A report released by travel trade association UKinbound has uncovered a growing language skills gap facing the UK tourism industry, caused by a combination of Brexit and the decline of language training in the UK.
The new research undertaken by Canterbury Christ Church University highlights the current lack of capacity in the UK’s education system to meet the shortfall in higher level language skills which are badly needed by the UK’s inbound tourism industry.
To date, tourism organisations have been largely reliant on EU nationals for their technical and ‘soft’ language skills and concerns are rising in the industry about the attrition of these employees.
Approximately 130,000 EU nationals departed the UK in the year to September 2017 - the highest number since 2008 .
Furthermore, a sharp decline in the number of young people studying a foreign language, arising in part from changes to government policy since 2002, combined with a lack of awareness of the opportunities and career paths open to language proficient graduates in the tourism and hospitality sector, are major contributors to the widening language skills gap in the sector, at a time when access to future EU employees is uncertain.
Key findings of the research include:
- Of the 78 institutions offering tourism and/or hospitality undergraduate programmes in the UK, only 25 offer languages as part of their tourism/hospitality curriculum.
- Some 45 institutions offer 87 postgraduate tourism/hospitality programmes – yet only six per cent of these programmes offer a language, as an optional module.
- The audit identifies Institution Wide Language Provision and study abroad opportunities as alternative ways for students to add an international dimension to their studies.
- From a sample of 43 higher education institutions that offer a single honours modern language degree programme, only 16 mention tourism as a career prospect.
- Interviews with modern language programme directors highlighted a lack of knowledge of the tourism sector and tourism specific career pathways.
Deirdre Wells, chief executive officer, UKinbound said: “The UK is currently the fifth most visited country in the world and our inbound tourism industry in 2017 contributed an estimated £25 billion to the UK economy.
“Those working in tourism need to be able to communicate effectively with their international visitors and our tour operators in particular need employees who can communicate confidently and negotiate contracts with overseas operators and suppliers.
“The industry currently employs large numbers of workers from the European Union to fulfil these roles, but our members are reporting that many of their EU employees are starting to return home.
“They are struggling to find replacements from within the British workforce, predominantly due to their lack of advanced language skills.”
She added: “This report clearly shows that the country needs leadership from the very highest levels to address this impending language crisis, to ensure the tourism industry continues to provide world class customer service and remains competitive in the global marketplace.”
UKinbound also recently surveyed its members regarding their need for graduates with language skills.
Just 34 per cent of members had employed graduates with language skills in the last five years, but 65 per cent of members are now considering employing graduates with language skills in the next five years.
Karen Thomas, director of the Tourism & Events Research Hub at Canterbury Christ Church University, added: “The uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations appears to have pushed the tourism and hospitality sectors to a critical point, where they not only have to consider the valuable role of EU workers, but also need to evaluate the potential of home-grown talent to meet the needs of the future inbound tourism industry.
“This research is particularly timely given the body of evidence which has been developing about the decline of home-grown linguists and the potential this has to impact on UK productivity and competitiveness in a post-Brexit landscape.
“For the UK inbound tourism industry, where language skills and intercultural understanding are crucial in business and consumer-facing roles, the findings of this study raise challenging issues to be addressed by a wide range of stakeholders.”
The report findings coincide with the launch of UKinbound’s campaign to highlight the contribution of tourism from EU countries to the UK economy, and to impress on the government the urgency of securing either no, or minimal, barriers to inbound tourism from the EU post Brexit.
Wells added: “In 2017, two-thirds of inbound visitors came from the EU and contributed an estimated £10 billion to the UK economy.
“We are calling on the government therefore to prioritise the need for minimal disruption to this flow of visitors in the Brexit negotiations.
“Any onerous entry requirements post Brexit will hurt the sector, the economy and cost jobs and any delay risks undermining the sectors ability to prepare for the post Brexit environment.”