This is something I guess been aware of since when I first moved to southern England in 2005, but has come home more to me now that for much of my time I am living in West London. For some reason around where I am living are lots of educational institutions from primary school right up to universities and so simply travelling to work I see a cross-section of our being-educated public of all ages. Of course, for the moment all of them, even the university students are on their summer holidays (though universities seem to be all Americanised now with semesters rather than terms and they have always had vacations rather than holidays). However, I noticed that this did not seem to make the university campuses any quieter, in their place are literally thousands of young people who seem to range from about 12-16 years old. Saying that I have seen some Chinese students who look about 9-10 years old. That might be the case, I imagine a British mother would be loath to send their child 8,000 Km for the summer, but I might be wrong. Anyway, the bulk of them seem to be teenagers. The nationalities I can make out have included French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and some East Europeans, I am unfamiliar with East European languages so could not tell you whether they were Poles, Czechs or Russians, perhaps from the Baltic States. It is heartening that the immigration policies that threatened to kill the language school trade in the UK have been bent sufficiently not to choke off this important industry.
Anyway, each university seems to have been colonised by a one or more language schools run by energetic young staff in bright teeshirts for the summer. I guess this works well for all concerned. The school gets a purpose built teaching space and accommodation with a convenience store and cafes that all universities seem to have and the university presumably gets lots of fees at a time when the campus would normally be empty. It also seems to employ lots of young graduates as organisers and language teachers at a time when any jobs that can be created especially for people under 24, are desperately needed. Though I did not really notice it at the time, I now realise I have witnessed the same occurrence in Hampshire and Devon too. Madly I had forgotten the two students who lodged in my house last year, I somehow put them in a different box, perhaps because I was only seeing one of them rather than large clusters and generally I am not in areas where students or tourists go. I guess that it is simply the draw of London and the scale of the operations in the capital that make it more apparent, maybe simply my route to work. One point to note is how uniformly dressed so many of these students are, fitting in very much with what Niall Ferguson was saying in his series earlier in the year, that a teenager from Beijing now is a replica of one from Madrid in the clothing and electronic equipment that they have.
I have no idea how much it costs for a 14-year old to be sent from Beijing or Madrid to London for a number of weeks, I guess they come for a fortnight, perhaps it is more. From what I can ascertain and referencing the other examples I now recognise I have witnessed, they seem to get teaching in English all morning and then trips out to the standards of British tourism, everything from Bath and Stonehenge to Windsor Castle and the London Eye. Shepherded around I guess they never really encounter the London beyond the campus bounds. It is probably a good thing. Students are never particularly popular even with 42% of British 18-year olds attending university and these groups are certainly noisy as any cluster of teenagers is. What is apparent is their wealth. Sending anyone from China to the UK costs money and these students all seem to have the latest smartphones and fashions. I guess it is something that only the rich middle class parents of various European countries could afford and that is rather alarming, because it shows that even the UK's middle class is lagging behind its neighbours and the Chinese in what is affordable to do. This is of course no surprise given that the real incomes of 90% of the UK population have slid in the last 40 years. Perhaps it would have been affordable in 1975 but not now.
I would like to think that in western Paris or western Madrid there are hundreds of British teenagers there for a fortnight or a month and being drilled in French or Spanish (let alone western Beijing learning Mandarin) mixed in with some sports and some sight-seeing, but know it is not happening. How do I know? Well simply because I read 'The Guardian' newspaper. It is not the font of all knowledge but if you want to get inside the heads of what the Europeanised (and this is what marks 'The Guardian' out from 'The Times' and 'The Daily Telegraph' which are pretty Little England in attitude) middle class aspires to be doing you read 'The Guardian'. I can see no features on packing your 14-year old, let alone 10-year old off to Paris for the summer (unless it is to relatives) to learn a foreign language.
Partly, as I have intimated above, it is the cost: the fact that the British middle class is falling in terms of disposable incomes because very few in Britain are willing to insist on a greater share of the prosperity that heads of companies are clearly benefiting from and did not even before the credit crunch was allowed to happen. I know that these days the middle class holiday is camping in the UK, something once left to the unimaginative and those with no money to go abroad. The other factor seems to be the 'parent fear' that has taken parents by the throat and sends them into hysterics the moment they lose eyeline with their child let alone mobile phone contact. More examples of this were revealed to me this week with accounts of a colleague at a child's birthday party with mothers running around frantically the moment one of their children was lost in the crowd (given there were 50 children in attendance, that was no doubt easy). The middle class has never relished packing their children off to holiday camp the way that their US equivalents have always done, they have never trusted anyone to look after their children and even their trust in teachers has slumped, hence the terminal state of even term-time school trips. The upper class, of course, have been happy to bundle their children off into the care of others almost from the moment they are born and certainly once they turn 8. Even if somehow, middle class real incomes rose, you would never see the equivalent of what I witness with French children (France is nearer to where I am living now than Yorkshire) happening with their British counterparts. The woman in my house worries over the 5-minute walk it would take her 9-year old son to reach school and has already ruled out him going on any trips which involve him sleeping away from home, not that she or I could afford to pay for him to go.
Does it really matter if there is an imbalance in the flow of teenaged language students? Is it not better for the British economy that more are coming into the UK, spending money here, rather than it being balanced up by an outflow. The cost in my view is human. If we go back to Ian Duncan Smith's speech earlier in which he encouraged British employers to take on more British young people, the retort from the CBI was to ask why would any UK company want to do this when it could employ better qualified East Europeans with a real work ethic compared to ill-qualified British people with an attitude of looking out for what they can get from a company. I have no desire for British young people to be compelled to forelock-tugging lackeys, but it does seem that there are skills that they are not getting to compete with people from other parts of Europe. It is not only people from Eastern Europe, apparently around 300,000 French people live in London alone, more than the entire population of Southampton; 123,000 Poles over the age of 16 live in London with 398,000 in other parts of the UK.
Now, I know many people from other parts of the EU returned to their home countries when the recession kicked in and we have not returned to the figures of 2007, but it does suggest there is something that enables such migrants to get work in the UK. It may be that they are cheap labour, but even then 16 year olds have always tended to be cheaper to employ. One clear thing is that the migrants have the confidence to get up and come into the UK and find work in a language which is not their own. How many British 18-year olds or even 21-year olds with a degree in their backpack do that? A key challenge is that they do not speak the language, another is that often they have not ever been in another country, these days, not even on holiday let alone to study. It seems ironic that the Conservatives (and New Labour who are/were minimally different to them) with their occasional forays into attempts at discrimination, are in fact further reinforcing the conditions that hamstring British young people. They have pandered to the tabloid media which have hyped up the fear that a child out of your sight is being abused by a paedophile. They have allowed companies to distort the distribution of profits so whilst bosses' salaries have rocketed the real incomes of 90% of employees have continued to slump unabated. Thus, they have engineered and are sustaining a situation in which a 14-year old from France or Spain or even China is getting the intellectual and personal skills to find work across the world and yet their British counterpart is closeted at home learning nothing beyond the distance between their home and the park. Thus, when I see another coach disgorging a fifty or so teenagers ready for some weeks of language school, I do feel depressed knowing that if I was in one of the other capitals of Europe I would not be witnessing the equivalent with British students.