the moment, Malta’s ELT schools remain closed for in-person instruction, with classes given online only. Primary and secondary schools have re-opened throughout the country during the first half of April 2021, but English schools have been ordered to remain closed for the time being. Speaking to The Malta Independent, Caroline Tissot, the incoming CEO for the sector’s peak body, FELTOM, said that the order was unexpected and had “brought the industry to its knees.”

“The English foreign language industry has incurred terrible financial losses and support for schools is imperative if this industry is to survive,” she added. “The basis of the ELT industry is that students have the opportunity to learn by immersing themselves fully in their surroundings. However, the indefinite closure of schools has led to an increase in cancellations and postponements. Bookings decreased significantly resulting in a huge loss of revenue.”

Aim to come back stronger

When Malta opens its borders more fully again to foreigners, including English-language students, many employees in the tourism sector will be well prepared; some of them will have accessed online courses delivered for free to them during COVID. As KPMG notes,

“Whilst tourism was on hold, an e-learning platform was launched which offers free online courses to individuals working in the tourism sector. The aim is that of making the best use of employee and employer resources in these challenging times and empower the workforce to come back stronger and better after the COVID-19 pandemic. The courses are financed by Malta Tourism Authority and cover a variety of skills and occupational level. The scheme is a one-year project.”

When English-language students do return to Malta, they will also be eligible to work while studying thanks to legislation announced in 2019.

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