14 April 2022

We need to talk about the English language

By Caroline Ansell MP

Many of us will be heading away for the Easter weekend, perhaps for the first time since the start of the pandemic – and that’s great news for the tourism industry. It’s no secret that this sector was especially badly hit by Covid, and while the scenes of long queues at ports and airports indicate it is rebounding strongly, that doesn’t mean it won’t need further support to prevent long-term damage.

As the MP for Eastbourne, famous for its pier, amusement arcades, beaches and hotels, where nearly one job in three depends on tourism, I have spent the past 24 months lobbying for support for this sector.

I like to think I understand tourism a bit better than most. 

So I’d like to share a little-known fact: students learning English in the UK are the bedrock of Eastbourne’s tourist economy and that of many other towns and cities on the South coast and all over the UK. 

They are also the bedrock of the UK’s lucrative international education sector, our international reputation and our trade deals. But I’ll come back to that.

In Eastbourne alone, we have several English language teaching (ELT) centres. Our international students are a vital part of the visitor landscape, whereby each summer the town’s population swells and its average age plummets.

Our international schools are local employers, and international exporters. They provide business for local transport and tourist venues, and stimulate investment in retail and food outlets. They provide secondary income support for the several hundred host families for whom the time in the summer hosting students makes a difference to their income. 

But since March 2020, the students so many businesses and families rely on have stopped coming. 

Since then, Eastbourne’s ELT centres – and their hundreds of colleagues all over the UK – have on average lost around 80% of their usual income and their usual student numbers. For much of that time, students couldn’t physically travel to the UK. When they could, quarantine requirements made it unrealistic (60% of ELT students are teenagers from Europe who come for a week or two). 

Our British Council-accredited centres, offering a quality, high-value UK experience, could not suddenly transform their business model into cheap online tuition, competing with places whose USP this is. And unlike the rest of the UK tourism business, English language schools could not pivot to local customers: the major difference between ELT and the rest of the tourism sector.

ELT centres – predominantly SMEs with some universities and FE colleges – now face having no significant income until this summer. Figures from the trade association English UK found a £590m loss for 2021, for a sector which normally puts £1.4bn into our economy. Jobs – the sector used to support over 35,000 – have been equally hard-hit. And many of these jobs are in coastal towns and other places which are the targets of our levelling-up focus. 

As a seasonal industry, this means English schools have had to survive three years on an average of 20% of usual business, while having to pay rent, utilities, some staff costs and – in far too many cases – business rates. But, amazingly, just 15% of English UK’s members have closed permanently in the pandemic, which is both a testament to Government support, and shows the resilience of the sector with its determination to rebuild and regain its position as by far the most world’s popular destination for international ELT students. 

A survey by the Tourism Alliance found that 81% of ELT schools have seen revenue decline by over half, compared to the tourism industry average of 52%. 

Booking levels for this quarter compared to pre-Covid are down at least 25% for almost nine out of ten language schools, and half for the tourism sector in general. Over a third of language schools say bookings are down more than 50% for this quarter, compared with the tourism industry average of a quarter. 

Three quarters of ELT schools thought they were likely to fail in 2022, compared to a tourism industry average of 40%.

I’m pleased that Eastbourne’s ELT schools had more help than many of their colleagues around the UK, as our local authority is one of just 17 which has granted expanded retail discount – basically wiping out business rates – for the past two years. High rates are a particular problem for ELT centres, which need large town centre premises.

I’m also pleased that it looks like most ELT centres in England will benefit from the £1.5bn Covid-19 Additional Relief Fund (CARF) being distributed by local authorities to provide rates relief for this financial year for businesses which were ineligible for the retail, leisure and hospitality Expanded Retail Discount yet were adversely affected by the pandemic. But many will need the same support for 2022-23. 

It’s hard to be sanguine about the future for an industry which has suffered blows like these, and that is why I am working with my colleagues to keep checking its recovery and press for government support where it’s needed. 

The trade association English UK estimates a 50-60% recovery this summer, with a full return to business in 2023. It is working to rebuild confidence with potential customers with an English with Confidence campaign, supported by the DIT and the British Council.

Issues facing the industry include finding the money to pay rates in 2022-23, getting enough qualified English teachers and finding ways to persuade short-stay European school groups that it’s worth getting a passport for an English language holiday in the UK, rather than going to Ireland or Malta on their ID cards. 

Anything and everything that could present a barrier or an obstacle, or make us less competitive in the world, we should look at and address to make sure that we are match-fit for the future.

Why is this so important? ELT has been a hugely important export for us, both in its own right and as a crucial part of our £20bn international education jigsaw. This is made clear in our International Education Strategy, which commits to increase our capacity to meet the global demand for ELT and forge closer partnerships with other sectors in our export drive. 

The teenagers who come to Eastbourne, or Bournemouth, or a summer camp in an independent school, are more likely to build a lifetime’s affinity with the UK. They are more likely to aspire to do degrees in the UK and research shows 80% of those who have studied here will return for business or leisure. Visit Britain research shows that ELT students stay longer and spend much more than other tourists. 

If we are serious about retaining these benefits of social and cultural enrichment, of inward investment and soft power, I believe the specific issues of the sector need to be debated and its deep value to the UK celebrated.

And when Eastbourne seafront is once more filled with cheerful European teenagers, we can begin to relax. 

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Caroline Ansell is Conservative MP for Eastbourne.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.