Growing number of English language students flock to Ireland of the welcomes

 

"HOWAYA!", "Begob!" and "Janey!" - you're hearing them more and more in down-town Barcelona. Or so it might seem.

If the 195,000 overseas students expected to study English here this year take the opportunities promised them by our English-language schools one could be forgiven for assuming that they return to Spain, Italy or further-flung nations fluent in Dublin-, Galway- or Tralee-ese.

Such a scenario may be something of an exaggeration, but an immersion in Irish culture and the opportunity to learn to speak English as the Irish do are undoubtedly seen by prospective students as enormously attractive. And when one sees that the numbers choosing to take English as Foreign Language (EFL) courses here have risen non-stop since 1993, it's clear they're a potent selling combination.

The numbers coming here grew by 15 per cent last year, in a year when our main competitors - Britain, Australia and the US - saw falls of 10, 40 and 30 per cent respectively. Indeed, of the main countries offering EFL courses only Ireland and Malta saw an increase in demand in 1998.

This year EFL students are expected to pour £300 million (€380 million) worth of foreign currency into the economy, says the Advisory Council for English language Schools (ACELS). About one-third of this will pay for their accommodation.

And it is the type of accommodation offered that marks Ireland out, says the ACELS director, Mr Jim Ferguson. Where in Britain the majority stay in boarding-house or on-campus accommodation, the vast majority of students here stay with host families. "For parents back in Spain or Italy there is an obvious attraction in knowing the kids are in a supervised family environment."

The Bord Failte-published brochure, Ire- land: The Quality Location For Learning English promotes the Irish as "among the friendliest people you will meet anywhere" and, says Mr Ferguson, the host-family experience is central to this. Ms Celestine Rowland, director of the Galway Cultural Institute which saw approximately 800 students last year, says: "The industry would fall apart without them."

There are 110 EFL centres approved by the Department of Education and Science, each of which has up to 400 host families on their books, says Ms Mary Towers, chairwoman of Marketing English in Ireland (MEI).

"Some of these may be on several schools' books, but we are running into thousands of families."

About 69 per cent of all EFL students here stay with host families - a figure that rises to 90 per cent of the under-18 age group. Others stay, in descending order of frequency, with friends or relatives, in rented accommodation, guesthouses, hostels, hotels or camp-sites.

This summer host families will each take in up to three students. They will provide bed, meals, study-facilities and the experience of Irish family life. For their trouble they will be paid, by the schools, between £70 and £90 per week per student.

Though difficult to calculate exactly, the projected total pay-out to families this year will be upwards of £68.4 million.

One who expects to take in about 20 students this year, for an average of two weeks each, is Ms Elizabeth Duffy of Rathmines, Dublin. Though this will be her second year as a host and though she should take in about £3,200 she says that this year she only hopes to finally break even on her initial investment.

"I had to buy beds, linen, plates, cutlery, desks and lamps. Then there are the on-going costs of washing the bed linen once a week, washing their laundry, general wear and tear.

"They get cereals and toast in the morning, a packed lunch and I cook at least two, usually three, courses for dinner. They go through biscuits at a rate of about four packets a day and the kettle is never off."

Though there is no overall regulatory body overseeing host-family accommodation, all families used by MEI-approved schools are visited at least once a year by an accommodation officer from the school. They ensure the homes comply with criteria set down by Bord Failte.

Ms Duffy says she and her children enjoy having foreign students about the house, and that the money coming in helps pay the mortgage, but that it is not a "get-rich-quick" business. Of the £80 a week she gets per student, an average £30 goes back out on food and bills, she says. A lot of work is involved and she employs a cleaning-lady, at £15, in one day per week to help.

The Revenue Commissioners says it is up to the individual households to declare income generated by regular paying guests, but several hosts who spoke to The Irish Times said that they were in the student-accommodation business precisely because the income was tax-free and that it wouldn't pay otherwise.

Mr Ferguson says the whole tax area is a "delicate issue" and given that the greatest obstacle to further growth in the EFL industry here is the lack of host families, not one he would like to see stirred up.

Student numbers, he says, peak in the summer months (60 per cent arrive between June and August) while the number of good host families willing to take students has decreased "as a result of the Celtic Tiger". This year, for the first time, numerous schools are having to close their books to prospective students as they cannot find enough host families.

The rules of EFL competition are changing dramatically, he continues. A redirection of strategy is needed. If the pressure to provide host families during the summer is not relieved the industry could founder badly if not grind to a halt.

While Italy, Spain and France continue to send the greatest number of students, the most promising for expansion are China, Pacific Rim, Russia and republics of the former Soviet Union.

China is already the "big thing", sending students year-round rather than just during the summer. These new markets are also more likely to send adults who will stay for two or more months rather than for just two weeks.

Mr Ferguson sees competition in the international EFL market "hotting up" in the new millennium. The Australian government has put millions of pounds into its industry as its Pacific Rim catchment area travels further afield, while the downturn in student numbers going to the US due to the south-east Asian financial crises is likely to result in a push from American EFL organisations to attract European students.

While family life, friendliness and hospitality have been important selling points, they are not enough on their own. A quality product, which is more than just an adjunct to the British one, is vital.

Currently by far the majority of EFL exams and books available here are British. This year a new Irish exam, the Test of Interaction in English (TIE) will be piloted among 500 students. It will be launched State-wide next year.

Describing this as a "major step", Mr Ferguson further sees the decision of the International Association of Teachers of EFL (IATEFL) to bring its annual conference, with its 1,500 participants, to the Burlington Hotel in Dublin next year (it is usually held in Britain) as a "major coup". It all bodes well for the industry here, he says.

The number of host families seems unlikely to grow over the next number of years. However the industry is moving to diversify and so grow in new directions.

The industry is worth £2 billion in Britain. The development of a year-round industry and an Irish exam structure with dedicated Irish-published study materials would see more of that £2 billion coming here, says Mr Ferguson. Surely something that would have even Manuel "excira and delira".