Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
19th Apr 2023

UK ELT sector calls for government action to ease post-Brexit impacts

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The sector’s peak body, English UK, is calling for a package of government reforms designed to restore the country’s competitiveness and its position as the leading ELT destination worldwide
  • Perhaps most notable is the proposal for an expansion of the current Youth Mobility Scheme, and for an easing of visa requirements for younger travellers

A new position paper from peak body English UK reports that the country’s ELT sector was down 89% from pre-pandemic levels in 2021. Student numbers improved in 2022 but are still expected to come in around 60% of pre-COVID volumes.

The problem, as set out in the paper, is that the UK’s exit from the European Union has badly disrupted the junior market, which, before Brexit and COVID, had accounted for more than half of all enrolments in UK ELT centres. Most of those younger students came to the UK as part of school groups from elsewhere in Europe. The ease with which they could travel to the UK was greatly impacted by the end of freedom of movement for EU travellers in September 2021 (a milestone that arose from the Brexit process).

As English UK explains:

"UK ELT’s biggest market was the hundreds of thousands of school children from the EU who enjoyed group study holidays. The new requirement for an expensive passport for a short educational trip, and sometimes a visa as well, means 83% of those groups chose to go elsewhere in the summer of 2022.

Our ELT competitors within the EU, Ireland and Malta, lost just 30% of their equivalent trade. This makes clear that Covid-19 is no longer the issue. This problem is of the UK’s own making.

If the rules remain unchanged, European study travel agents do not anticipate a full recovery of the UK youth market until 2030. Almost 25% believe it will never recover."

English UK Membership Director Huan Japes adds, “We are working hard to get back to the world-leading position we had pre-COVID, but [current UK policy] is deterring English language students and the issues facing us now can only be alleviated with government action. Attracting English language students back to the UK needn’t be hard or expensive – but the sector cannot do it alone. Simple, cost-neutral solutions would allow UK ELT to carry on doing what it does best: attracting the world to study here."

The association is now calling for government action in nine specific areas.

  • "Expand and reform the Youth Mobility Scheme." The Youth Mobility Scheme is a cultural exchange programme that allows people aged 18-30 from eligible countries to live, work, and study in the UK for up to two years. It is currently open, with some variations, to applicants from Australia, Canada, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, Iceland, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India. Among other improvements, English UK is calling on government to expand the YMS through bilateral agreements with EU member-countries, "ideally with no caps on numbers."
  • "Introduce Youth Group Travel Scheme for children." This invokes an earlier proposal from the Tourism Alliance and the Tourism Industry Council to create a youth group travel scheme in which under-18s could enter the UK as part of a group led by a “passported leader.” The idea here is that the group leader's credentials would provide a “collective passport” for the group – an arrangement that would be very similar to how things operated before Brexit.
  • "Recognise the List of Travellers Scheme." Related to the youth group travel proposal is the idea of a list of travellers mechanism, which would allow EU residents without citizenship from an EU member-country to travel to the UK using only ID cards (that is, without a visa requirement) when travelling as part of a group.
  • "Enable students already studying in the UK to apply for a new visa for further study without leaving the country." The paper points out that, "UK ELT’s competitor countries allow students to apply for a visa covering several stages of study without the need to return home and reapply," and that allowing that option for students already in-country would, "make the UK a more attractive destination, especially if those arriving on the 11-month short term study visa could apply for a full student visa without having to leave the country."
  • "Restore work rights for all students studying on a Student Visa." The paper points out that until about a decade ago, ELT students were able to work during their studies but that those rights have been narrowed to the point that they are now only available to degree-level students.
  • "Recognise Accreditation UK on all visa routes." If Accreditation UK were recognised by government as an oversight provider for the sponsored student visa route, this would in turn allow English UK members to offer a wider range of courses.
  • "Help ELT centres to recruit the qualified seasonal staff they need." Before Brexit, roughly half of ELT centre staff came from elsewhere in Europe. With the end of freedom of movement provisions in 2021, "this movement of qualified and experienced staff to fill gaps at peak times is not possible." Most member centres are now reporting staff shortages as a result.
  • "Drive and measure success by setting a national growth target for ELT students in the UK." The 2021 update to the UK's International Education Strategy set out a number of important goals but did not include a growth target for ELT enrolments. Given ELT's important role as a pathway to further study, English UK argues that, "Targets for the UK higher education sector should be joined by ambitious targets for all parts of the UK’s international education system, including ELT.
  • "Support our international UK ELT marketing efforts." This is a call for expanded funding for industry-led marketing campaigns as well as for "clear, consistent and positive messaging led by government."

The association will next advance its case for these measures at a special parliamentary reception on 11 May hosted by London MP Stephen Hammond.

For additional background, please see:

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