“EVEN before Brexit was official, we were suffering the consequences. It was like a big negative PR for the UK.”
Claire Hunter, Principal of the Basil Paterson Edinburgh School of English, has witnessed the devastating impact the past few years have had on the city’s English teaching industry.
Once one of the UK’s main hubs for the youth, student and study travel market, which the Tourism Alliance valued at £27billion, Edinburgh’s industry has seen a dramatic decline .
The 14 British Council-accredited English-language schools operating “before Brexit was official” are down to six. This decline cannot be attributed to Brexit alone, as Covid has ravaged the industry.
The pandemic outbreak in 2020 saw an ‘unprecedented’ 83.6% drop in student numbers, according to a report by industry body English UK. This was compounded by a further decline of 35.7% in 2021.
In Scotland, the effects were even worse, particularly among younger learners. While 12,789 under 18s came from overseas to study English in Scotland in 2019, in 2021 there were just 26, a 99.8% drop.
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The evaporation of students due to Covid, combined with a controversial failure to extend to English-language schools commercial rate relief given to other companies, has seen some colleges fold in entirely.
Melanie Butler, editor of industry publication EL Gazette, pointed to Oxford and Cambridge, which had English teaching industries on a similar scale to Edinburgh before Covid. In Oxford, where businesses have not received tariff relief, schools have closed. In Cambridge, where the tax was lifted, no one did.
Basil Paterson had run three schools in Edinburgh before Covid, but they were forced to merge into one to survive. Hunter says there is no doubt that at least one of those closures was purely due to Covid.
But as the country enters a post-pandemic phase, hopes of reaching the kinds of numbers seen in 2019 are extremely low.
Hunter says Basil Paterson’s student numbers week-over-week are down about 50% from 2019 numbers. ‘We have a totally different landscape,’ says school principal .
Alba English, another of Edinburgh’s six schools that have survived the past three years, has suffered a similar decline.
Chris Russell, the school’s principal, told the National that the sector had been “absolutely hammered” by the combined Covid and Brexit crises. But he left no doubt about the responsibility for the current state of the industry.
“We are still open,” he says, “but our headcount remains significantly lower than in 2019 – and we also employ fewer teachers than then. Comparing April 2019 to April 2022, we are down a little over 60% in terms of student numbers. I think it’s no longer Covid, but Brexit.”
Alba English runs courses for adults, many of whom would have come to work in hospitality or other low-paying roles while learning English in formal classes in their spare time. However, Brexit has made such a study arrangement illegal for EU citizens who previously could work here without issue.
“That market is gone and won’t come back,” says Russell, “unless there’s a change of heart in Westminster, which we can’t imagine. The state of the industry is now Brexit.
Russell, who The National spoke to last Wednesday, will have left the industry entirely by the time this story runs.
‘I’ve worked here all through Covid and Brexit,’ he says, ‘but I just don’t really see a future for it [the industry]so I’m off to retrain for something different.
Russell is far from the only teacher to leave the struggling industry, with Hunter saying her school is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit.
And teacher training courses – organized for educators from other countries who might teach English or other subjects in the language – have also been decimated.
Hunter says the teacher courses held at Basil Paterson College had drawn about 60 people each year. That number is expected to drop to around 15 this year, and “three or even none” in 2023.
UK ENGLISH’s Jodie Gray warned: “The real impact of Brexit has yet to be fully realised. Our clientele – mainly European teenagers and young adults – are looking for alternatives to UK studies due to our post-EU border policies.
Another post-Brexit policy that has hammered British industry – anecdotally sending European students to other English language learning hubs such as Ireland and Malta – is the Conservative government’s new requirement that children travel with passports instead of identity cards.
Butler says this is one of the main challenges facing the industry, as the vast majority of students do not have passports and are unlikely to go through the bureaucracy necessary to obtain one. one simply for a trip to the UK.
Since the passport requirement was introduced in October 2021, the Tourism Alliance said in a report that “the market has crashed”.
Hunter estimated that as few as 10% of students in any one class can hold a passport.
Butler says the rule will have a significant impact on Scotland’s university system, which she says is arguably the best in the world.
The pipeline of foreign students from language schools to higher education is well established and, according to Butler, the decline in the industry may well lead to a decline elsewhere.