So it’s happened. The British public have voted in the referendum and a 52% majority of voters have voted in favour of Britain leaving the EU.
A week on, and most of the British ELT folk I know (whether living in the UK or abroad) are still trying to come to terms with the fact that Britain has voted to leave.
After all, we English Language Teaching professionals deal with non-British clients and students on a daily basis. Some of us educate immigrants, while some of us are immigrants ourselves, lucky enough to get jobs teaching English in foreign lands.
For many of us, the freedom of movement in the EU has been life-changing. It has given us the opportunity to learn about the world, and even build a life outside the UK. So the solidarity we feel with Europe and the empathy we feel for the Europeans living in the UK is understandable.
But of course, for some of us, our fear of Brexit isn’t simply confined to feelings of fraternity, compassion and love for our neighbours.
For those of us who are teaching English in Britain, more than 60% of the approximately 535,000 students who come to us annually to study English are from EU member states (English UK Student Statistics Report 2015). And for those of us working at UK universities, we know that EU students generate £3.7 billion a year for the British economy and create over 34,000 jobs.
A week before the referendum, English UK polled its members, and found that 77% of their member schools predicted that leaving the EU would be ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ for business.
In the same article, Steve Phillips, chair of English UK, recognised that some member schools thought that the possibility of the sterling pound falling could make the UK more attractive for students who were deciding whether or not to learn English in the UK, although he maintained that remaining in the EU was the best option for UK ELT.
And as we know, the dramatic fall of the sterling pound as a reaction to the referendum result saw the pound plummeting from a pre-referendum 1.31 against the Euro to a persistent 1.19 a week after.
Some training institutes like this one and this one were quick to remind European clients and students that the freedom of movement we enjoy is still in place for at least another two years, and in the meantime, clients can take advantage of the weak pound to sign up for effectively cheaper courses.
An ELT colleague who chose to remain anonymous shared with me the fact that her school had already seen a huge increase in their summer bookings since the start of this week and that they were having trouble hiring teachers to take the extra classes.
In this article in a journal aimed at professionals in international education, representatives of European agencies in charge of sending students to the UK agreed that the currency exchange rate could be the deciding factor for clients choosing between Ireland, Malta, and the UK, but warns that this is only a short-term effect. In the long term, they still expect this move to be bad for UK schools.
So, in what way can exiting the EU affect the business of schools in the UK?
Whether our clients are European businessmen who have at the last minute decided to come to the UK for a week of intensive training, or European students who intend to spend a year studying English and taking on part-time jobs for the full-immersion experience, any restrictions on the freedom of movement of our European students would mean more hassle and more bureaucracy for the agencies and the clients, and this is likely to lead to them choosing to study English in Ireland or Malta.
At the time of publishing, Article 50 has yet to be invoked, but it has already been suggested that if Britain wants to remain in Europe’s single market, she has to continue accepting workers and immigrants from the EU. European Union leaders have insisted that the four freedoms central to EU unity are indivisible: the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and finances.
So it is very possible that the freedom to travel to the UK and to work in the UK is maintained even in the event that Britain leaves the EU.
But is this the only long-term effect of Brexit on our industry?
While the EU funds a lot of research and many jobs at British universities, it also funds programmes like Erasmus+ that in turn funds students who want to take language courses in the UK, as well as teachers on teacher training courses. An exit from the EU would certainly see a drop in such funding, and as a result, a decline in students who are dependent on such funding.
Then there is of course the less measurable but just as impactful psychological effect that Brexit may have on our potential students. The anger against immigrants seemed to dominate the “LEAVE” campaign and was arguably the main reason many chose to vote for Britain to leave the EU. Essentially, the majority of Brits voting to leave was a clear rejection of the EU (and its members).
So what might Europeans think of Britain now? When they think of the average Brit, would they still think of the Hugh Grant lookalike, polite, accommodating and charming citizen of the world? Or has their impression of the British changed? How would this affect their motivation to come to the UK for a language course?
Schools and organisations like the British Council are quick to issue statements after the referendum to reassure clients and business partners of their commitment to their relationships with their European neighbours and their belief in the strength of intercultural collaborations.
Naturally, Brexit also calls into question the role that English plays in Europe as the language of business, trade and education. On Monday, four days after the referendum, a senior MEP announced that English will no longer be an official language in the EU when Britain leaves.
Currently, each EU member state nominates one language as their official language. As Britain had identified English as their official language, the Republic of Ireland listed Irish and Malta Maltese as their EU nominated official language. This is however not to say that English is not an official language in these countries.
On Tuesday, Ireland quickly issued a statement to counter the one made about English as EU’s official language, stating that rules governing the use of languages in the EU are subject to a unanimous vote, including Ireland’s.
As suggested in this article, English currently dominates amongst the three working languages of the EU, and seeing that many countries use English as their second language, the role of English as the lingua franca (the medium of communication between non-native speakers of English) in Europe is unlikely to be shaken.
There are many reasons as to why English has cemented its position as the world’s lingua franca, some of which concern the economic dominance of the USA and the impact of Hollywood and American/English pop music. And Britain’s exit from the EU is unlikely to change the English language’s position as the global language of business, trade and education.
In fact, if anything, the “ownership” of the English language will truly shift from belonging to the British to belonging to anyone who chooses to use it as their tool for international communication. After all, the very definition of “lingua franca” suggests that English is a language used when a non-native speaker is communicating with another non-native speaker of a different mother tongue, often with no native speakers present.
Perhaps, then, in order to adjust to market needs and stay competitive, ELT professionals and English schools in Britain will have to start focusing on the teaching of English as a tool for international communication. Previous assumptions that students learn English so as to live in the UK, talk to the English, and work with the English, need to be seriously reconsidered. And perhaps the teaching of English culture that so often goes hand in hand with the teaching of the English language needs to be reevaluated.
Of course, these are things to deliberate upon whether or not the UK actually leaves the EU.