Media briefing

Background media briefing: facts and figures about the UK ELT market

The Coalition government's drive to reduce migration "to the tens of thousands" is damaging the UK international education sector. One of the top five export industries, this is worth £14 billion a year in foreign earnings to the UK and until 2011 was growing strongly. Now anti-student rhetoric, repeated by global media, has turned students off coming to the UK, and the visa system is seen as complex, bureaucratic and expensive.  Competitor countries are taking advantage by encouraging international students to go to them.

Most commentators think that the Government will fail to meet the target because it cannot control the number of EU citizens coming here to work, nor can it encourage more British people to go abroad.  But it is estimated that if it tries to meet the target, it will have to cut student numbers by 60,000-80,000, between a quarter and a third. Government figures in May 2013 showed a 46 per cent drop in students studying on Tier 4 visas, although it says many are now coming instead on visitor visas. A survey of a core of English UK members showed a 4.5 per cent drop in numbers for the first quarter of 2013 compared to the equivalent in 2012.

Teaching English to international students: its value to the UK

Teaching English to international students earned over £2bn for the UK in 2008-9. Government research[i] gave a figure of £1,996.2 billion, made up of £879.5m in tuition fees and £1,116m on living expenses, travel and entertainment. This is an underestimate as it excluded state sector colleges and universities, worth at least another £500m.

The research gave a total value to the UK of £14.1bn for international education, suggesting that it could grow at 4 per cent a year to 2025 when it would be worth £26.6bn but said this was unlikely because of Government policies on visas.

International students contribute hugely to local economy: English language students alone are worth around £120m in Brighton and Hove and £90m in Cambridge.

International students also bring long-term affinity benefits for the UK. Many go on to be leaders and opinion-formers in their own countries. President Gul of Turkey is one of many political and business leaders who studied English here. The future benefits in diplomacy, trade and world opinion are huge.

Why don't students stay in their own country?

  • Students who are serious about studying the language want to do so in a country of native speakers where they can learn how the language is actually used in practice.
  • Learning a language is not just about words but about cultural norms.
  • The UK has a worldwide reputation for quality education.
  • Students who are aiming for a UK university education and need to improve their English skills want to stay here throughout.
  • Ambitious students want overseas study on their CV: to be world class means being a world citizen.

Who comes to the UK? The top ten nations from which students come to the UK include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea, Spain and Italy. Increasing numbers are coming from China, Colombia and Brazil.

What courses do they do? Junior summer short courses account for 15% of the total.  Business and professional English has been growing strongly until 2009.  The pre-university sector, including foundation year programmes, has also seen strong growth until recently.  Finally many people come just to improve their general level of English, usually on a course of about 6 weeks.

Do students tend to overstay their visas? No. Research done for a Home Office report[ii] found students were more likely to return home at the end of their visa than those on the family or work route. After five years, 21 per cent remained in the UK, but most of those had validly extended their visa to take another course (such as a Master's degree), with three per cent gaining settlement rights (usually through marriage to a British person). A survey[iii] in 2011 found most people in the UK do not see foreign students as 'migrants', and would prefer to see other groups cut, such as low-skilled workers and asylum seekers.

Why are students counted as 'migrants' when they are only in the UK for a finite time? The UN Statistical Division's definition of "net migration" includes anyone who stays in a country for more than a year. Other countries have chosen to exclude students from this definition. Given that the UK also promotes youth and student mobility as a positive objective, and many nations now see international education as an economic growth area for the future as well as a good thing in itself for their own students, it may be possible either to exclude students, or at least (as Universities UK and the Home Office Select Committee has proposed) to count them separately from other migrants. The Government has repeatedly rejected calls to exclude students from the net migration target.

Where else do students learning English go?

Canada, Australia, the US and Ireland are keen to teach them. Australia commissioned an independent review of its student visa system and is now promoting its flexibility. The US State Department/department of trade have agreed to support English language courses in the USA.  Languages Canada has strong support from federal agencies. In November 2011 the Irish Prime Minister said Ireland will take all the students who can't get in to the UK.

What types of visa are available for students?

  • The Student Visitor Visa is valid for courses of up to six months. Some students ('non-visa nationals') can apply for this on arrival in the UK, but others ('visa nationals') must apply before travelling here.
  • The Extended Student Visitor Visa, created in early 2011, can only be used by students with a place on a English Language course lasting 6-11 months. This was intended to help students get to the language level of B1 needed for a 'points-based' visa. This visa has become increasingly popular and there is no evidence of abuse in its use. A Home Office report in June 2013 said: 'The evidence suggests the student visitor route is being used as intended and abuse is minimal'.
  • Tier 4 points-based visa: This covers longer courses and gives more rights, especially the right to extend the visa for a follow-on course in the UK.

Which institutions can teach international students?

  • Any school, university or college can enrol EU students without any registration or inspection.
  • Any accredited institution can teach students from outside the EU who have gained entry on short-term Student Visitor Visas or Extended Student Visitor Visas.
  • Institutions which are on the Tier 4 Register of Sponsors, and have passed an inspection by an 'Educational Oversight' body, can sponsor set numbers of students on points-based visas for longer courses.

Why aren't all private language schools on the Register of Sponsors?

Since autumn 2011 there has been a new inspection regime for private language schools in England. This typically costs four times more than the long-established and rigorous inspection run by the British Council. It does not make business sense for smaller schools only sponsoring a handful of visa national students each year to go through this process. Many therefore chose not to reapply for the Register of Sponsors in 2011, instead concentrating on short-term and EU students. This does not mean they were banned from bringing students to the UK.

What about bogus colleges?

English UK research and monitoring shows that the number of non-accredited English language colleges has been cut by 95 per cent during the past four years and there are now only a handful of institutions causing concern.

English UK, which led the way on raising the issue of bogus colleges, carried out its own monitoring over a decade of 560 non-accredited private language colleges, and found that by May 2012 45 per cent were no longer operating as English language schools, 27 per cent were recruiting non-visa students only and 22 per cent had achieved some form of accreditation. Just six per cent of the original 560 were still giving cause for concern, and English UK has offered to share its data with officials.

This correlates with official figures on the Register of Sponsors, which now contains 2,117 UK education centres (though a significant number of these are 'legacy sponsors' who cannot actually recruit Tier 4 students any longer), compared with over 4,300 when it was maintained by the (now defunct) Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills.

All institutions recruiting students from outside the EU must be now be accredited, which was not the case when English UK began to raise the alarm about bogus colleges. Those bringing in students on Tier 4 visas must also comply with very stringent immigration regulations, and are subject to regular visits by UKBA compliance officers to check their student records systems.

What changes have there been to the visa regime?

The points-based visa system was introduced in April 2009 and has undergone dramatic revisions, including  the introduction of a compulsory prior language level (B1) which must now reached in a secure test in all four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening).

To enrol Tier 4 students, language centres must now hold Highly Trusted Sponsor status, earned through compliance with visa regulations, and the proportion of students who are either refused visas or are no-shows or drop-outs must be low.

How are language centres inspected?

Private English language schools now have to undergo an entirely new and additional inspection (the Independent Schools Inspectorate). 

English UK members have been critical of this change. They were previously inspected by Accreditation UK, a specialist body with some of the most rigorous standards relating to EL teaching in the world, and English UK is arguing for the reinstatement of this Accreditation UK as an approved body for Tier 4 visas.

A comparison of 36 inspection reports from both organisations on the same language centres found that ISI inspections are considerably less rigorous and more expensive than Accreditation UK. The differences are extreme enough that a centre could easily fail an Accreditation UK inspection and pass one from the ISI. ISI evaluations are on average a grade higher.

The ISI inspections are therefore clearly not a better indicator of educational quality.

Moreover ISI inspections are four times the cost and with none of the international recognition that Accreditation UK has achieved.  This is a significant addition to the regulatory burden and costs of running a language centre, making the UK less competitive as a study abroad destination as the costs have to be passed on to the students in higher fees.

June 2013

For more information, contact Susan Young at


[i]  Research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and published in June 2011 as 'Estimating the Value to the UK of Education Exports' (Research Paper 46)

[ii] The Migrant Journey, published by the Home Office, September 2010

[iii] Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain, by the Migration Observatory, University of Oxford, 16 October 2011