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State of the Nation(s)

June 29, 2013

Those of you who live in the UK will be familiar with a number of recent policies that have had a massive impact on English language teaching in this country. Changes to visa regulations, and an increasingly draconian approach to immigration in general, have made it much harder for people to come to the UK in order to learn English. The most recent idea, requiring people entering the UK from outside the EU to pay a deposit of £3000, is the latest of a series of measures that seem to be designed to discourage people from coming here. As a result, more people are learning English in their own country and/or choosing to study in other English-speaking countries.

Obviously, this has had very negative impact on the English language teaching industry in the UK. Private language schools have suffered terribly as they struggle to keep up with the ever-changing legislation, paying fees to maintain their status as legitimate providers of English courses. Further and higher education has also suffered; students from outside the EU need to already have a certain level of English in order to gain a visa, and colleges and universities, like private language schools, also have to jump through various hoops in order to retain highly-trusted sponsor status.

The large influx of EU nationals and, in some regions, an increased number of asylum-seekers entering the UK, has also had an impact on the complexion of English language teaching in the UK. It is mostly the FE sector and local authorities that have met this need, with college and community-based ESOL departments bursting at the seams. However, the government is now starting to impose changes to funding, making it increasingly difficult for these new residents to gain access to English language courses.

So, across the board, the whole ELT/EFL/ESOL/ESL (whatever you want to call it) profession in the UK has taken a right pummelling in recent years, and there’s no sign of this abating in any way.

I suppose the sensible question to ask is why? Why would a government want to decimate the private language teaching industry when it generates an estimated £2 billion for the UK economy? Why tell universities they need to rely more on income from international tuition fees and then make it harder for them to recruit international students? Why limit people’s access to English courses so they can only ever make a limited contribution to society?

Of course, you can blame the recession for funding cuts, but there’s more to it than that. From what I can see, the many and various policies affecting our profession boil down to Fear Of Immigration. The “I” word has loomed large in political debates over the last few years, with a large percentage of the country seemingly unhappy about the number of immigrants coming to the UK in recent years, particularly (if you read the Daily Mail) migrant workers (stealing our jobs) and asylum-seekers (stealing our benefits).

The problem that the government has with this is that it is more or less powerless to control these kinds of immigration. Most migrant workers are from the EU and are therefore free to move here, and human rights legislation means you can’t stop people claiming (and getting) asylum if their claim is legitimate.

So what the government appears to have done (and it was Labour who started this) is loosen up the definition of “immigrant”, including overseas students in this group, and then massively reduced the number of overseas students coming into the UK. This then allows them to claim that they have cut immigration. But at what cost? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

Anyway, all three major parties have been involved in implementing policies aimed at making immigration figures look like they’re going down, which suggests that public opinion must be in favour of reducing immigration to the UK. A recent Tory rebellion which included calls for a referendum on leaving the EU, and the rise of UKIP with its anti-European, anti-immigration agenda, also seem to reflect a general trend towards shutting up shop and keeping the foreigners out. Obviously this paints a rather bleak picture in terms of the future of English language teaching in the UK.

While all this is happening though, a completely different debate is going on up in Scotland. I refer of course to the referendum on Scottish independence, which is due to take place in September 2014. There is a prevailing sense among Scots that decisions made in London don’t reflect the will of the Scottish people. These feelings of disenfranchisement are heightened whenever there is a Conservative government, as the Tories are very much the 4th party in Scottish politics (there is only one Tory MP in Scotland compared to 6 Scottish Nationalists, 11 Lib Dems and 41 Labour MPs). The difference in political opinion between Scotland and the rest of the UK can also be seen through the lack of success that UKIP has had north of the border, evidenced in the response to Nigel Farage’s visit to Edinburgh recently and his party’s subsequent performance in the Aberdeen Donside by-electon, in which UKIP lost their deposit. So maybe the Scottish public feels a lot less strongly about the need for immigration controls than the rest of the UK.

If we go back to English language teaching, would our profession be more likely to thrive in an independent Scotland than in a United Kingdom that is reducing the number of foreign students as part of its attempts to reduce immigration?

If you just look at government policy, the answer is almost certainly yes. Immigration levels in Scotland are relatively low compared to other parts of the UK, and the population had been falling until very recently. The SNP believes that Scotland needs increased immigration in order to develop economically. An independent Scotland, no longer required to have policies that pander to voters in Middle England, would be free to implement a more liberal approach to immigration, fulfilling the SNP’s agenda and making it easier for people to come and study in the UK. Calls to leave the EU are mostly coming from UKIP and the Tories, who have very little clout here; an independent Scotland would remain part of the EU, assuming they choose to have us.

Scottish independence, therefore, would be likely to make it easier for people to enter the country, either to study or to work. Immigrants from inside and outside the EU usually need English to facilitate integration and to allow them to achieve their potential in their new environment. A government that values multiculturalism and the integration of “new Scots” into society is likely to make funding available for this. As for the private sector and universities, where fee-paying students are potentially a massive source of income, it is hard to see how an independent Scotland could come up with regulations that are more damaging than the ones that are already in place. And, let’s face it, why would they?

Of course, it’s all very well for an independent Scotland to create conditions to make it easy for people to come here to study. But that doesn’t mean they would come, and a Scotland without the might of the UK behind it might struggle to maintain a sufficiently high profile to develop its English language teaching industry. OK, we’ve got the whisky and the tartan and the shortbread, but is Brand Scotland capable of competing with other English-speaking nations when it comes to recruiting international students? The British Council does a lot to publicise UK education and to form partnerships between British educational institutions and organisations across the world. It also does a lot to promote British culture and sport, which helps to keep the UK’s profile high across the world. Could Scotland really hold its own on the world stage and build a brand for itself that makes it more appealing than its neighbours?

Voting for Scottish independence is a bit of a leap into the unknown, and it’s far from clear whether enough Scots are prepared to take this gamble for the referendum to go in the nationalists’ favour. For me the word “nationalism” has always tended to carry with it a rather negative connotation, conjuring up images of flag-waving xenophobes and skinheads telling various people to go back to “where they came from”. However, in this particular context it seems that Scottish nationalists have a far more outward-looking and welcoming attitude to immigration than the current British government does. It could be that Scottish nationalists channel their xenophobia exclusively at the English, but even if that is the case, they have a more open attitude towards other nationalities than English “nationalist” groups like UKIP, the BNP or the EDL.

Before I decide how to vote in the independence referendum I’ll need to consider a lot of other issues, like what’s best for my family and for my country as a whole. But when I think about my profession and the way the ELT industry is being frustrated by current government policies, it’s hard to see how it could possibly be worse in an independent Scotland. Of course, splitting from the rest of the UK is a rather extreme measure, and it would be wrong to end a 300-year relationship just because you disagree with the current government’s immigration policy. However, if there are fundamental differences between Scotland and England regarding public attitudes towards immigration and relationships with other countries, maybe the gamble is worth taking.

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2 Comments
  1. Gordon Wells permalink

    You raise some interesting questions, Steve. It’s frustrating that answers are not easy to come by. One conundrum (among others): if an “independent” Scotland adopts a more relaxed approach (which I would welcome) to incomers than England (and Wales and Northern Ireland?), how does that square with the proposed continued/renewed EU membership, Schengen, and the SNP’s scoffing at the notion of border controls between us and England?

    • Hi Gordon,
      I’m also frustrated by the lack of answers, particularly from the yes campaign. It’s all very well criticising existing policies, but personally I’m going to have difficulty voting yes when it’s not entirely clear to me what I’m voting yes to.
      The SNP has frequently said in the past that it welcomes “new Scots”, and the adult ESOL strategy was developed to facilitate integration. But as you say, if we end up with a different immigration policy from the remainder of the UK, how could we not have border controls?
      Of course you could argue (and the SNP probably would) that it’s actually the Westminster government’s fault for not bringing the UK into Schengen in the first place.
      And I suppose if border controls were put up they would be to stop people getting into England, so the onus wouldn’t be on Scotland to set them up, even if Scotland had created a situation where they were necessary.
      This is all too hypothetical – more answers please, Mr Salmond!

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