Few industries have been as dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 virus as the English Language learning sector. Each year from September until December school owners and marketing representatives attend industry workshops and trade events across the world. They also travel to visit individual education partners in their home countries. In a highly competitive global marketplace Ireland welcomes 150,000 ELT students from more than 100 countries annually. The sector has earned a reputation as a premium, internationally respected, language learning destination. With their extensive marketing efforts completed by the end of 2019, English language schools began planning for the arrival of new and returning students in 2020.
The timing of the COVID-19 outbreak could not have been worse. From February onwards parents and students from all over the world began to cancel or postpone their plans to travel to Ireland this year. Some had saved for their long-term study abroad programme for up to two years. This was to be their life changing experience. Other students were travelling for the first time with school groups for a short stay English language and culture immersive programme. The sector relies entirely on international students and thus international travel. The high season, which usually begins in mid-February and runs to September, has dramatically and unequivocally been cancelled.
According to figures reported in the English Language Industry of Ireland Recovery Plan there will be an estimated 80% decrease in revenue in 2020. The knock-on effect of a summer with no English language students will seep into the Irish economy in the coming months. The total value of language schools to the economy (including direct, indirect and induced revenue) is estimated to be at least €880m. The sector employs 3,000+ workers full time and a further 7,000+ seasonal and part time workers.
When ELT students choose to visit other countries, they do not just immerse themselves in a language but they also meet new people and broaden their own view of the world. In many ways, the English language industry opens doors. It is sometimes the first and most memorable experience that a young student has, and they will play this trip out in their minds throughout their life. This in turn manifests itself in business, politics and culture as people remember fondly the Irish welcome.
No greater part is played than that of the Irish host families who welcome the student into their home and make them feel like part of their family. There are estimated to be 30,000 host families in Ireland. Where Irish families supplemented their income by hosting International students this much needed additional income has now disappeared for 2020.
The local businesses supported by the sector are as varied as they are many. They include the host families, private bus companies, public transport, OPW sites, catering providers, state schools that lease their premises during the summer and countless businesses within the tourism sector such as accommodation, bars, restaurants, tours, sports and outdoor activities. Given that English language schools operate from every county, this potential loss of revenue will adversely affect a great many people throughout the country.
The Government has shown strong leadership in how they are handling this crisis but further financial support is necessary to create a sustainable recovery that will have positive repercussions for Irish host families and other stakeholders that benefit directly from the sector. In the absence of continued support from the government a significant number of schools will struggle to stay in business through the quiet winter months. There is a real danger of a series of closures, effectively wiping out the industry, leaving many thousands of in-country students in limbo and devastating knock on effects to wider tourism services sector.