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Covid-19: International Language Schools

Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

Mr Deputy Speaker, “We anticipate that the huge loss of student volume and revenue already seen in 2020 will mean that around 30% of UK English language testing centres will cease trading. More than this will not survive the traditionally quiet winter season.” Those are the words of the sector’s representative body, English UK, and a potentially disastrous prognosis for one of our most successful exports: the English language. Many sectors have of course been sorely impacted by the effect of the virus, but I fear that English language teaching must be recognised as doubly hit, being one of the first industries to fall to the covid-19 effect, with travel from our two major markets, Italy and China, closed down even before the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic. To compound that early loss, the sector will necessarily be one of the last to rally.

The sector has all the challenges of the hospitality sector, but with no domestic markets to pivot toward—no staycations—and little room for diversifying, with online learning being no substitute for the experience of living the language in the country of its origin.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. I have already said to her what a pleasure it is to see her back in the House again and able to contribute to these debates. It is nice to see opportunities for Adjournment debates such as this. I believe the hon. Lady is aware that since the pandemic began in these countries and the UK was locked down, it is estimated that as many as 90% of the more than 35,000 staff in the industry have been furloughed. The industry, which is worth £1.4 billion to the UK economy, will not be able to operate in its busiest seasons, spring and summer. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is clearly an urgent need for Government assistance?

The hon. Gentleman has outlined the very real assistance that the Government have given in the form of the furlough scheme, which has provided lifeline funds. Is there more support going forward? I hope so.

In the time afforded me, I hope to touch on the value of the sector and the impact of the virus, and to signpost the road to recovery. My constituency of Eastbourne is known for its record sunshine hours, its beautiful coastline, the South Downs, and of course its iconic pier, all of which combine to make it a top tourist destination. Hospitality and conferencing are central to the local story, but perhaps the untold story is that our international students, from juniors to undergrads, 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. They provide business for local transport and tourist venues, and pump-prime retail and food outlets. Likewise, importantly, there is secondary income support for the several hundred host families for whom the time in the summer hosting students makes the difference. More than ever, over all these years, we have seen friendships endure, we have seen marriages, and we have seen new businesses from those who have come to study and made their lives with us.

This does not all come from Eastbourne, of course, but in a regular year English language teaching brings in half a million students and an estimated value to the economy of £1.4 billion, and supports, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, 34,000 jobs across the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this Adjournment debate. She is making an excellent speech. I would like to endorse the points she is making on behalf of the many people who are employed teaching English as a second language in Worcestershire.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind comments and her recognition of just how important this sector is in her constituency, in mine, and across the country.

I endorse the congratulations to the hon. Lady on standing up for this important sector. She is talking about the financial value, which is considerable. Is there not also a cultural value of projecting British values and the notion of being British right across the world as we welcome visitors and then they go back to their home countries?

The hon. Gentleman is so right to add that distinction. While this does provide a boost for our economy, it also enriches, on several different levels, our outreach into the wider world, and the experience of people living here who come into the presence of others from around the world. It is hugely important. The statistics I mentioned are obviously very key to this debate, but so is the significant soft power that he refers to.

Then, of course, there was lockdown. From March this year, English UK strongly recommended that all its members close the doors of their centres to support the national effort to keep people safe, and they did so.

Hastings has many language schools and also East Sussex College. International students have become rare and in demand all over the English-speaking world, so does my hon. Friend think that we need to roll out the red carpet for them and perhaps consider having the terms of visas equal between universities, schools and colleges?

I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour. In this time of challenge and change, as we step into a new future next year, it is hugely important that we look at the wraparound to this sector. 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.

This has been a hugely important export for us, and long may that continue. But it will not continue this summer. Our language schools face the crucial summer season with a stark outlook. Members of English UK say that nearly half of their annual trade volume is turned over between July and September; this is now lost.

The Government have provided lifeline funds, with unprecedented support to match these unprecedented times. UK ELT centres have been able to access job retention schemes, and as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the positions of 90% of their staff— the scale is incredible—have been secured to date. Some centres have been able to take advantage of CBILS and bounce-back loans. All have applied for business rates relief, but to date only 17 local authorities have granted that. How long will the sector’s problems last? Well, 57% of ELT centres think that they will open on 1 October to teach new adult students.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about business rate relief and the discretionary grant. That is being done on a postcode lottery, and it can be solved quickly. Local councils are saying that they do not have the discretion to grant such relief, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says that they do. If MHCLG would clarify that English language schools are included for business rate relief—perhaps the Minister has heard that point—that would help language schools across the country, particularly Wimbledon School of English and the Centre of English Studies Wimbledon.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I endorse his request. Such a move would make a difference.

Confidence in the junior market has collapsed. It represents 51% of those studying English in the UK, so the impact is catastrophic. It is almost certain that the Italian Government’s ban on school group travel, which is our majority market, will be extended at least until the autumn. The British Council China advises that it is highly likely that no students will travel for ELT courses at any point in 2020. International surveys of confidence in study abroad are universally low, but we must rally.

For that road to recovery, my first question is about who is to be its lead author. The English language teaching sector’s needs and interests are caught up in a jigsaw of Departments. Those include, but are not confined to, the Department for Education, the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Home Office, and, of course, the Department for International Trade. Will the Minister take up the question of whether one owning Department could perhaps provide the focus and firepower for sector representation? In this critical juncture, will he put forward the pressing need to orchestrate a cross-departmental recovery plan to tailor bespoke support to the sector? Will he encourage local councils to extend their support to include local language schools? Many ELT schools are excluded from the business rate relief scheme for retail hospitality and leisure businesses, despite providing educational holidays for more than half a million overseas visitors every year, who stay on average for two, three or four weeks.

The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. I am lucky enough to have the Live Language school, among many others, in my constituency. Its problem is not so much the rates; it is about getting its insurer to pay out. Its insurer says that covid-19 does not count when it comes to eligibility for business interruption insurance. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government also need to address that problem?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. All matters that impact on the viability of business must be addressed. I know good work has been done on that, and there have been varying performances from different insurance providers. I am heartily sorry to hear that her language school has suffered that additional challenge to its operating base, in what is already a difficult time.

I would raise the possibility of extending the validity of the six and 11-month visas where course start dates have been postponed, to ensure that the UK’s ELT sector can welcome back those students who had already booked and paid for courses to begin as soon as travel restrictions allow. I would raise issues of education oversight, Ofsted grading, the levelling up of higher education and further education, but this evening I will ask of my hon. Friend the Minister: what provision and plans does the Department for Education have to champion this export industry in the post-lockdown recovery phase? Can we make GREAT and tradeshow access programme funding more available to our education exporters to support promotional campaigns targeting partners and buyers, students and their influencers? That would help ELT organisations to ensure the continuing visibility of brand UK in the recovery phase, when international competitors such as Malta are already lifting travel restrictions and welcoming international students without quarantine.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise in an Adjournment debate how important the sector is to communities across the UK, mine included, the difficult path it faces this year and next, and the benefits of future Government action to support it. If we wish to retain those benefits of social and cultural enrichment, of inward investment and soft power, I believe the specific calls of the sector need to be debated, just as its deep value to the UK needs to be celebrated.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this Adjournment debate. She has said everything that I would have said in my speech, so I will keep my remarks extremely brief.

I urge the Government and the Minister to look at the guidance we can provide to encourage foreign international students to our language schools. I am proud to represent a constituency that has two prominent language schools—English in Totnes and the Totnes European School—and there are a number of others in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). There is a significant problem. If we are not allowed to attract students to this country and to our language schools in the period between May and September, those schools will lose a significant part of their income, with the consequence that their future is in doubt. In addition to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), I ask the Government for a couple of things: guidance to make sure that we can attract students when air bridges are opened, and the provision of a clear funding structure, if necessary, to allow the schools to secure their future into 2021.

There is a cultural significance to the schools in this country. We should be proud of attracting students from across the world to this country, to see and to learn about our history and our culture and to learn our language. That is something that I feel we can develop in the coming years, as we progress and develop our education system. So many of the students who have come have no clear guidelines. If the Government can provide that, it will be reassuring. We know that in a crisis, reassurance is the vaccine, if I can put it like that, that allows them to prepare for an uncertain future. Again, I thank my hon. Friend for enabling this subject to be debated in the House.

On behalf, I am sure, of everyone in the House this evening, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on delivering such a powerful and passionate speech on behalf of the sector and on championing it so effectively. I am also grateful to colleagues across the House for engaging with this issue.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have form in this area, having previously been Chairman of the Education Committee. I am now the joint chair, with my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, of the Government’s education sector advisory group. I have witnessed the truly world-class excellence of UK English language teaching. It is a superb British success story, which enriches the economic and cultural life of the country. As has been said, it helps to bring young people from across the globe to our shores. It enables them to gain a better grasp of our language and a more intimate understanding of, and often affection for, our country. It strengthens our ties with nations worldwide, as international students share their experiences of the UK with their friends and families, building our profile in some of the world’s fastest growing global markets. It fosters business, opportunity and prosperity in all regions and nations of the UK and helps to level up our country.

The Minister is extolling the virtues of international education, and on that I agree with him. The Glasgow International College, which lies just over the boundary of my constituency in Glasgow North, had me in to visit, and young people I spoke to there were enjoying the experience very much, but would like the opportunity to stay on post their studies to live and work in Scotland. Would he consider that a good option?

As a trade Minister, I am hesitant to veer off into a Home Office area of responsibility. It is always important to remember, as a member of the Government, that you are like a member of the Borg: you have but a single thought, and you should ensure that you entirely comply, regardless of what your face may say on any particular issue. The words are terribly important.

English language teaching is central to broader educational success. We have more than 500 accredited centres based right across the country, creating tens of thousands of jobs and generating education exports. We think the figure may even be more like £1.6 billion, but I suppose people have different numbers. It is a very significant number and is part of that wider education piece, with well over £20 billion of educational exports from this country last year.

Our world-class ELT providers are having a profound impact on the young people they teach, in many cases helping develop a lifetime of affinity to and affection for the UK. Some 80% of students told English UK—the organisation that represents the more than 400 ELT providers—that they planned to return to this country after their courses ended for travel or further study. That is a huge vote of confidence in our ELT sector and our country as a whole as we compete in an increasingly competitive global educational marketplace.

I am sorry to add a further point, but does my hon. Friend also recognise the significance of the facts that 35,000 jobs are dependent on ELT schools and that host families play a significant role in hosting those international students?

My hon. Friend makes suitable points, although in an Adjournment debate I think two bites of the cherry is a little greedy. His points are none the less well made.

English language teaching is a crucial industry for many of our coastal towns and cities, whose economies and cultural life are enriched by the presence of international students. That includes the five accredited ELT centres in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne.

We have focused tonight so far predominantly on the direct benefits that the sector delivers, but English language teaching plays a key role in underpinning the UK’s wider education system by helping unlock the door for thousands of overseas students to courses at British universities and further education establishments. ELT is not only valuable in itself, but is a pipeline to the broader, wider educational offer.

Does the Minister agree that it is not only vital for these students to be able to apply to courses at universities, but that the centres run tests that help them actually have the level of English they need to get into the universities? If they want to apply for citizenship, the centres also provide that opportunity. They are vital not only for those coming over for courses, but for those who want to stay and make their life in this country.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sector provides a major direct benefit and a huge enabling benefit in various ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, ELT providers have been particularly hard hit by the impact of covid-19, because they rely almost entirely on exports for their income. As has been said, the two biggest markets, Italy and China, were among the first to be closed. This summer season, which would, as my hon. Friend said, normally be a peak period for our ELT sector, looks likely to be badly affected as the short courses that make up such a large proportion of their income are curtailed.

The Government, as my hon. Friend also touched on, have responded to an unprecedented challenge in an unprecedented manner. DIT is playing a pivotal role in cross-Government work to help our education exporters as we co-ordinate our efforts with the Home Office, the Treasury, BEIS, DFE, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, MHCLG and the Department for Transport to give the ELT sector the support it needs.

As the Exports Minister and co-chairman of the education sector advisory group, I very much see DIT playing that role. We cannot take on the visa element, which is naturally that of the Home Office; we cannot deal with reliefs for business rates or whatever, because that naturally would be for MHCLG; but I will, as best I can, seek to champion the sector. I can assure my hon. Friend and other Members across the House that we are working closely with other Departments to champion and spread understanding of the importance of the sector.

ELT providers are taking advantage of the wide range of other key measures that we have put in place to help UK firms weather the crisis. I will not rehearse them now, because my hon. Friend has already done so—whether it is CBILS or the job retention scheme. There are other support measures: small business grant funding; the bounce-back loan scheme for small and micro enterprises; and, indeed, the possibility of applying for VAT deferral for up to 12 months.

Meanwhile, the Home Office has made a number of temporary changes to support the education sector, including ELT providers and international students, during this crisis. Those include extending the leave of students in the UK whose visa as a short-term student expires before 31 July but who cannot travel due to covid-19; permitting students to start their new course of study while their application is awaiting a decision, or indeed to undertake an additional course as a short-term student whose leave has been extended; and lifting the prohibition on distance learning for international students to ensure that they can continue to study while institutions are physically closed.

DIT’s support for our ELT providers during this crisis has been informed and developed through our close partnership with representatives of the sector. The joint DIT-DFE education sector advisory group, which, as I say, I co-chair, and of which English UK is a member, is key to this work. The body helps to co-ordinate our work to boost UK education exports and sets the strategic direction for our dedicated DIT education team.

Crucially, the advisory group also monitors the progress of the Government’s international education strategy, which I very much enjoyed helping form, which aims to increase the value of education exports to £35 billion annually and grow the total number of international students hosted by UK universities to 600,000 by 2030. This country is determined to be open to people from all over the world to come and be educated here. The strategy will provide the foundation stone for growth as we grasp what I believe, post-covid, will be golden opportunities ahead for UK education exports as the global economy recovers.

Helping to inform this endeavour is the DIT-led English language training working group, which includes representatives from across the sector. This partnership ensures that the English language teaching sector’s voice is heard loud and clear as we work together to build for the future. DIT has been working hard to put the interests of the UK’s ELT providers front and centre of our work to grow the UK’s education exports worldwide.

I think I have addressed my hon. Friend’s point about having a Department to champion the sector. When I became chairman of the education sector advisory group, I suggested that we should reach out to the DFE, and it is now co-chaired with my hon. Friend the Universities Minister, because working across Government is really important. I pay credit to the Home Office, which has been an integral part of that too. We have developed a much more flexible and supportive system over the last few years for the education sector.

What plans do we have to champion the industry? I would very much say that it is part and parcel of that international education strategy, and the English language teaching element is absolutely vital. As I have also said, there is a pipeline to that, which needs to be recognised for its importance, not only in itself, but for what it does to others. We believe that English language teaching is a truly world-class UK export, which helps to put this country on the map for hundreds of thousands of young people worldwide. Covid has had a terrible impact on our ELT providers, as it has on many other areas of our economy, but we are working to ensure that this dynamic sector has the support it needs to thrive once this crisis has abated.

As we move back to growth, we will use the ambitious free trade agreements that we are negotiating with key global partners to open up further opportunities for education in the years ahead. My message to our ELT sector is that this Government are placing education at the very heart of our efforts to build a truly global Britain, which champions free trade and commerce on the world stage. We are building a Britain that is ever more welcoming for students from across the world and our brilliant English language teaching providers will give them the key to unlock their full potential for the benefit of us all.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.