The Gulf market for English Language Teaching providers is a “very tough market to break”, but they must “get themselves out there,” a stakeholder familiar with the area said.
Spencer Fordham, who co-founded and runs the Capital School of English, often travels to countries in the region to recruit students, and said that the UK would still be the most popular ELT choice – and providers should make the most of it.
“[Saudi students] want to travel because they are culture travellers. They love Brand UK. They’re not going to Canada in the numbers that they once were,” Fordham told delegates.
The Saudi government famously threatened to remove all Saudi Arabian students on King Abdullah Scholarships studying in Canada in 2018 following a diplomatic spat between the two countries.
“They’re certainly not going to the US in the numbers they once were – the UK is still the dominant choice where they’re looking for study opportunities,” Fordham added.
During the sessions at the English UK Marketing Conference, held in Canary Wharf on September 30, he also stressed that Saudi Arabia was not the only place to capitalise on demand.
“You’re not just looking in Saudi to recruit Saudis. You are looking across the whole region. So your agent network will be fairly wide and bear that in mind if you’re budgeting for a trip into the region,” he suggested.
Demand and bookings surged in June 2022, when nationals of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were told they could apply to travel to the UK, for tourism, study, or business, for up to six months with an electronic visa waiver.
“The UK is still the dominant choice where [Saudis are] looking for study opportunities”
“I think it’s an absolutely ludicrous decision,” Fordham said.
“June 1 this year was when some schools said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got all these enquiries from Saudi, what am I going to do?’ And then two days later the students were on their doorstep,” he added.
He also pointed out that the visa waiver also adds another layer of difficulty in terms of accommodation.
“I think the electronic visa waiver facility didn’t help because financially, schools have to just say yes and deal with the problem… it can cause issues, especially those schools that don’t have access to residential accommodation.
“Some of you are under very strict contract with residents, that students sometimes don’t attend or they don’t turn up, which can cause more issues,” Fordham explained.
During a separate session, one delegate pointed out that they began experiencing a large volume of Saudi walk-ins – some, in their experience, coming to ask about studies and if the school can be “flexible”.
“They’ve already received a visa as a tourist to come in with no intention necessarily, of studying until they’ve arrived,” Fordham explained.
“They just come in, and of course, it puts pressure on the system straight away.”
That difficulty in dealing with the flexibility, and changeable minds of students – one delegate told of how one student was asked whether they would be staying longer and they “said no on the Friday, but on the Monday they wanted to extend” – is putting pressure on the schools’ accommodation facilities as well.
However, it is worth recruiting in the region, and the tried and tested methods are the ones that work, according to Shoko Doherty, who runs Celtic English Academy.
“Often word of mouth referral is influential enough in my experience, students have brothers, cousins – a large family. So as long as you give a really positive experience to one student often that will create repeat business,” she said.
Elsewhere at the packed conference day, there was also a talk about Italy and its success as a source market for UK ELT – and, despite a difficult few years, its aspirations to supercharge its strength and depth.
“If people feel really proud of the work they do, you can trust them to do extraordinary things”
“We really hope to be number one again soon – it’s our pleasure to be in such an important country as the UK,” said Felca president, Paolo Barilari.
Difficulty with new Brexit rules meant things could be a little more difficult for a certain length of time, according to another panelist, Raffaele d’Apice, SpeakUp London’s sales manager.
“Collective passports would be a good solution [for private led groups],” he said.
In a thought-provoking closing keynote – given by former Virgin Atlantic customer service director and spectator service director for the London 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Linda Moir – delegates were encouraged to think about their service for their students in a different way.
“I listen to a lot of organisations saying, ‘we put the customer at the heart of everything we do’.
“It’s very hard to argue with that. At Virgin, we put our people at the heart of everything we did and we trusted them to look after our customers,” she said.
She described how Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Atlantic, would call her to ask how things were going – and asked two questions.
“He asked about our crew’s satisfaction, how proud our crew felt to work for Virgin – that went up. It was already pretty good, but it went up. And at the same time, customer satisfaction went up. So one drives the other. You can’t be something on the outside, your customers that you don’t reflect on the inside with yourselves.”
Reflecting on her time as the manager of games makers at the London Olympics, she left delegates with one last piece of wisdom.
“If people feel really proud of the work they do and if they can see how what they’re doing is part of a kind of bigger picture, you can trust them to do extraordinary things,” Moir concluded.
A gallery of the English UK Marketing Conference is available here.
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