The Malta Independent 7 December 2022, Wednesday
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Safeguarding the English-language school industry in unprecedented times and beyond

Thursday, 6 May 2021, 07:22 Last update: about 3 years ago

Graham Bencini

The English-Language school industry – a very important sector that contributes heavily to Malta’s economy, is one that is being left out of the equation when it comes to discussions between government and stakeholders amid a pandemic that has severely hit the sector.

Malta attracts around 85,000 foreign students each year. This leads to a cumulative student expenditure of €145 million-plus - a considerable amount considering that this is a niche market.

The industry also attracts tourists who do not normally travel to Malta per se, but come here specifically to learn English.

To give an idea on how ELT schools are regulated, schools are licensed by the Ministry of Education and there exists a regulatory body called the ELT Council within the ministry. All student accommodation options are regulated and licensed by the Malta Tourism Authority.

Covid-19 measures

While schools have opened for primary and secondary students in Malta, English language schools are only allowed to operate online and are left in limbo as to the way forward.

A U-turn was made by the health authorities whereby during a news conference, the Superintendent of Public Health said that ELT schools could reopen and deliver in- class teaching like all other schools across Malta and Gozo.

A few hours later, things changed and ELT schools were told, through an email, that they must continue to teach online.

FELTOM requested an urgent meeting with Prof Charmaine Gauci, but from the looks of things they were denied a seat at the discussion table, despite the fact that she sits with independent schools regularly.

Informed sources said that they were refused permission to reopen on the grounds that such schools are ‘high risk’, and their request to be provided with data as to why such schools should fall in this category, was refused. To add insult to injury, ELT schools were also denied permission for their staff to even work from the schools.

Not that the health of the public is not of paramount importance, or that I am contesting Covid-19 measures to stop the spread of the virus, however when one looks at other industries, they are now starting to operate normally and people are allowed to enter certain outlets.

We are talking about an industry that generates 10% of Malta’s bed nights and injects a good €145 million annually into the economy.

With schools closed and left only with the possibility of delivering online lessons, students who planned to travel to Malta for a full immersion course will now consider places like Cyprus instead, who have a good strategy in place to attract foreign students to learn the English language.

The Government has said that Malta will reopen for tourism on June 1, and has emerged with incentives for hotel guests, however ELT schools seem to have been left out of the equation and don’t seem to have been considered or invited to join the discussions on how best to incentivise foreign students to come to Malta to learn English during Covid-19 times.

I am reliably informed through industry sources that there are some 2000 odd foreign students learning English through online lessons in Malta. But for how long will such students do this? They could easily learn English online from the comfort of their own home country or in a country that has a strategy in place for such industries.

The sudden change in dates for the reopening of ELT schools has brought about confusion among students and staff as the date initially set for the reopening of ELT schools was 12 April but suddenly things changed. English language students had to go back to online classes. Such students felt they were duped into thinking otherwise.

A concrete date must be established so foreign students can start planning their stay in Malta. These are not things that can be done overnight. Foreigners need to know beforehand, otherwise they will chose to study in other countries that offer the same service as ours.

While observing all protocols, ELT schools are feeling discriminated against as they are not being allowed to welcome their clients in the same way as hotels are being allowed to.

If the situation is protracted, ELT schools are potentially going to lose another summer of business.

Apart from setting a target date and sticking to it this time around, a solution to this would be using EU recovery aid to support such industries – and the funds used to market the sector and our islands in a bid to bring about recovery in the ELT sector too. Another suggestion is that a lump sum be given to companies who have been forced to close due to the pandemic, apart from the aid provided by Government to companies to pay their staff.

An incentive by the Dutch government for instance has seen employers with more than 20% turnover loss, applying for a temporary emergency bridging measure for sustained employment, while the hospitality businesses that have been forced to close will be able to apply for additional compensation to reimburse stock and adjustments. The payment can be calculated on the basis of turnover and reduction in business.

Cyprus for instance has introduced a measure whereby to be eligible to apply, businesses must have their VAT settled and will reopen inside 2021.  For instance, a gym with a 2019 turnover of €311,000 and a reduction of 80% in business will receive €8,000 and so on and so forth.

We have an opportunity for ELT schools to tap into EU aid and if tourism is not allowed to tap into such funds, there lies a bleak future for private entities such as ELT schools and a good portion of the tourism industry.

It is of great importance also that ELT schools are given a voice within the MTA and, why not, a seat on the Council of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD), but specifically representing ELT schools, not tourism in general or hotels and restaurants only, as is the case.

 

Graham Bencini is a new candidate for the PN on the 9th and 10th districts.

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