I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on language schools in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. It is that time of year again when in seaside towns or big cities, the traditional sight of be-rucksacked groups dressed in fashionable attire—often pastel colours—descending on the streets is common.
There are loads in Ealing as well, although a lot less than there used to be. Local householders—as the Minister will know as a local—also get leaflets through the door asking for a spare room or two, saying there are posts going as host families and promising pretty decent money. The reason for all that is English language teaching and English language schools. It is a phenomenon that peaks in the summer months. They offer an all-round experience, typically to teenagers, for a number of weeks. Students get the full immersion: an English breakfast with a typical English family, English lessons during the day, perhaps a spot of early evening work as a barista or pulling pints before dinner en famille and then a bit of sightseeing and cultural programme built in as well—maybe visiting London, Oxford and Southend.
Either side of the weekend I have had an insight into that subculture. I visited two English language schools in Ealing: Edwards Language School and West London English School. They tell me that the two weeks from now are set to be the busiest of the year for them. However, the story is mixed. At WLES, where I was yesterday, I saw multiple classes. It has outgrown the couple of rooms it takes in an office block on Uxbridge Road. Edwards Language School is in a large Victorian house on the same road—although the road is called something else at that point. It used to span two houses, but it is in one now. It has halved in size. The school was set up by lecturers from the University of West London, which is also in my constituency, 30 years ago. It then got swallowed up by a chain, and that chain’s operations in Brighton have not survived.
I keep saying what used to be because although in 2019, the sector’s last normal year of trading, there were 550,000 students, half of them under 18, contributing £1.4 billion into the UK economy, supporting 35,000 jobs and underpinning the wider £20 billion education market, it feels dangerously at risk of decline because of the end of freedom of movement and visa changes. After I spoke to the trade body English UK, and exchanged emails with the Association of British Travel Agents, the Tourism Alliance and the British Educational Travel Association—they have all been falling over themselves to brief me for this short debate—some startling figures emerged.
The BETA says that between 2019 and 2022 the number of student groups coming from the EU dropped by 84%. In Ealing, not that long ago, I would have had a choice of five different schools to visit and sample, but two of them—one had been there since 1980—have completely bitten the dust. A third exists on paper as an online operation, leaving only its Wimbledon branch; the Ealing branch has gone.
For context, while West London College, which has an Ealing campus, offers some English language teaching, and some universities offer it too, the bulk of the provision locally and across the country comes from private businesses. That means they have sometimes been viewed with suspicion, although the British Council accreditation—the regulatory framework that they have to go through—is among the most stringent in the world. To attain trusted status is not cheap either; it weighs in at £20,000.
As a former language teacher in a secondary school, I take a huge personal interest in the subject. Language schools are an important part of Bath’s rich tourism industry, which depends on language schools and young people visiting, so it is important to address that issue with the Minister. Does the hon. Lady agree that the passport requirement for each individual student creates a barrier? We need to ask for a new youth travel scheme or collective passports to overcome some of the barriers for such fantastic businesses in my constituency. Without them, we could see the collapse of that industry.
The hon. Lady, who is from the lovely city of Bath and is a polyglot herself, is completely right. When I was a kid in 1984, we did a trip to Le Touquet on a group passport of that nature. The teacher had it and everyone was waved through. I think the kid with slightly dodgy status ducked at the moment when we did the headcount—I am only revealing this now. The hon. Lady is right that we have to find a solution. The majority of European kids under 18 do not have passports, because they travel on ID cards. The Government have said that they will not budge, so that would be a sensible solution. I think Jim Shannon wanted to intervene next.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the debate forward. Does she agree—I think she does—that there is undoubtedly work to do to highlight the benefits of learning English and other languages in the superior schools that we have? Consideration must be given to fast-track visas and discounted fees, which may be a necessary push to make that happen and to bring about what she is trying to achieve.
I completely concur with the hon. Member. We have all heard about the backlog—perhaps the Minister will talk about it—of people waiting to get passports at this time of year when they want to go on holiday. The laborious, ponderous hoops that people have to jump through seem a bit too much, compared with what used to be a relatively simple thing when we had freedom of movement.
I would point out that the groups do not just come to England; they also come to Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom, including to Peartree Languages in my constituency. During the Brexit debate, I do not remember a slogan on the side of a bus saying, “Vote Brexit to stop all these schoolchildren absconding when they come to visit our language schools, castles, museums and other tourist attractions.”
My fear and that of other members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, including my hon. Friend, is that this has become an ideological issue about Brexit and immigration, when it has absolutely nothing to do with that. There is no problem with under-18s absconding when they come, so the Government and the Minister, who is a reasonable person, should look again at this and let schoolchildren come as they always have done—in a group, using their ID cards, with a responsible adult or adults with their passports. That would not undermine the stance on freedom of movement or our immigration system, but it might help our tourism sector and language school sector, which are begging for action from the Government, because the woods are burning out there and they are doing nothing about it.
My hon. Friend is so right. He is from a capital city; I mentioned cities at the beginning. I understand that the number of language schools in Cardiff has boomed from a small number a decade ago, but they are in jeopardy now. We are meant to be going for global Britain, so, as he said, shrivelling up and putting the barriers up seems completely wrong. We should enable students to study these languages on our shores, not the complete opposite, which is what seems to be happening. That may be an unintended consequence, but I know the Minister is a reasonable man. When I come to my list of demands, I hope that he will see sense.
The fact that we had a global pandemic that nobody foresaw means that it is difficult to disentangle what was Brexit and what was covid, but a bit of Brexit-proofing would not go amiss. Surveys done by English UK show that the ID card issue is a major factor. We should of course be proud of the English language; it is our greatest export, but as my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan says, there is a danger of killing off the market for these schools, even though as recently as 2019, we had twice as many as any other English-speaking competitor country. The business operates on pretty tight margins. One school owner I spoke to said, “I’m paid the highest of everyone here, but I like doing this. I want to spread the English language. Money doesn’t matter to me.” However, we are in danger of losing this lucrative category of student to Ireland and Malta, even though they are both pretty tiny, have capacity issues, and actually cannot cope.
So the problem did not start with Brexit—it started long ago—but all this stuff has been put on steroids with the end of freedom of movement. Further tightening occurred under the coalition: until about 2014, this long-time form of soft power became conflated with immigration targets to get net migration down to the tens of thousands, which were never achieved,.
Asif Musa of West London English School said:
In 2012, London Metropolitan University temporarily lost its right to recruit international students from outside the EU because of, in the Government’s words, “serious, systematic failure” of its monitoring of its international student body. New checks were added on monitoring. The problem is conflating language students, who are temporary and have more in common with tourists, and cutting down on bogus net migration. The legacy of that whole period, which persists to today and has been added to by Brexit, is that there is now a presumption of guilt. As one of the school owners said, “Basically, it is as if they are looking to shut you down; they are looking to suspend your licence.”
There is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. English is indisputably the lingua franca of the world, so why are we creating unnecessary obstacles when a hungry young public are eager to take courses in English on our shores? VisitBritain, in 2020, found that language school students stay three times as long as the standard tourist and spend twice as much—crucially, in local communities, on accommodation, local transport, cafes and attractions. In “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, Morrissey sang about the seaside towns they forgot to close down. They used to have a bit of a “God’s waiting room” reputation, but many have been revitalised by this vibrant business, and rejuvenated by the youngsters coming in. I feel that we cannot just do nothing while the sector is hitting the rocks.
Ealing, in losing three out of five colleges, is not alone; The Guardian says that there are just seven out 20 left in Hastings. The Minister, I am sure, shares my concern that both LAL Torbay and the Devon School of English have closed their doors. They are no more; their websites say they are permanently closed. While some post-covid recovery is under way, English UK reckons that by the end of this year, we will be at 40% to 60% of pre-pandemic volumes, but that is after an average 88% decline in student numbers over the past two years. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West and I are on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and we know that that is far worse an outcome than for any other type of tourism, with £590 million of lost revenue on 2021.
I talked about one school that looked like it was booming yesterday, but a lot of that is courses left over from 2020 that could not be taken and are now being realised. West London English School calls it pent-up demand because they honoured all courses, whereas I think other schools gave vouchers, which turned out to be pretty meaningless. As I said, these schools operate on tight margins—one of them said they were “almost non-existent”. Of those that have not gone under, many are crippled by debt. That is a shame when the power of English throughout the world is an inestimable good and a key component of soft power. Those attending UK language schools, often as children or adolescents, are much more likely to go to a UK university. I know from working in universities that we were always encouraged to get overseas students with their lucrative fees. Language schools are a linchpin of an important pipeline, which is coming under strain. At one end are school exchange visits that might see oversees students go into one of these schools; at the other end, they return for higher education. It should be noted that 57 of our current world leaders have studied at UK universities, and there is often a language component there.
The pipeline of host families is also under pressure. The cost of living makes the £200 to £250 a week per student, which used to be good money, go less far. I am told that in Ealing there used to be established residents who could be relied on, but now that houses change hands for £2 million, the new generation of homeowners is a bit befuddled at why anyone would want kids in their face. There are also things like Airbnb which are less intrusive.
What has Brexit got to do with it? I have a list of three main recommendations that I would like the Minister to take away. Enabling ID card travel is not happening, as we have heard. Ninety per cent. of under-18s in mainland Europe travel using only their ID. What about the idea mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath—the group travel option, with a group leader in charge of the rest? There is no risk that these people would abscond; they did not with the previous EU list of travellers option. We could try youth mobility schemes. The Government already have bilateral deals with New Zealand, Australia, the USA, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and others; they could sign deals with EU countries—the big ones, such as France, Germany and Italy. It can be done; I can supply the Minister with the paperwork.
I do not know if the Minister has seen in today’s Standard that our hospitality sector has loads of vacancies. Traditionally, part of the experience for oversees students was for the adult, non-minor students to spend about 10 hours a week pulling pints, as part of their immersion. These are valuable work and life skills. Limited work rights should be loosened up. People used to be able to do this as university students. Seventy-five per cent. of all English language teaching business in the UK is conducted in the summer bulge months of June to August. That is when these seasonal vacancies need to be filled. It has been done for fruit picking; it is something that the Minister could do here too.
Okay. Minister, I had a bit more, which I will try to cover in a couple of sentences.
The other thing that worries me is that this hostile environment has prevailed at other levels, too. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West said, there is no danger of 11-year-olds absconding and becoming minicab drivers in Eastbourne, so there is no need for Border Force to treat them as risks, yet there seems to be a presumption that everyone is a criminal. Sometimes people are asked at the border to provide means for their stay, and they have an all-inclusive package with meals.
The last time this sector lobbied MPs, the discussion was about coronavirus. The Government acceded to the additional relief fund, so I am hoping they can do it again. Ealing Council has administered loads; I get praised for it. The Minister cannot do anything about the cost of living and business rates, so I will leave those out of it, but let us have a concerted effort to improve our visa regime to eliminate the xenophobic attitudes towards oversees students. There were two really horrible incidents in Canterbury and Cambridge in 2019, at the height of the papers saying that MPs were not allowing Brexit to happen. We need to have a better climate. After all, we want levelling up, global Britain, Brexit opportunities, and this is a lucrative sector that includes all of those. What is not to like?
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank Dr Huq for securing the debate. This is a subject that I have a strong personal interest in, as my Torbay constituency is home to several excellent English language schools. The Government and I therefore fully appreciate the important contribution they make to the economy and the cultural value of all educational visits and exchanges between the UK and other nations.
I suggest from my own experiences that simply focusing on language schools and the issues raised today misses the range of factors that affect the sector. I noticed that the hon. Member referred in her opening speech to institutions that have closed in my constituency. I am not sure whether she is a regular reader of our newspaper Herald Express. Sadly, one language school closed down following a significant fraud involving one of its employees, which has been well publicised, and another building is hosting a local state school. Looking at things in isolation and then drawing conclusions from them may not be the best approach to this type of debate, without the local knowledge that a constituency Member of Parliament has.
There may be bad apples out there, but that does not detract from the fact that during the votes my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) were saying there has been a contraction in numbers. There is a problem—let us not ignore that.
Again, when we cite specific examples, we perhaps need to check them out first.
In terms of understanding the pressure on the visitor economy, we have ambitious plans for the improvement and digitalisation of our future border and immigration system, alongside its simplification to make the UK an increasingly attractive destination for visitors from around the world and to support our tourism and language teaching sectors. Reference was made to processing passports, but those coming to the UK to study on a language course—the hon. Member focused mostly on EEA nationals—would not be applying for a UK passport, so those would not have any impact either.
Ending the use of EU/EEA national identity cards was touched on several times, and we have moved to end their use at the border. It is worth noting, however, that some EU identity cards were among the least secure documents seen at our border, and until this policy was implemented, they absolutely dominated detection figures for document abuse at the border, with just under half of all false documents detected at the border being EEA identity cards. To deal with this oft-abused hole in our border security, since October 2021, EU, EEA and Swiss visitors, like all others entering the United Kingdom, have been required to have an individual passport.
I will not continually give way, given that I have already had the time reduced for my reply as the intro was slightly longer than the normal 15 minutes. I will go through my next arguments, then perhaps I will have the chance to take some more interventions.
We provided a year’s notice for the change to allow people and groups in Europe to plan ahead and obtain passports before they travelled. The indications are that the change has been understood and complied with. I note that before the change, the vast majority of EU, EEA and Swiss citizens arriving in the UK were already using their passports. One of the biggest benefits of using a passport is that it enables people to use the e-passport gates available at many of our ports. To link directly to the debate, we are actively working to change the system to allow the minimum age for their use, which is 12, to be reduced. That has the welcome side effect of reducing queues at immigration desks on arrival by using a more automatic process, rather than people needing to be seen in person by a Border Force officer.
Looking at the issue in isolation misses the chance to look at some of the wider changes we are making to the immigration system, particularly in relation to this sector. I highlight our extension of the electronic visa waiver scheme to Saudi and Bahrani citizens. That simplifies and reduces the cost of the visa process by allowing them to obtain an online visa waiver, rather than going through the full visa application process. Put simply, instead of paying about £100 and going to a visa application centre, they pay £30 and apply from home. I know Saudi nationals have been regular customers of language schools in Torbay, so this measure will help the sector.
In 2021, directly linked to feedback from the language sector and universities, we changed the immigration rules, to allow for most short-term study activities to be included in the general visitor category, under which most tourists arrive in the UK, reflecting that much of this activity is more like tourism than coming to study a degree for three or four years. Now, non-visa national students coming for a course of study of up to six months do not need to apply for a separate short-term study visa, and visa nationals can simply apply for a visitor visa, or if they already hold one, arrive under a long-term visitor visa.
We are introducing a permission to travel requirement, which will eventually require everyone travelling to the UK, except British and Irish citizens, to seek permission in advance of travel. Those permissions will include electronic travel authorisation for passengers visiting the UK who do not need a visa for short stays, or do not have an immigration status prior to travelling. Similar systems are used by the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The EU is also planning on introducing its own system for the Schengen zone.
We recognise there will be challenges around electronic travel authorisation and a need to engage with sectors about how it will be used, just as many of those sectors already engage with the US electronic system for travel authorisation, but there are also clear benefits. The Government have announced that citizens of the Gulf Co-operation Council nations will, in 2023, be able to obtain an electronic travel authorisation rather than have to use the current electronic visa waiver, simplifying the process and making the UK a more attractive destination for them. To be clear, permission under the electronic travel authorisation will be similar to arriving as a non-visa national now, giving up to six months under the visitor route. That all links to our move towards increased automation.
We are clear that we have a global immigration system. We moved to end the use of the list of travellers system, which is an EU scheme allowing visa nationals to travel to another EU member state. It should be noticed that we provided a slightly longer grace period for people coming to the UK than was allowed for our residents travelling to Europe. That was an EU system and we have now moved towards a single global system.
There was some reference to collective passports. It is probably worth noting that we remain a signatory to the 1961 Council of Europe treaty, which provides for collective passports for young people. The Council of Europe is separate from the European Union. We continue to accept passports from those who have ratified the treaty, although it is worth noting that few countries other than the UK continue to issue them. A number of EU countries have declared that they will no longer accept UK collective passports. It is worth considering, with the EU’s European travel information and authorisation system and our ETA system coming in, how much longer travel documents based on a treaty that is now more than 60 years old will continue. That has to be seen alongside the various issues that can come with issuing collective passports. However, we continue to issue them for now.
I feel this debate was a slightly missed opportunity for a sector that plays a large part in the economy of my constituency and our country. By simply focusing on the Home Office and immigration requirements, we miss the range of factors that drive student choices to study, from the quality of the course to the types and quantity of accommodation available—something that I know is a challenge for language schools in my area. Many families have hosted in the past and more have come forward. It is again about how we move forward, for instance, to having dedicated student accommodation, particularly for those coming for a longer period, who will still use the short-term study visa if they are looking to study a language course of up to 11 months.
We must not send out unhelpful, inaccurate and counter-productive messages of it being hard to come here, when in reality our short-term study rules are some of the most generous globally, allowing up to six months’ study without applying for a separate visa to do that. I contrast that ability to be in the UK for up to 180 days, including doing a short English language course for up to 180 days, with the Schengen area’s 90 out of 180 days applying to non-visa nationals, or the US visa waiver system, which is 90 out of 180 days and a maximum stay of 90 days. Our system is much more generous.
That is driven by the type of open economy we want to have, and as we move forward with ETA, we expect slightly more countries to move to non-visa ETA national status, which will benefit the sector directly. I want to make it very clear that the rules on ID card use at our border will not be changing, but our generous short-term study offer will remain and that is what the focus of future debates should be.
Question put and agreed to.