Malta has developed into a hub for the English as a foreign language (EFL) industry, in part thanks to English being one of the country’s two official languages, and also due to its geographic position at the intersection of three continents.

EFL students of all ages come to Malta year-round, however, the summer season is a highlight for the industry as plane-loads of International students fly in during their vacation to advance their knowledge of the language. sat down with Roger Bugeja, executive director at Education First (EF) Malta in his office within the school’s St Julians campus, just a stone throw’s away from Bay Street.

Having joined the school in 1996, he cut his teeth with nearly 10 years working in EFL through his involvement in events and activities. He was then made school director of EF Malta in 2005 and executive director in 2018, a position he has held since.

As one of the largest EFL schools in the country, forming part of an international network of EF campuses spanning over 100 countries, it holds a critical position within the industry.

language school

Warming up for the summer season

With just a few months shy from the summer season, asked what preparation for the busiest time of the year looks like.

Mr Bugeja put it bluntly: “It takes 10 months to prepare for two very busy months of summer.”

“We usually start around October. In September we do a recap of the previous summer, discussing what went well and what can be better. Then in October we start. We start recruiting people, contracting, and looking into new ideas and venues immediately.”

In preparation for summer 2023, Mr Bugeja said: “Back in October, it was quite bleak. Many operators, including hoteliers, thought it was going to be touch and go. It was either going to be a disaster or a success,” said Mr Bugeja.

“From the trends we had, we felt that we should plan for the best, and if things go wrong, then adapt accordingly. So immediately in October, we started all-out. We had our projections, and we started doing a number of partnership agreements with different operators.”

That foresight paid dividends.

“If you try now, everywhere is full-up,” exclaimed Mr Bugeja.

“Everything is taken. From booking a DJ for an event, or securing accommodation or anything major, everything is booked now.”

“So, it’s good to plan ahead and have some numbers to back you up before you take a decision.”

What makes the EFL industry stand out

The EFL industry is starkly different from traditional schooling. For one, it is able to focus on excelling in one subject.

“In the beginning when I started in 1996, it was considered a summer job. Many other students in the faculty where I studied at University, 30-40 per cent of them had a summer job in a language school.”

“Nowadays, we want to move away from the idea of just a summer job, this is a career, I’ve been in it for nearly 30 years. We have teachers who have been teaching with us for over 20 years. It’s a profession if you want to make it a career, that’s the beauty of it.”

Having the opportunity to focus on one single subject has its benefits.

“This industry is specialised, and it allows us to experiment. We just teach English, we don’t teach a myriad of subjects, we can just focus on one subject and really make sure we do it right.”

Mr Bugeja explained that EF has a number of research centres across the world in a number of the world’s top universities such as Harvard and Cambridge.

Personal journey into the industry

Mr Bugeja graduated from the University of Malta with a degree in management, and as a student he served in the Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU). He also founded and developed the local branch of the European Students’ Forum – AEGEE Valletta, as he completed his postgraduate in Education.

Reflecting on his academic background, he said, “it was a mixture of management and teaching. I compiled them together and that’s where I am today, using both of them.”

When asked what drew him in to the EFL industry in particular, he said, “I always liked to work with people. I feel I am a people’s person, and this industry is definitely all about people.”

After graduating from University, he was offered an opportunity to work in statistics and administration however, he turned it down. “They were telling me I have my own office, my own documents which I would be analysing, working alone, and I thought, this isn’t what I wanted to do. I want to be with people, helping people, and affecting people, with what I do.”

So, he told them that he knew of someone else from his course who would be a better fit for the job, which stunned the employer.

Another opportunity was presented to him to work as a brand manager for a marketing company, while he was an events leader, already working with EF. While showing a group of Finnish students around the country he received a follow-up call from the marketing company for the job.

“On the phone they said, ‘we need an answer, are you in or are you out?’”

“I remember I paused for a moment and I was like, ‘actually I’m already working now, I gave them my word I’m working, so unfortunately I have to turn it down.’”

“The moment I turned off the phone, I was like, oh my god what did I do? I studied for this. 10 seconds later I didn’t think about it any longer. I laugh about it nowadays. I took a decision there and then, while I was standing on the bus with this group of students. There’s where I want to be, with people, helping people, making sure I make a difference in people’s lives.”

Malta’s selling points in a global EFL industry

Facing both international and domestic competition, a number of factors come into play as to what makes Malta, and his school in particular, a popular choice for EFL learners.

“I think number one is the team, we are a team of very experienced staff, and we hand-pick the best people even from around the world,” explained Mr Bugeja.

“Especially from our key markets, so if we have a lot of people from South America, we make sure we have a key South American who moves into operations, same for Asia, same for Europe, same for Africa.”

“Secondly, I would imagine, the good weather, because academics is exactly the same in EF around the world, so there has to be something more than that. Our history, food and culture are also unique.”

The school has also been operating its own beach club in Malta for around 25 years, which is free for its students to use.

“Another important thing is, that the fact that we are a small country.”

“If there is a bid for a big EF worldwide meeting, we can speak openly to the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) or the Ministry of Tourism, or Ministry of Education, or Ministry of Foreign Affairs and everyone works together, and that is unique, you can only do that in small countries,” he explained.

Prospects for the industry

So how does Roger Bugeja feel about the future of the industry?

“I am slightly worried. A bit more worried very soon if prices keep going up. Especially in restaurants, hotels, and service providers. If prices keep going up we would become uncompetitive.”

“We’re getting more expensive than big cities abroad and that is a concern,” he noted.

“Maybe people won’t realise it yet, but if we keep increasing the prices for everything, students and tourists might find alternative destinations because it’s cheaper to go elsewhere than to go to Malta, because we’re too expensive. That is a worry for me.”

Another problem, despite being more expensive, is that the services they receive haven’t changed. “So, we’re getting the same service as we did, if not worse, because they do not have enough people to work, at much higher prices. So that’s something we have to be careful with.”

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