Spain’s economy has got Irish EFL schools worrying

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to David O’Grady, CEO of MEI RELSA, an association of English language schools in Ireland. Here’s a full transcript of the interview.

Economic problems in Spain are causing a bit of a worry. The summer months are the time when most schools collect the money for the whole year. The main summer market for our schools is Spain so if there is a problem in Spain and if education and international travel is a luxury for Spanish people and they give it up, then it’s a problem for our schools. Another stable part of the summer market is Italy and Italian economy is also a bit problematic.

What we’re selling is in many cases a luxury product, and if there is a recession then the first thing people stop spending their money on are luxury products. Balancing against that is the fact that this summer – because of the Olympics – London is full. A lot of the residences where normally foreign students stay are now being used by athletes, journalists and other people connected with the Olympics. So at least for the second half of July and all of August London is full and very very expensive.

Irish schools have been trying for the last two years to get their agents, who also work with London schools, to send all their students to Ireland instead of London this summer. Some schools say that this has been successful and that they managed to get extra students because London is too expensive this year. We would hope that if these students came and liked their stay in Ireland then the agents would also be happy and may send more students our way.

What are you doing to attract more students from markets outside the EU?

In MEI we’ve just started a special program working with the Department of Justice on visas for Chinese students and we’re hoping to get steady business from China next year. The program only works with trusted agents – there will be a list of some 25 of them which has been agreed with the Irish embassy in Beijing. And the students can only avail of the program if they are going to study in MEI schools. Their applications will be fast tracked through the embassy and they will require fewer documents to get a visa.

Last year MEI launched a similar program for Turkish students. How did it go?

It worked very well and the program has been continued for this year, but it hasn’t been expanded. It’s still only open to Turkish university students and MEI schools. But this year already there are more Turkish students than last year. Last year we had 60 students from Turkey. The students were very happy and it all went very well. And the agents were happy that the system was easier than, say, UK or Canada. Already this year we have sent letters for 65 students. We would hope that by the end of the year we would get more than a hundred students from Turkey.

We also hope that the Department of Justice would agree to expand the scheme beyond just university students. The reason is university students are only free in the summer months and that’s when our schools are busy anyway. The schools would prefer if they could get Turkish students off season too.

Do you see growth in any of the new markets?

There has been a big growth in the number of students from Saudi Arabia and they are long term students, which greatly helps schools in the off season. Also there is an increase in Venezuelans and Brazilians, who also come to study long term.

The growth in Saudi students can be attributed to KASP – King Abdullah scholarship program, which is a state program that sponsors Saudi students. It’s essentially for third level, but it also includes preparation for university in terms of language skills. That has been a big bonus for the last 2 years or so for our schools.

We have to keep finding new markets and all the new markets are going to be ones that require visas. So we have to work with the Department of Justice, get them to understand how important it is that we have an easily operated visa application system that attracts students and gives us a competitive age over other countries, like UK, USA, Canada. Obviously we don’t have the same profile and resources so we have to run faster to stay in the same place. That’s why any administrative advantage we get by having an easier visa application system is a great help.

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