50% decline in international students for intensive English programs

In 2020, there were just over 37,000 international students that studied for over half a million student weeks at US intensive English programs.

By contrast in 2019 there were just over 75,000 international students that studied for over a million student weeks.

“The external shock of Covid-19, however, has resulted in a 50% decline in international students attending the US intensive English programs,” said Julie Baer, research specialist at the Institute of International Education, speaking at NAFSA’s 2021 annual conference.

The Open Doors Report, produced by IIE with the support of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State, is composed of information from four different surveys including the Intensive English Program survey.

“Covid-19 has impacted the entire English language industry globally”

New data from the IEP survey was released at the beginning of this month showing the decline. Students from China made up 24.5% of the total 37,365 IEP students in 2020 – a cohort that saw a 47% fall from the previous year. 

This was followed by 6,880 students from Saudi Arabia, 5,285 from Japan, 2,837 from Brazil and 2,682 from South Korea.

“It is important to note that Covid-19, however, has impacted the entire English language industry globally,” Baer continued.

Significant decline is not isolated to just the US, and reporting from colleagues and other leading host destinations for intensive English, declines have ranged from nearly 50% to over 80% over the past year.

English UK member schools reported an overrall 83.6% drop in 2020, Languages Canada down 56%, and English Australia a fall of 43.3% for new commencements.

“While these destinations may have used different definitions for how students were counted year over year, what is clear is that Covid-19 has been an external shock that has resulted in significant declines across the entire English language training market globally,” she added. 

The survey collects data from both colleges and universities, as well as independent providers throughout the US.

This year, due to Covid-19, researchers changed some of the definitions they used. They included students who were taking part in US based intensive English language programs, but were working remotely from their home countries. 

The data reflected the 2020 calendar year from January through to December, which means that it is reflective of the effects of Covid-19. 

Researchers asked how Covid-19 had specifically impacted programs, with some 90% reporting adverse impact. IIE found that a third of programs reported budget cuts, staff furloughs or layoffs and the need to combine classroom level.

“However, it is important to note that intensive English programs in the US have been resilient and adapted throughout the pandemic,” Baer explained.

Some 93% indicated that Covid-19 had resulted in investment or innovations within their programs, and 80% of programs noted increased virtual outreach and recruitment.

Baer also noted that, over time, there have been significant fluctuations in numbers of students, with periods of strong growth and decline over the past 40 years. 

“For example, there was an increase in IEP enrolment in the late 1990s that then fell after September 11. We then noted incredible growth in the 2010s that aligned with the large Saudi Arabian government scholarship program,” she said.  

“In recent years, enrolment in IEPs declined beginning in the 2016 calendar year”

“In recent years, enrolment in IEPs declined beginning in the 2016 calendar year, primarily due to changes in the governmental scholarship programs, along with increasing global competition, growing capacity for English training in students’ home countries, and the advent of edtech tools that can facilitate language training.”

However, IIE noted in the 2019 calendar year that the number of international IEP students fell by only about 4%, which was a decrease of fewer than 3,000 students. This had indicated a stabilisation of the IEP sector within the US.

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