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ELT in a Crisis

by Wayne Rimmer
There is no doubt about the buzz word of the moment: crisis. The word brings forth a host of unpleasant images: screaming newspaper headlines, angry striking workers, gloomy faces poring over job ads, harassed politicians, empty shopping trolleys… But what does it all mean for ELT, IH in particular, and individuals involved? Etymologically, crisis comes from Greek, via Latin, where it meant the turning point of a disease. The medical metaphor is more heartening as it suggests recovery. Still, like any illness, we can treat it better if we understand it more. The purpose of this article is to go into the nature of the crisis and its implications for us all.
The crisis of course is not a universal phenomenon on either a global or institutional level. Some countries are affected more than others; some IH schools will be hit badly, others remain relatively unscathed, perhaps even prosper from it. Generalisations need to be made although there is a great deal of heterogeneity within ELT. Even on an institutional level, any organisation is a complex organism with lots of layers and functions and the crisis will affect different segments in different ways, depending on wider market conditions. To simplify the issue, this article will discuss implications of the crisis in four areas: first, the ELT industry as a whole; second, IH as an organisation; third, IH employees, particularly teachers; fourth, last, but definitely not least, our students.

1. Impact on ELT

ELT has certainly not been affected as much as other fields such as construction, engineering and tourism. People still need and want English and many are prepared to keep paying even in severely stretched personal financial circumstances. The best example is probably young learners. I suspect that parents will sacrifice many things to keep their child in class. In Russia, this was true before the crisis but it is especially true now. What has been hit is what I shall term ‘luxury’ English, for example bored housewives meeting for conversational English; in-company groups who don’t actually use English but think they might need to one day; adults studying 1:1 for prestige rather than utility; students on exam courses with no intention of doing the actual exam. You all recognise these students of luxury English and you probably all find them a disappearing breed.
Demand for English is unlikely to disappear while English remains the international language: a situation unlikely to change in our lifetime (Graddol, 2006). Other foreign languages are probably more susceptible to the crisis, perhaps because they are more and more learned as a third or fourth language. If students have to choose between two foreign languages, they are likely to opt for English as it is seen as more essential. Although the market for English will remain stable, we might expect a change in the type of English students require. A crisis usually forces people to cut out frills and extras – takeaways rather than meals out – and this should extend to language learning too. Consequently, I expect a more back-to-basics approach to English with all those ESPs losing ground to traditional general English. Cost is a big factor, as special courses are more expensive, but it is a question of consumer mentality too in difficult trading periods. We tend to transfer our lifestyle habits across all our activities. It would be strange somehow to stop eating out yet continue learning English for flower arranging.

2. Impact on IH schools

The individual schools that make up IH are very different, from the one location / director-cum-ADOS set-up to those sprawling concerns with organograms that don’t fit on the page. However, they all share one crucial characteristic: they exist to make a profit. All the IH affiliates I know of are privately owned businesses. Their principle objective must be to return the owner’s capital. This is in no way a disparagement. It just makes IH schools different, say, from state schools or charitable associations. Basically, if our schools don’t make money, they are no longer viable and they go under. Therefore, the worse impact of the crisis is reduced profits. Management can react to this in two ways: increase income or cut costs. Both options will have very large and visible effects.
Raising income is very difficult in a crisis as student numbers fall and pricing is sensitive. The chances are that the school will have to reduce prices, at least offer discounts, to stay competitive. There will be a big temptation to cut back on sales and marketing but less promotional activity could hit student numbers even further. One strategy might be to change your portfolio of courses to attract a different type of customer. As mentioned earlier, I doubt that this will entail laying on fancy courses which nobody can afford. More likely, schools will need to be more flexible. For example, if your school has fixed term dates, e.g. students can only start on the first Tuesday in the month, you will have to switch to continuous enrolment (like virtually every language school in London); if your summer camp has a 10 – 15 age range, add on courses for 6 – 9 year olds. This is where a crisis can actually be beneficial for it forces us to review our curriculum and take positive action. Whatever the school does, it can’t remain stagnant and ignore the market realities.
The other option, probably in conjunction with the first, is to reduce expenditure. The first thing that comes to mind is redundancies, and, yes, as discussed below, that must be an option. Lots of other little things can go first: the free biscuits in the kitchen, the Christmas party, subscriptions to teaching magazines, the special overtime rate, the purple crayons… Of course, people notice even these things and it can create bad morale if the school introduces them badly. This is never easy but ideally management has to be realistic with staff and explain the rationale for the changes. People will still resent the situation but this is unavoidable. If the school tries to keep everyone happy in a crisis, it is doomed.
Things become sticky when the organisation needs to completely review its operations, i.e. another dreaded word, downsizing. For example, premises are always expensive so it’s very common to merge locations or close unprofitable branches. This naturally reduces income further but, hopefully, the cost savings offset this. As things get smaller, they should be easier to manage, so this is another potential benefit. Decisions of this magnitude obviously require a great deal of thought as well as a certain courage. If it goes right, the management are saviours; if it goes wrong, they are incompetent. Academic managers are lucky in that they are seldom involved in these make-or-break decisions. However, bear in mind that for the staff, anyone in authority is implicated in the success or failure of a major decision. Management in a crisis is not for the faint hearted. As a general point, the quality of management in schools, often criticised (e.g. Tennant, 2009), will need to improve if difficult decisions are to be implemented.

3. Impact on IH people

Redundancies tend to be an extreme measure. Before that you can expect changes to terms and conditions. Again, no one will like this, but the brutal reality is that most people will be working a bit / lot more for a bit / lot less money. Administrative staff will be hit harder than teachers as the latter make a more direct contribution to income: teachers’ performance attracts and retains students. Resentful teachers can always withdraw their labour but this becomes more problematic in a crisis. The chances are that every other school will be changing contracts so that a move will hardly be advantageous. The more drastic option, leaving ELT altogether, and entering another career is very risky in an economic downturn for the job market will be full. Teachers find themselves between the proverbial rock and  a hard place.
This reads as very cynical, almost as if teachers become disposable. That is not the case, of course, as everything depends on the quality of the teachers in a school. However, schools will have the upper hand in dealing with teachers. They can increase their expectations of performance and offer lower remuneration packages. Teachers, in turn, will need to adapt. Those with good qualifications, a range of experience and a flexible attitude will, rightly, stand more chance of surviving. Flexibility is the key word, for teachers will have a lot more demands made on them, examples being more split shifts, larger class sizes, extra travelling, shorter breaks, fewer resources. This will be a severe test for those with a loose commitment to language teaching.

4. Impact on IH students

For those who have money to study, it’s a buyer’s market. Prices will be lower and teachers better, all the weak teachers having been weeded out from schools. Schools, sensible ones that is, will be desperate to sign you up for classes so you can expect a high level of service in and out of the classroom. There may be a few disappointments – What happened to that electronic whiteboard we were promised last term? Why don’t they give out those nice homework diaries now? – but basically students rule, OK?
Sadly, not everyone is in this category and some will leave the school, perhaps to find something cheaper, perhaps just to stop their English. This is a terrible shame on a human level. Perhaps the biggest ethical dilemma posed by private education is the necessity for students to give up their studies when they can no longer pay. Putting my management hat back on, it is important that the school monitors and follows up on student withdrawals. There should be a distinction between students leaving due to external circumstances and those leaving because of dissatisfaction. There is some hope of saving the latter and student power is very real in a scenario where every single customer has to be fought for.
On one level, this makes depressing reading, but IH does not exist in a bubble and certain realities have to be faced. To take up the disease metaphor again, most people recover from most diseases eventually. Illness is not pleasant, but it is part of life, and we need to get through it and move on. At a teachers meeting recently, our director used those famous words of Nietzche very aptly: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” Let us hope we will all emerge healthier and wiser from this crisis.


  • Graddol, D. (2006). English next. Manchester: British Council.
  • Tennant, N. (2009). Viewpoints: why is it that most managers can’t manage? Voices, 206: 15
Author’s Bio:
Wayne Rimmer is Director of Studies at BKC-International House Moscow.

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