What are the post-Brexit opportunities for UK ELT?
14 June 2019

What are the post-Brexit opportunities for UK ELT?

The English UK Annual Conference featured an expert panel discussing what the future might hold for ELT after Brexit.

We welcomed Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK; Tom Cargill of the British Foreign Policy Group; education consultant Michael Carrier; Kurt Janson, director of the Tourism Alliance and Amy Baker, chief executive and co-founder of The PIE to a session chaired by chief executive Sarah Cooper.

Their overall conclusions were that there were good opportunities for UK ELT and the wider international education sector post Brexit, but that work would need to be done and the government involved.

How can the UK match ambition with action after Brexit?

Vivienne Stern thought the international education strategy was a step in the right direction, although conceded that people might think it was a bit "meh".

"My message is, work with it," she said, adding that she thought a change in attitude was happening and the strategy was a symbol of that. "We have a massive opportunity," she said, predicting that, within a year, a better post-study work route would be offered to graduates than the current six months. "I think the fear that exists in Whitehall that leaving the European Union may be economically a bit of a mistake in the short to medium term. It is an opportunity for us to say 'OK, we are a big export sector we've got substantial room to grow, get out of our way and we can help you'."

There was a growing understanding that people thought the UK had an outstanding education system, that people want to learn English in the nation of its birth and, she said, the sector could help these ideas take hold.

How does the rest of the world see the UK?

Amy thought the fundamental challenge was still Australia and Canada as a result of their post-study work rights, while China has become a big market for Anglophone Africans.

What post-Brexit opportunities are there for UK ELT?

Michael Carrier said: "I think there are enormous opportunities. I am very optimistic. Although there are short term problems there is enormous demand for English," citing the 15 million teachers of English a "huge addressable market to talk to, to train, to encourage to send students to you," and between one and 1.5 billion students.

He said the industry needed to open its eyes to new types of products, services and markets. Talking about the growth in the number of middle classes, he described increasing demand for a level of language learning can be hard to achieve in their own countries, and the "huge" skills gap between where young people are and the kind of life change they are hoping for.

However, it was important to be aware of other destinations "eating our lunch" and what was going on in content innovation globally.

Tom raised the issue of soft power, saying teachers don't talk enough about this as our leading asset "and they're telling students something that undermines us, which is that English doesn't belong to us. It's understandable for political reasons, but if we want to encourage people to come to the UK, we need to make the UK more interesting and link language to the experience of being here. Let's think about the UK experience and how we can innovate to make our attraction greater."

What's happening to tourism in Europe?

Kurt said that Europe was "incredibly important" to the UK, accounting for about 66 per cent of inbound visitors and around half of expenditure. While the UK was "in the eye of the maelstrom" for the European market, the long-haul market didn't know Brexit was happening except that the pound exchange rate was cheaper. "The attractions will still be here, it's still a fantastic place to visit," he said, adding that people are very resilient about tourism.

Vivienne said that just after the referendum, students and parents were still keen on UK universities "but in the last six months those conversations have got more difficult… and at a policy level people are more fed up as well." While Brexit might obsess political people in Europe, she was not so sure about the people universities were trying to reach, who were more interested in fee levels, safety and welcome for EU nationals. "What troubles me is the rise in reported incidents of hate crime - that could affect us," she said.

However, she said Donald Trump was a lot worse for the US than Brexit for the UK, particularly as the UK was relatively cheap at the moment. Her concern was over China and the impact of worsening diplomatic relations on a very important market.

Has Brand UK been tarnished by Brexit?

Tom recalled a Middle Eastern colleague talking to a diplomat just after the referendum vote and saying "You British are so sly, you must have a secret plan." That feeling had now evaporated, he said. There was a big problem in Europe, but not in other markets such as Latin America. "The UK reputation for competence will require some work," he said.

What's happening with UK soft power and Brexit?

Amy said that a lot of people making purchasing decisions outside Europe don't care: one Vietnamese student said as long as food prices didn't rise she was unconcerned.

Michael said it was important to pay attention to what other markets were doing, and it was important to stress the UK-ness of courses. "In every lesson they should be reminded somehow they are in the UK and you won't get that from the test books. Publishers need to redesign textbooks for UK market – they're global at the moment. We should be getting people excited about being in the UK. What is specifically UK-ish about what we offer?"

What opportunities are there for the UK as a result of Brexit? Are they just for bigger operations?

Michael said there were enormous opportunities – "everybody wants to work with the UK so we should put on a positive face and focus on quality and investment." He said the UK wasn't investing much compared to the US State Department, which issues ten thousand $1000 scholarships for any language school in their country. Something similar would build the UK's influence but people were not lobbying for it.

Amy was positive that the UK would get over Brexit: many student surveys showed the UK in the top two, with excellence in education and research, and we have the British Council. She said: "I am absolutely positive there are lots of opportunities for innovation for smaller players as well as bigger players."

Kurt pointed to the "embarrassment of riches" the UK's tourism has, citing "an abundance of attractions [which] will continue to pull people in," and that the Government had woken up to the importance of tourism.

Tom thought the profound social and cultural changes of Brexit were only just beginning to play themselves out, with potential positives but also real risks, and not just to the UK.

"I am a very optimistic person," said Vivienne. "I think success is ours to lose but not ours by right." She was "absurdly optimistic" in the short to medium term but thought the UK might become increasingly irrelevant in 50 to 100 years.

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