July 2006 issue

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Ready for success

Libraries, note-taking, lectures' all part of the machinations of higher education, for which international students can often be unprepared and maladjusted. Amy Baker speaks to providers of academic preparation programmes, all of whom aim to ensure international students are linguistically and culturally prepared for success with their studies overseas.

The opinion from agents about the importance of academic preparation programmes varies depending on where they are based. Some agents feel that such programmes are not essential to their clients, as they already have a comprehensive level of language acquisition before they embark on a higher education qualification overseas.

Brazilians are typical of this viewpoint. José Gustavo Tanus, Executive Director of Brazilian International Living (BIL) in Brazil, says that only a few students request such programmes. “Only very good students want to attend a university abroad,” he relates. “And they regularly prefer to finish their university course here before leaving to study in another country.”

Tanus adds that it is easy to gain adequate English language skills by studying in Brazil before venturing overseas. Tim Hopkins at Gran Via Intercambio Cultural, also in Brazil, agrees that there has “never really been much demand” for academic preparation (AP). “The cost of these types of programmes will most likely keep this sector from growing in our marketplace as most of these programmes are offered locally,” he suggests.

Nevertheless, AP programmes, designed to ensure that students make the most of their higher education overseas, are popular with other nationalities, notably Asians and those from the Middle East for the most part. Amanda Henderson at the Institute for Applied Language Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland says, “The most typical nationalities [on AP courses] over the last two years have been Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese – by a mile. These were followed by Koreans, Saudis and Libyans to a lesser extent.” Mark Baker at South Leicestershire College of Further Education in Wigston, England, agrees that they see “Middle and Far East students” enrolling on their academic preparation courses.

In the USA, Linda Galas at International House Portland in Portland, OR, points particularly to Koreans and Saudis as the most typical nationalities for AP. And in Germany – which is a popular destination for higher education studies because tuition is free – Isabel Hagl, Marketing Manager at Inlingua Munich, says it is Eastern Europeans who populate their AP programmes; from Russia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine. At fellow German school, F+U Academy of Languages in Heidelberg, Tiziana Abegg points to China, Israel and Russia as key student provider countries.

“The demand is pretty high, the typical student has academic purposes,” relates Abegg. “In percentage, about 70 per cent [of students] throughout the year, although in the summer this sinks to about 40 per cent, because of the enormous number of short-term students [that come] during the spring and summer months.”

General trends in international intake

International student intake at universities around the world has, by and large, remained at a constant level, which suggests that scope for providing AP programmes is good for the future. In the UK, non-European Union international student enrolments into the higher education sector increased by one per cent in 2005, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). This follows a successful increase in previous years due to the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI) to build enrolments in the higher and further education sectors.

In Australia, the latest statistics released by Australian Education International indicate that enrolments are on an upward trend, despite a levelling out of new enrolments in 2005 (see page 49). “International student enrolments and commencements in higher education have grown by 5.8 per cent and 8.3 per cent respectively [in Feb 2006, year on year],” comments Professor Gerard Sutton, President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC). “The trend data for 2002 to 2005 also suggests that Australia is managing to sustain its growth in this market, albeit at a steadier rate than in earlier ‘boom’ years.”

In the USA, Open Doors data produced by the Institute of International Education (IIE) records a one per cent decrease in international enrolments in the US higher education sector. Meanwhile, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has posted data for the first three quarters of 2005, which indicates foreign student enrolments were slightly up on 2004 figures.

Steady enrolment overall

Although Australia seems to be in a strong position internationally in terms of recruitment into its higher education system, Glen McClelland at Path Language Academy in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, paints a disappointing picture of correlating intake on to AP programmes. “Over the past year or so, the number of [such] enrolments, at this school at least, have dropped quite steadily,” he says. “It seems that while popularity for the standard AP course has died, interest in our Ielts courses has really increased.”

Undertaking an Ielts or Toefl course, to gain a necessary score in English language proficiency before embarking on graduate or postgraduate studies in an English speaking country, has always been the other, cheaper route taken by international students towards preparing themselves for entry. Mohammad Taghi Taksayeh, of International Media of Thought in Iran, attests that the cost of AP programmes may be prohibitive, although he estimates that up to 45 per cent of his clientele request them. “The fee rate may deter some percentage of students,” he says.

Price considerations can indicate a trend towards the uptake of Ielts or Toefl exam preparation courses, but in many countries last year, providers noted an increasing understanding among students that a longer, more diverse preparation programme is a better preparation for success. At Flinders University Intensive English Language Institute in Adelaide, Australia, for example, Bonnie Cothren relates that student numbers are staying steady.

In the UK, meanwhile, Jackie Gresham, Director of the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield in the UK, recounts, “We have seen a steady year-on-year rise in numbers for our summer pre-sessional programme and this year a significant increase in student numbers for our academic year programme.” She adds, “In particular, we have had more students from the Middle East and Colombia.”

Russell Clark at DePaul University in Chicago, IL in the USA, says that enrolment at the university’s English Language Academy has notably increased from Saudi Arabia, which is explained because “Saudi Arabia is sending many students to the US on government scholarships” (see Language Travel Magazine, June 2005, page 29).

As can be expected, demand for AP programmes around the world dips and peaks according to affordability, peer group trends and visa issues in the students’ home countries. Andrew Geddes at Eurasia Institute in Germany reports that he has noticed demand increasing from all over the world, “especially in Arabic and Muslim countries”, but he adds, “Students from Vietnam and China are down in numbers due to visa policies and heavy Chinese government investment in their own higher education system.”

In Turkey and Russia, agencies there certainly report that there is a positive uptake of AP programmes as students realise their inherent benefits in the long-term. “Academic preparation programmes are very popular now,” relates Olga Gritsenko at FLEC in Russia. “More and more students from Russia understand the advantages of getting an education abroad, and such programmes… help young people fit into the different culture and language environment.”

Olcay Erten, Senior Education Counselor at HIT International Education in Turkey, says 10 per cent of his clients opt for AP now, whereas it was more like five per cent in the past. “Students feel more comfortable with their university studies after completing such a programme,” he notes. “Besides improving and practising their academic skills, they also find the opportunity to see the environment, meet with many students from different cultures and get used to living in the foreign country before they start a university education in their chosen subject.”

Programme specifics

So what should a good AP course entail? Erten covers all bases when he says that a good AP programme should focus on “academic writing skills, research skills, vocabulary building, discussion skills, presentation skills, teamwork and problem solving skills”.

In Canada, Carmen Valero at the Canadian College of Educators in Toronto, ONT, attests, “There are many essential language skills that are never even touched upon in a regular ESL programme. Note-taking is probably the most crucial and least practised. International non-native English-speaking students are simply not prepared to sit through a three-hour university lecture and be able to effectively listen, decode, and take notes.”

Clearly, a good AP programme tries to educate students fully about the academic environment whilst also improving language skills and vocabulary. Most AP courses are regularly reviewed and improved to achieve this (see box left). Gresham in the UK says that student feedback and course evaluations from teachers play an important part in this at the University of Sheffield.

Jeanette Littlemore, Acting Director at the English for International Students Unit at the University of Birmingham in the UK says, “We have made our course much more language-specific, based on research into the features of academic English.” Clark in the US says, meanwhile, “We haven’t changed our EAP programme significantly, except to affirm that we think grammar instruction is important despite changes in testing policy, notably in the Toefl iBT. We are among the one-third of programmes in the US that do still attach importance to acquisition of that cognitive ability.”

However, even at DePaul University, the AP course is continually assessed. “We have made significant revisions recently in our writing programme,” continues Clark, “because written reflection in the age of the Internet has changed somewhat. Thirdly, we developed a Toefl intensive programme, which is more than just test preparation. It is actually an EAP programme with a testing focus, revised in light of the iBT [launch] in 2005.”

Onward academic aims

Interestingly, many education providers active in the AP field underline that their clients often include postgraduate students who have already completed an undergraduate degree in their home country and who require further targeted orientation and training. Baker at South Leicestershire College of Further Education is unequivocal when asked about the degree programmes most likely to be taken after the AP course: “Postgraduate,” he says. “Subjects are mainly medicine, science and business management.”

Gresham in the UK notes a similar demand for postgraduate courses, “both taught and research”, among AP students and in Germany, Florian Meierhofer at BWS Germalingua asserts, “Most of the [AP] students want to graduate in the technical or scientific field, such as engineering and medicine.”

Some AP programmes offer a conditional undergraduate place at university, however, based on the successful completion of the course and students reaching a designated level of language competency. Mark Long, Head of Academic Development at Beet Language Centre in Bournemouth, UK, relates, “Satisfactory completion of our foundation course, together with an Ielts score of 6.0, guarantees a place on an undergraduate degree course at Middlesex University. A number of other institutions recognise our courses but do not guarantee a place.”

While a promised place on a degree course may be a welcome guarantee for some students, plenty of institutions are happy to counsel the student to make further academic decisions once they have spent some time on their AP course. But the promise of a pre-arranged place at a university is most attractive, particularly in English speaking countries. Baker notes that this is something his institution is “currently negotiating as it has a major advantage”.

He speaks for the global sector when predicting that AP demand will continue as long as university education overseas remains popular. But Baker sounds a cautionary note that should be heeded by all in what is a lucrative yet price-sensitive market: “Overpricing by universities is the largest risk factor,” he says.

Guidelines to a good AP programme

The Canadian College of Educators in Toronto, ONT, shares with Language Travel Magazine elements of its framework for academic preparation programmes:

Areas of focus:

Listening to lectures and taking notes
Learning note-taking strategies
Practice in note-taking
Expanding specialised academic vocabulary

Designing and administering surveys
Reporting survey results
Conducting interviews, using results in research

Essay and report writing skills
Learning university format and style
Writing summaries, paraphrases, avoiding plagiarism
Footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies

Using library sources
Understanding the Canadian library system
Evaluating library sources
Taking notes from library research

Using the Internet
Problems with www resources
Making good use of the Internet as a resource
Valuable sites for university students

University programmes and course selection
Choosing the right programme
Understanding programme requirements

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