||There is a need for academic preparation (AP) programmes which incorporate both English and some foundation [subject matter] to better prepare international students to undertake their degree programmes,” asserts Faith Yong, Assistant Vice President of PSB Academy in Singapore, which offers foundation and degree programmes to a mainly Asian clientele.
For international students determined to gain an overseas education, the first step towards their dream is often an academic preparation or foundation course, which prepares them for tertiary education in another country. Increasingly, these courses are becoming more targeted to ensure students receive the exact training they require. But the sheer range of programmes is vast and they vary greatly from one institution to another, making it vital that agents are well informed of their clients’ needs and the exact course content.
A snapshot investigation into the types of programmes available reveals a bewildering range of possibilities. Some institutions such as EFS at Stanford University in the USA just provide pre-sessional programmes to students who have been admitted to the university. EFS’s course runs for six weeks and, according to its Director, Phil Hubbard, includes “English and academic orientation covering listening including live lectures by Stanford faculty speaking and writing”.
Heartland International English School in Canada offers an “Impact Programme”, which the school’s Director, Keira Bulloch, says is an “accelerated and concentrated eight-week academic English programme”. According to Bulloch, the course enables students to strengthen their research, presentation, critical reading and essay writing skills.
The key feature of an academic preparation course is certainly to furnish international students with the study skills necessary for further studies in a specific country. At the Tufts Summer Institute for International Scholars in the USA, students are trained to write American-style research papers and communicate effectively in a university setting. Kevin Paquette, Director of English Language Programmes at Tufts University, explains, “Through careful analysis of writing structure, thesis development and a widened vocabulary base, students acquire the skills and confidence necessary to fully participate in a US graduate degree programme. Classes are taught in a seminar environment that closely resembles the US graduate school experience.”
Carrick Institute of Education and Carrick Higher Education in Australia splits its EAP course into two types: one which prepares students for vocational studies and one which prepares them for university courses, and each runs for 10 weeks.
And then there are the foundation programmes to add to the mix. At Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia, for example, students can enrol on a one-year foundation programme that focuses on five key areas: communication skills including English, creative skills, leadership, ICT and visual communication.
Australia-based Navitas runs both AP and foundation courses at its colleges that are set up on campus in partnership with tertiary institutions in Australia, Canada and the UK. AP covers such areas as essay and report writing, listening to lectures, and participating in tutorials and effective reading skills, while the foundation course prepares students more for their chosen field of study, as Mark Brown, Offshore Programme Manager at Navitas, explains. “The [university foundation course] is linked to the Bachelor programme the student wishes to join the content and exams are the same and often the lecturers teach at both the university and Navitas college.”
Navitas is an example of the partnership of private and public sector working in international tertiary education. Another example is Into, which, as Andy Uren explains, is a private company that forms a 50/50 joint venture with university partners who have equal board representation and full control over academic content and quality assurance at the teaching centres that are built by Into, offering “state-of-the-art” facilities and AP/English language programmes. Uren emphasises, “Into Centres are part of the partner university rather than an outsourced operation, and our model allows university staff who work in our centres to remain employed by the university.”
AP and foundation courses form an increasingly important (and lucrative) sector in English-speaking markets, and the proliferation of these types of courses is spreading into other language destinations. Munich University in Germany now offers a choice of AP courses, according to Renate Thiemann at the university’s Deutschkurse für Ausländer department. The range includes a voluntary pre-semester programme that incorporates language training, the DSH exam and a special course on scientific working methods for academic studies; a course that concentrates on techniques for scientific work; and an academic language course for international undergraduates, PhD students and visiting scientists that includes “survival” German, oral and written academic German, introduction to academic German and academic writing and advanced academic German.
While the value of foundation courses cannot be disputed, a real draw for many students is that, upon successful completion, they are guaranteed a place at a university. “Students do find our foundation programme [in Australia and New Zealand] very appealing because it does provide a guaranteed pathway to our partner universities upon achieving the necessary requirements,” asserts Lucy Greaves at Study Group. “Another benefit is that our curriculum is delivered in an international context. This means that students do not need to have studied previously in Australia in order to successfully move into the foundation programmes.”
A significant trend in the academic pathways sector of the language teaching market has been towards more targeted learning. The Intensive English Language Institute (IELI) at Flinders University in Australia offers an English for business studies course in addition to an AP programme. “We created the English for business programme in order to be able to focus on a specific content within the academic programme,” explains Bonnie Coltran at the IELI. “This helps the students be better prepared for their first semester because they have already been studying business topics as part of the English course. We are now looking at creating an English for health studies programme to offer the same advantage to students going into nursing and other health-related fields.”
At Cambridge Regional College in the UK, there has been an increase in interest in foundation courses leading to engineering degrees. As a consequence, says Kimberly Horner at the college, “We have amended our science foundation to respond to this.”
Bellerbys in the UK has also been fine-tuning the focus of its foundation courses. “In the last two years, Bellerbys has introduced a computing foundation programme at its Cambridge centre which deals with the technical end of computing - robotics, AI and so on,” explains Andrew Stephenson, Bellerbys’ Foundation Coordination Manager. This acts as a complement to its existing Management Computing Systems Foundation Programme which focuses more on the systems cycle and website development. Bellerbys has also created an extension to its foundation programme at its Oxford centre, to enable students to join them a term earlier with a lower Ielts score of 4.0. Stephenson believes that diversification in the range of programmes being offered is the most significant trend in this sector today, and indicative of “the growing acceptance of such programmes in the international student market and in the universities,” he says.
Despite the targeted training and benefits provided by a foundation programme, it is, according to Brown, the AP course that is more popular at Navitas, “because most international students need some form of academic English prior to their university studies. Most students complete year 12 or equivalent in their home country so foundation studies are not always necessary,” he explains.
Agent, Uli Kutz at International Education Consultants in Japan, observes that most students who want to study overseas opt for an AP or foundation programme, but they tend to favour the shorter courses. “Some parents say that [AP/foundation courses] costs them an ‘extra year’ in school fees so they don’t really like doing it,” he explains. “The students want to go for as short a time as possible to get their degrees three or four years only. Coming back to Japan and being a year older has a small stigma attached to it. People think the student flunked a year.”
Fast track into university
But the beauty of some foundation programmes is that they can provide a fast-track entry into tertiary education; either by counting as a two-year A-level equivalent or counting towards a first year of an undergraduate programme. Bellerbys’ international foundation programme offers students a one-year alternative to the traditional two-year A-level route. And Cambridge Regional College also offers a one-year foundation course that can substitute A-levels. This has, according to Horner, become increasingly popular.
At PSB Academy in Singapore the foundation programme is, according to Yong, “incorporated as the first year of their undergraduate studies”. And Navitas links its foundation programme to the Bachelor degree course. Students study for the Navitas Diploma, and Brown explains, “This diploma is equivalent to [the] first year of university. Students go on to the second year courses at each partner university after completing their first year at a Navitas college.”
For Juan Tobella Archs, Managing Director of Australian Migration & Education Solutions in Australia, these types of courses have replaced traditional foundation programmes. “We stopped referring students to university foundation programmes some years ago,” he relates. “Most Australian universities and institutes of business & technology are offering now diplomas leading to the second year of university. We consider foundation programmes as a waste of time and money.”
But there is a danger of these fast-track type courses that students are less well prepared linguistically for university, and Coltran warns that students should not compromise on quality. “The two biggest factors hampering [the] growth of AP and foundation courses are programmes which offer direct entry courses with very short study periods,” she asserts. “These programmes are attractive to students who are trying to save money, but in the end they give a false picture of the level of English required to do well at university. Our institution decided to maintain a high exit level, which takes students longer to achieve. Students can’t always see the advantage of this until after they are in university, so it is a bit hard to market.”
Whatever the outcome of this debate, however, it is clear that AP and foundation courses have an integral role to play in the market. Stephenson believes that the UK will move towards a four-year period in higher education as opposed to the current three years, with education institutions other than universities becoming the providers of the first two years of education. He suggests, “This may develop into a ‘2+2’ style arrangement with colleges such as Bellerbys, city colleges and post-1992 universities offering foundation degrees for the first two years. To some extent, this is already happening with institutions offering one-year foundation programmes followed by a diploma/certificate of some kind, which may then lead to second-year entry at university. The new National Qualifications Framework, to some extent, encourages this development by providing more flexible routes of access to undergraduate courses.”
A more cautionary forecast of the near future is given by Jane Dancaster of Wimbledon School of English (WSE) in the UK, who says that the increase in UK visa charges has affected demand for AP and foundation courses from some countries. “In addition,” she comments, “while, in theory, the introduction of the new Tier 4 visa system is a positive move and should make it easier for genuine students to come to the UK to study, if the transition from the old system to the new is not managed properly then it may have a detrimental effect on numbers.”
In other countries, such as Ireland, foundation courses are less well established, and Anne Freitag-Lawrence at the Dublin International Foundation College in Ireland forecasts growth in this sector. “I believe it is set to expand as student mobility increases and as third-level institutions and students realise that students who prepare before starting their studies are more successful,” she says.
Coltran in Australia sees a need for supplementary courses for students when they start their degree. “Courses which are embedded into the first semester at university would be a good development,” she says. “Often students can’t really appreciate the importance of the skills they are learning in the English programme until they are actually faced with assignments in their major.”
On campus ‘v’ off-campus
Students choosing AP or foundation programmes have a wide range of course and location options, and must decide whether to select an off-campus or on-campus language programme. Heartland International English School in Canada offers an off-campus experience. “This,” says Keira Bulloch at the school, “allows us to offer smaller class sizes, adapt programmes based on the students’ needs, provide an English-only environment and a nice nationality mix.”
Jane Dancaster from Wimbledon School of English (WSE) in the UK also believes there are many advantages of off-campus studies. “We consider not being on a campus a big advantage for overseas students when they first arrive in the UK,” she asserts. “Coming to WSE before going on to university helps students overcome any culture shock and acclimatise to both our study methods and our way of life before they are cast into the hurly burly of university life.”
She underlines that studying in the more intimate atmosphere of a school off-campus means “we can take care of their emotional as well as their intellectual and physical needs”. Most students stay with host families when they first arrive which releases them from the added pressure of having to worry about shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing “they can concentrate on their studies, making friends, improving their English and finding out about the British way of life”.
On the flipside of the coin, there are of course many advantages of studying on campus. Lucy Greaves at Study Group says, “Students live in accommodation with other students and enjoy access to all resources and facilities. They become very comfortable within the environment of the university and can concentrate on their studies.”
Mark Brown at Navitas highlights the fact that international students who take their courses on campus are already used to their surroundings by the time they start their degree. “Because students study on campus with our colleges their adjustment to university life is already complete by the time they finish first year studies with us and go on to second year studies at the university.”
If a student expects to cover their future field of study in their AP or foundation course, then it is important that the course provider, regardless of whether it is on or off campus, has close links with a university or college. Greaves says of the Taylors College programme, “Foundation students enjoy regular interaction with our partner universities lectures and tutorials on the university campus, university staff visits to Taylors College for tertiary counselling. Together with the learning skills necessary for university, these activities help to ensure a smooth transition into tertiary life in the future.”
Most students who enrol on AP and foundation programmes are from Asian countries, although interest has been growing in recent years from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Emeritus Professor, Dr Lim Kok Wing at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malysia notes, “We expect to receive over 150 different nationalities by the end of this year as there is growing interest from Eastern European countries who wish to experience the vibrant and multicultural aspect of the campus.” He adds, “The university is also located in Malaysia which is today considered as one of the most diverse and modern metropolitan cities across Asia.”
The university is also attracting more Western Europeans as it has campuses in eight locations including Bali, Beijing, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, Borneo, Gaborone in Botswana and Maseru in Lesotho, Africa. “This wide network of campuses allowing students to spend time in several campuses and countries while en route to complete their studies has attracted a wide number of students from the Western continent wishing to explore the rich cultural folklore of these countries,” he says.
For the Dublin International Foundation College (DIFC) in Ireland, Chinese make up the largest single nationality, but as Anne Freitag-Lawrence notes, Middle Eastern student numbers are gradually increasing. At WSE in the UK, their AP students come from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Latvia, Taiwan, Turkey and Russia, while Andrew Stephenson at Bellerbys in the UK points to “a slow shift in recruitment towards oil-bearing economies”. To meet new demand, Bellerbys is introducing an oil and gas foundation programme in September 2009.