Speaking at English UK’s StudyWorld event at the end of January, head of research at market intelligence expert Bonard Patrik Pavlacic said the appetite for travel abroad remains.

“‘Wait and see’ is currently the overall mood of our clients”

“We believe that there’s going to be a gradual recovery rather than a sudden return to full mobility,” he said. “As soon as there is an opportunity for students to travel again, they will want to make use of that opportunity.”

Graham Stuart, UK MP and parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for International Trade, also gave a pre-recorded messages in which he emphasised UK ELT’s role in serving as a pathway towards higher education for international students.

“The government is determined to provide our superb education sector with the support that we can to deal with and recover from this crisis,” he said.

“Support to connect with partners and encourage potential students, support to build market confidence and seize opportunities for growth, support, in essence, to rebuild and to succeed.”

However, English UK also released a list of more than 30 member centres that have closed since the pandemic took hold in March 1, 2020.

The association also recently published a recovery road map, aiming to return the UK’s ELT industry to 2019 student volumes by the end of summer 2022.

Focusing on the China market, Daniel Zheng of HOPE Study Abroad Service said that while in-country the pandemic had been relatively well-controlled, he was not optimistic for the study tour or ELT market this year.

“There are quite a lot of restrictions for travelling and there are no direct flights at the moment between the UK and China. We are facing big challenges at the moment, particularly for students travelling overseas to the UK or to the rest of the world,” he said.

“’Wait and see’ is currently the overall mood of our clients. But on the other hand, the pandemic also prompts some new developments, particularly the online programs. People are getting used to the platform and also the way of studying while this was not really the case before the pandemic.”

Zheng warned though that as people got more used to online learning, they are also becoming more critical as some courses are “regarded as low quality”, adding that “it’s important in the China market to provide some complementary classes to your clients first”.

While China’s bilingual schools and those offering international high school qualifications have seen more enrolment as parents are reluctant to send their children abroad, Zheng suggested that UK universities may be less affected as a strained Sino-US relationship pushes students to UK institutions. He did however note that this trend was “very much depending on the policy for travel as well as the new presidency of the United States”.

Stuart added that an update to the government’s 2019 International Education Strategy would shortly be published, including “elements of how together we can respond to the pandemic and ensure a positive future for the education sector and ELT”.

Pavlacic at Bonard also predicted that the pandemic will accelerate trends such as shorter students’ course duration, focusing on younger learners and further development of value-added, bespoke English programs.

“One of the biggest opportunities and competitive advantages of the UK as an ELT destination is really the vast program offer which allows providers to find their own niche,” he suggested.

However, the country still has a competitive disadvantage in that English language students cannot work while studying.

“What we’re trying to do is to continue advocating for the change in this area so that the UK could develop products like online internships and work experience programs, English plus internships to really help students come to the UK, offset some of their costs and attract the mobility that is currently largely opting for Canada, Australia, Ireland,” Pavlacic said.

“There is a general interest in making English language travel a more profitable industry”

He also indicated that the sector will likely see an increase in course prices.

“If you look at what is the average margin for the UK ELT industry, I believe it was 5% in 2019 and it was even smaller the year before. I think that there is a general interest in making English language travel a more profitable industry, which would not only benefit internal stakeholders, but also attract more external capital, maybe more talent, more recognition, and in general, bring a bit more spotlight to the industry.”

Additional reporting by Viggo Stacey.

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