Review of the English Language Teaching sector in 2021

Turbulence in Europe

ELT centres in the UK had a rough start to 2021, after English UK conducted research in March finding that student numbers fell by 79%, and lost £590m of revenue in 2020. Member outlook for recovery in 2021 “was less positive than the previous summer 2020 survey”.

Despite hope for a “gradual recovery” of the sector, English UK had to call on the UK government to give government aid to ELT and extend business rates, after saying in a position paper that 13% of their member centre share disappeared as a result of closures or mergers.

This call for support was echoed by backbench MPs in the UK.

Fast forward to September, when English UK had their first in-person conference with their ELT marketing conference in London, and the outlook was cautiously optimistic.

“We’ve seen a reset of our industry, and with the changes in the international traffic system coming in October, the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel seems to be burning just that little bit brighter,” Jodie Gray, Chief Executive of English UK said at the conference.

However, Covid wasn’t the only driver of bad tidings this year in the UK. Brexit’s fallout is still yet to be fully seen, but EU to UK study travel in the ELT sector did suffer later on in the year as EU ID cards were no longer accepted at UK borders after October 1.

“Although of course we are not happy about the fact that our European students may no longer use ID cards, we see it as just one more barrier to entry,” Jane Dancaster said in The PIE News’ piece covering the issue.

The main worry stemmed from the idea that EU students would give up on the UK and instead divert to Ireland or Malta, but both have had their own obstacles.

Despite those difficulties, ELI Schools opened a new language teaching facility in Dublin offering 20 classrooms and various student lounges, with packages available to students.

The Progressive College Network chairperson David Russell told The PIE that restrictions on enrolling overseas students in autumn in Ireland might ultimately result in the closure of businesses.

“As anybody who works in the English language sector knows, our primary clients are international students… we can reopen, but we can only reopen for the students who are currently in the country, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Russell said in the piece.

Varying restrictions had varying results in Malta – in May, tourism minister Clayton Bartolo announced that ELT students would receive €10 a night for every night they spent in the country.

Then, not two months later, Malta was instructed in July to close all ELT schools as cases were reportedly “linked to overseas travel”.

FELTOM called this move “disproportionate and extreme”, and the schools were opened again in phases a month later.

“Faculty and staff are exhausted from the seemly regular changes to programming”

In more encouraging news from the year in ELT, the Celtic English Academy in Cardiff was awarded a Gold Standard FairPlay Employer Award, and was the first ELT centre to be recognised for the prize.

The PIE News also reported as Eaquals held its 30th anniversary conference in Belfast in October, after postponing for a year due to Covid.

“Our organisation and the industry as a whole is now standing at a crossroads,” said Ludka Kotarska, former chair and current accreditations manager of Eaquals, said during the special panel celebrating the anniversary.

Americas promise more

The year was quieter across the Atlantic but the cogs were still turning, with encouraging news coming out of both North and South America alike.

In late October, The PIE reported that Languages Canada was pushing against policy that was barring language students from working to “defray the costs of tuition and living”.

Across Canada, international students are employed part-time, serving in restaurants, driving for Uber and delivering packages but language students are left out of that regulation.

“This is an antiquated and inappropriate policy – changing it is a big part of our advocacy work with the federal government going forward,” executive director Gonzalo Peralta said at the time.

English language testing was also in the spotlight as the world further adapted to everybody being at home.

In June, TOEFL said how its test had been well accepted by over 11,000 universities and organisations around the world, which also featured in a PIE Webinar.

TOEFL’s IBT Home Edition was created last year in response to the pandemic.

“2021 was a year of transition for the English language sector”

“The benefit of that is that, if, let’s say the test taker doesn’t live nearby a test centre normally, or they’re caring for loved ones in the household…They’re able to complete this important part of the application process,” said director of TEOFL institutional relations at ETS Michelle Hampton.

The US government encouraged members of the ELT sector in the country after a representative told English USA members in October that it will “engage and collaborate” with them, as part of its new over-arching commitment to international education.

At the association’s 2021 Stakeholders Conference Eva Millona, assistant secretary for partnership and engagement at the US Department of Homeland Security, said it was working with English USA “every step of the way”.

“We are very serious about how we involve our stakeholders, how we bring their voices to the process that we lead,” Millona said in a speech to delegates.

Further south, BELTA had a more positive year with good news in both January and June.

Brazil’s language travel and exchange association revamped its branding and marketing materials at the beginning of the year, aiming to “work to connect its agencies with the Brazilian consumer, diplomatic representatives and educational bodies”.

Maura Leão said in a statement at the time: “At a time where we need to be positive and hopeful, Belta has taken the initiative to re-invent itself and bring a new energy to the Brazilian market of international education.”

Later in 2021, the association also announced its new board members, which it says will guide the organisation through to 2024 – key appointments included the inauguration of TravelMate’s Alexandre Argenta as its new president.

“I hope to be able to help and share new ideas to conquer our space more and more in this resumption that is already happening. I am confident that the next two or three years will be better than ever,” Argenta said upon the inauguration.

Other highlights

Testing also made its presence known even further in Asia – IDP acquired the British Council’s IELTS operations in India, raising “multiple questions” for the sector.

General secretary of AAERI Govindachari Balaji called “confusion in the market”, as IDP also acts as an agent.

Not three weeks later, AAERI was in the news again, having signed a memorandum of understanding with testing provider TOEFL following those concerns around IDP’s acquisition.

The association established the MoU to “make sure that students have access to other tests”.

Duolingo, the globally popular language learning app, weaved in and out of the news throughout the year.

After going public in July, it added five endangered language courses – Zulu, Xhosa, Maori, Haitian Creole and Austronesian Tagalog – the news also came that its English test would become a permanent offering as a current minimum English language standard for Irish Study Visas.

Another language learning app Busuu also released an efficacy study which yielded “promising results” – with all beginners improving on at least one speaking or reading test. 82% of intermediate learners also offered similar results.

What do executives say?

The PIE asked various stakeholders across different associations what highlights and challenges 2021 presented them – as well as what the future might hold.

“2021 was a year of transition for the English language sector, with programs continuing to adapt to the changing landscape cause by the ongoing pandemic,” Lisa Kraft, president of the board at English USA told The PIE News.

“Faculty and staff are exhausted from the seemly regular changes to programming: moving online, then hybrid, and then back to in-person all while following COVID protocols. A highlight is seeing the continued resilience, strength, adaptability and creativity of the people in our industry to keep programs alive,” she added.

Lou McLaughlin, director of Eaquals, echoed the “resilience” shown by the sector.

“[It] was remarkable as they were forced to continue to deal with the ongoing challenges of uncertainty regarding travel and quarantining requirements, vaccine recognition and changing rules for under-18 travel,” McLaughlin said.

“As an association, Eaquals has worked to reflect the ongoing need for flexibility through the roll-out of our updated accreditation portfolio, which extends to include hybrid and online inspection visits,” she continued.

“Our 30th anniversary conference was our first hybrid event, and was a particular highlight.”

While New Zealand’s borders have been closed, cautious optimism has been building according to English New Zealand’s executive director, after what has been another “tough” year.

“Some member schools are teaching students onshore as well as offshore online, while others have chosen hibernation until the border reopens,” Kim Renner told The PIE.

“English New Zealand continues to work closely with other sector peak bodies advocating for international students to be prioritised,” Renner explained.

Languages Canada executive director Gonzalo Peralta also reflected on the year, also mentioning that the gradual reopening is encouraging and “placing Canada, our members and their partners in a favourable” position.

“As we prepared ourselves for the festive season, sudden travel restrictions have now again threatened our industry”

“We were able to be extremely adaptable to circumstances and to leverage key data points and relationships, due to the skill and dedication of our team,” Peralta declared.

He also mentioned the Languages Canada Study Safe Corridor, which was “used by members to create their own safe corridors for students”.

“It was used by policy makers federally and provincially to establish guidelines and mechanisms to welcome and keep students safe – it certainly helped lay the groundwork to reopen our borders,” he added.

EduSA’s chairperson Ilse Liebenberg told of how membership dwindled in 2021, with serious challenges being faced.

“We saw a decrease in our membership due to closure, schools merging and some school owners retiring,” Liebenberg explained.

“Members faced some serious challenges during the year, including a four-week forced closure in July due to the pandemic… the association had its work cut out,” she added. 

Jodie Gray also talked to the PIE after an eventful 12 months at English UK.

“There have been some standout moments in a very challenging year,” Gray said.

“After many months of hard campaigning on getting business rates relief for ELT centres it was wonderful to hear Government minister Lord Greenhalgh tell the House of Lords that he knew about the plight of our industry,” Gray explained.

“Winning the PIEoneer Association of the Year was so special – the team had pulled out all the stops to support members, and it was so obvious that we were stronger together so that recognition meant a lot.”

What will 2022 bring?

2022 seems to be a year where more in the sector are cautiously optimistic.

In the US, Kraft is hoping that the encouraging news from this year is built upon by the US government.

“We are advocating that the [Biden] administration adopt a national strategy for international education that includes support for English study in the US,” Kraft said.

South Africa, despite a turbulent end to the 2021, has reasons to be hopeful.

“The April date for reopening in New Zealand gives a timeline to work to”

“As we prepared ourselves for the festive season, sudden travel restrictions have now again threatened our industry – schools are facing cancellations well into 2022 because of the reaction to Omicron.

“Schools however are ticking over nicely, and South Africa is ready and open for travel – we expect a moderate summer season, as we are still a destination of choice to many,” she added.

English New Zealand also looks to borders reopening to help its positive outlook in the new year.

“The April date gives a timeline to work to, as many students are looking forward to beginning their studies in New Zealand – in the meantime, some students have been able to enter via approved cohorts,” said Renner.

“I believe that the Languages Canada Study Safe Corridor could one day be recognised as a key element in turning things around,” Peralta said of the sector’s future in the country.

Overall, the sector is hopeful that 2022 will be the year that things recover more fully – when travel re-opens, the appetite for it, and for English language programs is there.

As long as the adaptation of the sector continues, then it could be a definitive restart.

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