Cynics might be surprised that Northern Ireland can be successful as a centre for teaching English, but the evidence from the North West Academy for English is to the contrary. Not only have student numbers and turnover increased substantially over recent years, but many students are choosing to study in Londonderry in preference to London.
“There are language schools in every region of the UK,” points out the Academy’s owner manager John McGowan. “People are not just looking any more at London, which is expensive. They get a much better deal here and more of the money goes into the [language and social] programme.” Students also like the soft Northern Ireland accent, adds McGowan.
Expansion of the Academy has been rapid in recent years. It was established in 2003 and there are now 600 students a year attending courses in Derry with the Academy, which now has a staff of 10 and moved recently into larger premises. “Turnover was just over £1m this year, so we are pretty happy,” says John. “Three years ago it was half that. The euro valuation has worked very well for us. We have reduced our running costs, while increasing our turnover.”
The majority of students come from the larger, more wealthy, European countries of Germany, France, Spain and Italy, but the Academy is breaking into markets in the ‘new European’ countries of Romania and Hungary. It is also taking increasing numbers of students from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.
“We make sure we are on the right websites,” says McGowan. In addition, two relationships have worked especially well for the Academy – with the British Council and with Invest Northern Ireland. “We are British Council approved, so we pick up business from there,” he explains. “And we go on INI missions. INI got on board about three years ago and it took off from there.”
Since INI’s involvement, there has been increased investment into marketing, which has been a major factor in the Academy’s fast rate of expansion. And, says McGowan, INI investment has generated a 10-fold return in terms of spending in NI by the students and their sponsors. For the Academy that has meant both year-on-year growth of 15% to 20% and its presence in 13 national markets now, compared to just four before the INI support.
“INI is trying to help knowledge-based businesses,” explains John. “There are 75 language schools in the Republic of Ireland, but there were only two in Northern Ireland before we were set-up and only three now. Each of our students brings in money which they spend. Every student from Saudi has a grant of £25,000 a year. It’s creating jobs – that’s what students bring to the city.”