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Irish ELT reports another sharp decline in 2021

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new school survey finds that ELT enrolments continued to decline last year
  • While there are signs of optimism for 2022, overall student numbers were down by 78% in 2021, against the pre-pandemic benchmark of 2019, with student weeks down by 71% over the same period

The Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) has been tracking industry sentiment and expectations for recovery in its quarterly pulse surveys throughout much of the pandemic. One finding in particular stands out from the most recent survey cycle. Where earlier editions of the pulse survey found that respondents were expecting to reach roughly 65% of pre-pandemic volumes by the third quarter of 2022, the Q4 2021 survey shows that the industry does now not expect to reach that threshold until roughly mid-way through 2023.

The overall picture from the recurring survey is of an industry where optimism for near-term improvement in 2022 is tempered by an emerging forecast for a slower-than-first-expected return to pre-pandemic business levels.

That same pattern is playing out as well in the most recent ELT enrolment data from Ireland. The latest member survey data from peak body Marketing English in Ireland [link to http://mei.ie] finds that Irish schools endured another significant year-over-year decline in enrolment and student weeks in 2021.

MEI member schools report enrolment for four broad categories of programmes:

  • Stage (or Closed) Programme (groups of students aged 12-16 staying off season)
  • Junior Programme (typically, 12-to-17-year-olds staying one or two weeks)
  • High School Programme (typically, 12-to-18-year-olds staying during term time)
  • Adult Programme (18 years old+)

Not surprisingly, junior programme enrolments have been especially heavily impacted during the pandemic, such that adult students accounted for nearly 90% of all enrolments in 2021 and a similar proportion of student weeks.

The following table outlines five-year enrolment trends across all programme types. It shows the immediate impact of the pandemic on junior students between 2019 and 2020 (and the continuing softness of that student segment in 2021). It reflects as well a continuing erosion of adult student numbers through last year, albeit with relative stability in adult enrolments between 2020 and 2021.

Enrolment in Irish ELT, 2017–2021. Source: MEI

We see a similar pattern playing out in the additional table below, which shows the pandemic’s impact on student weeks.

Volumes of student weeks in Irish ELT, 2017–2021. Source: MEI

“The overall number of adult student weeks declined by 45% in 2021 following a 45% decline the year before,” notes MEI. “This decline, combined with the 3% decline in adult student numbers, suggests that adult students are participating on shorter programmes (whether online or otherwise). Overall, student number weeks were lower by approximately 42% in 2021 compared against 2020 (which was itself 51% lower than 2019).”

Overall, total student numbers were down by 78% in 2021, against the pre-pandemic benchmark of 2019, with student weeks down by 71% over the same period.

The MEI data provides a stark picture of how severely the sector has been impacted by COVID. The peak body adds, however, that, “There are some positive signs as some schools are seeing a large amount of pent-up demand for English language training, though not all markets are returning at the same time as restrictions remain in some places.”

For additional background, please see:


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