Will anyone be learning English after Brexit?

…. but for how long?

In his new book The Great British Reboot: How the UK Can Thrive in a Turbulent World, Alex Brummer lists Britain’s ‘remaining and undersung strengths’, the things which will keep the UK economy robust in a post-Brexit world. His list includes high technology, financial services, universities, pharmaceuticals and the creative industries, particularly popular music.  

The author is City Editor of the Daily Mail, so he’s probably contractually obliged to promote the positive aspects of the UK’s departure from the European Union. However, I was interested to note that he didn’t include ‘the English language’ in his dwindling list of things that we Brits should feel good about. Either he doesn’t know about the vast contribution that English makes to the nation’s economy, or he does know, and he’s worked out that English will not be the potent force that it used to be when the effects of Brexit really kick in.

The chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you might be involved in English teaching, but if you’re not, you should know how valuable the language has been to the UK economy over the past few decades.

In 2018, English UK, the national association of accredited English language centres in the UK, commissioned an economic impact report on what English language students contribute to the UK. In that year, they estimated that 550,000 students visited the UK for short-term English language courses. Here’s an example of what they found out:

UK ELT generates around £1.4 billion in export earnings for the UK each year. Each student’s net fiscal contribution to the UK economy in 2016/2017 was £216. Overall, these 550,000 language students supported around 30,600 jobs in ELT centres, the wider supply chain and tourism and transport. https://www.englishuk.com/facts-figures

There are variations in other similar reports on the value of ELT (English language teaching) but none of them put the value of the domestic language industry at less than a billion pounds annually, and some put the figure of jobs created or supported by English tuition at between 50,000 and 60,000. These figures only relate to students who make short-term visits to the UK, mainly but not exclusively in the summer, and don’t include students who attend longer-term courses in higher education institutions, something which Alex Brummer would include in the universities section of his ‘undersung strengths’.

The pre-Covid numbers of international students attending longer courses at higher education establishments were equally impressive. According to the Universities UK website, in 2018/19 there were 485,645 international students studying in the UK, 143,025 from the EU and 342,620 non-EU. Given that their stays are much longer than the ELT students referred to previously, and their fees can be astronomical, you can imagine that their financial contribution to the UK is much larger than the short-term ELT visitors. 

It should however also be noted that total international student numbers in the UK only increased by 5% between 2011/12 and 2017/18, whereas Australia saw an increase of 73% over the same period. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/International/Pages/intl-student-recruitment-data.aspx

Covid more or less wiped out the UK English language industry in 2020, and there is every chance that a combination of the pandemic and Brexit will decimate it in the future. My own limited research confirms this. Many of the English teacher colleagues in other countries that I talked to about this suggested that their students no longer feel comfortable about the idea of visiting Britain (or more specifically England – it should be remembered that Scotland voted 62% to 38% to stay in the EU – with every region backing Remain). Many foreign students now feel that the British don’t welcome visitors from other countries.

There is no question that it will be an economic disaster if students stop visiting the UK to study English, but does it mean that the teaching and learning of English will continue in schools and colleges in other countries? The immediate reaction is – of course it will continue, English is the one true international language (just look at the stats at the top of this article!)

Really? 

It’s worth noting what some important people have said about the use of English in a post-Brexit context. Polish MEP Danuta Hübner has suggested that the EU should stop using English as a working language. “We have a regulation where every EU country has the right to notify one official language,” she said. “The Irish have notified Gaelic and the Maltese have notified Maltese, and only the UK notified English. If you do not have the UK, you do not have English.”

Ms Hübner is not someone you would automatically assume was anti-British. She was a visiting scholar at the Centre for European Studies at Sussex University in 1974 and received an honorary law degree there in 2005. She was also a Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980s.

To balance that rather alarming statement, German EU Commissioner Gunter Öttinger said: “We have a series of member states that speak English, and English is the world language which we all accept.” He also suggested that if Scotland was to join the EU as a separate nation, it could apply for English as their primary language. 

That last remark should set alarm bells ringing for the British government! 

So, the simple questions I’m asking are – 

  • will there be the same demand for English after Brexit?
  • if English ceases to be the international language, what will replace it?

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