English UK's 10th Anniversary Annual Conference: celebration, evaluation, exhortation (and some rather special cupcakes)
21 May 2014

The future is bright for the English teaching sector, but English UK member centres need to play their part by lobbying their politicians and working with the association to build growth.

English UK's 10th anniversary annual conference was a time for evaluation, celebration, and a bit of exhortation from the outgoing and incoming chief executives as well as politicians interested in the ELT industry.

Tony Millns, founding chief executive who retires at the end of May, said: "It's been an excellent conference. We've done so much in the past decade, but there is more to do, and members have a major part to play.

"If the industry wants a more favourite political climate, then members have to play their part by really lobbying their MPs and parliamentary candidates."

Robert Syms, Conservative MP for Poole, urged members to lobby their MPs. He said: "If you were all in one area like a car plant you would have more clout... you lot have got to act collectively rather than as individuals. You can punch above your weight if you do that." He and Ivor Caplin, inaugural chair of the sector's All Party Parliamentary Group, advised centres to make the case for English language teaching and a favourable visa regime using figures and other evidence.

Incoming chief executive Eddie Byers, who addressed the association for the first time in the conference's closing slot, also wanted more input from members. "The challenge for me is how to create the environment where English UK can do more to help you grow," he said.

Mr Byers said there was a lot to be proud of in English UK, but the sector was not yet benefiting as it should from growth in the global market. Growth would be good for the UK as well as the sector, helping to build a more favourable argument with stakeholders and policy formers.

Mr Byers outlined his four major priorities, stressing that he wanted members to be fully involved in discussing and developing them.

They are:

  • UK positioning, and leading the world in English
  • Promoting UK ELT to the world
  • Securing the best possible operating environment for members
  • Keeping in touch with members

He said: "Is this going in the right direction? If not, how? I want to know what you see as key priorities. I want to test this with the board, staff, members, stakeholders,  refine plans and get it into tighter shape. I want to do annual market research with you... and check with you what you think are key issues in a year's time."

In his outgoing speech as chief executive, Tony Millns gave some figures for 2013 showing that while student numbers had risen by 17 per cent in private colleges, though student weeks were up by just one per cent. Student weeks had risen by 6.2 per cent in the state sector.

Turning to politics, he said the net migration target had been the driver of "some extremely perverse policy decisions." He added: "I don't think any sane party leader will repeat a pledge they couldn't meet first time," going on to talk about meeting Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow home secretary.

He said other major and positive signs included support for the international education strategy, and said the association needed to make the most of "what is likely to be a closely fought general election in a lot of constituencies. Members will be crucial pressing candidates to be supportive of international education and the English sector, and we'll be looking to brief you all this year."

He was pleased that English UK had now reached 478 members "and we are the only game in town" and was now pressing for accreditation as a licence to operate for all language centres, including those taking only EU students.

He said the association better represented members' interests with more and increased marketing, cost benefits and more. He mused: "I look back:  should we have been more ambitious? Done more, sooner, faster?" he asked, suggesting that international associate membership and a TNE strategy could have come earlier, as could individual professional membership.

"It's been a more interesting 15 years than I expected… but it's a good time to hand over. I don't want to outstay my welcome. I've done 10 years as chief executive and that's plenty. I urge you to get involved… even if that's going on the forum.

"Thank you for your support and farewell." Mr Millns then got a standing ovation from the room full of members. He was not the only one standing down: Sue Edwards, chair for six years, also announced that she would not stand for re-election for the post and was also applauded by members and thanked for her "diplomacy" and "wise counsel" by vice-chair Sarah Cooper.

Also thanked for years of work was Michael Cornes, former Treasurer of the association, who joined the ranks of English UK's honorary members at the conference. "It's a real honour," he said.

And a final vote of thanks went to Beth Okona-Mensah, English UK's professional services officer, who toiled to create more than a hundred delicious celebratory English UK cupcakes in red, white and blue for the conference.

So what else did we learn at the conference?

  • Anna Searle of the British Council said students wanted English for social networking, access to HE and career prospects. "Improved English skills give the government more money to invest in English training, and English skills drive up salaries," she said. In addition, corporates needed English skills and wanted to employ people who already had those skills. Teacher education courses were important.
  • Samuel Vetrak of Student Marketing said export driven economies required English and 55 per cent of non native English speaking employees use the language every day at work, with 75 per cent of world mail written in English."
  • "The more people speak English the better life they have," in terms of well-being, social, financial and education, he said. However, the market was now quite saturated and people needed high proficiency, and centres might in future look not at volume of students but other products. "It's much more English for juniors, younger age groups for specific purposes."
  • Michael Carrier said there was a high demand from citizens and high aspirations for employment, mobility and education. Teachers needed to be upskilled and students needed to spend more time – two hours a week in school was not enough. He said people wanted 21st century skills - not just English but what's wrapped around it "like snakes and ladders". These included creativity, critical thinking collaboration and communications. Technology was going to be a game-changer, and in particular Google Translate.
  • Emily Ashwell, of the UKTI's education team, talked about its education strategy. The key elements of the strategy were providing a warm welcome for international students "and getting the message out there that there is no cap on genuine students, and give people information about how to apply to study here," supporting transnational information, leading the world in educational technology, and building the UK brand. It intends to build a new relationship with emerging powers, and good education was something the UK was well positioned to deliver. She said there had been good progress on a number of fronts, and her team was set up to help the education and training sector win business overseas. The primary focus, she said, was on "high value opportunities" – big complex commercial opportunities for significant programmes of investment, which might involve governments in those countries or significant numbers of corporates getting together to provide education and training. Over time, she said: "there's scope for UK to generate business with an aggregate value of more than £100m." The challenge was to mobilise a co-ordinated response, and to look for ways of working more collaboratively. Aims were to raise the profile of UK education, and secure more business overseas - £1bn by 2015 and £3bn by 2020. "We've already delivered the 2015 aim," she said.
  • Jeremy Oppenheim's visa session became quite lively when members asked direct questions about delays in the Russian system since a new firm took over, and also about the research which led to the ban on students in private colleges being able to work.

For more detail on the events over the two days, as well as the preceding Parliamentary Reception, you'll find a series of blogs in the Member News area and there are photos in our gallery.

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