June 2012 issue

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Being prepared

Courses that prepare students for university studies in another country are in high demand, although a number of factors are holding back their true potential, as Gillian Evans reports.

When it comes to preparing students for university studies in another country, language schools and university language centres in many countries offer a wide range of options. Such courses vary widely in terms of course content, duration and even name – academic preparation, university preparation, pathway programmes, access courses, foundation courses – but all have the same goal: to prepare international students for the transition onto a university course in a foreign country. Broadly speaking, these university preparation courses run for anything from four weeks to a whole year, and include both language training and classes in study skills such as analysis of complex texts, academic writing, research methods, critical thinking and analysis and listening and note taking. They may also provide subject specific classes or lectures, and orientation to student life in that country; some also guarantee a place at a university upon successful completion. For example, Kings Colleges, which offers university preparation programmes in the UK and USA, runs a second year university pathway programme at Pine Manor College in Boston, USA. ”This combines English language training with academic courses taught by the university faculty and acts as the equivalent of first year undergraduate study,” explains Andrew Green, Kings Colleges’ Director. “Students can therefore proceed directly to the second year at either Pine Manor or a choice of US university partners including Emory, Canisius and Baruch.”

Acting on demand
Flexibility and adaptability are the bywords in the university preparation sector. Krista Borg, Head of Marketing at Access Macquarie at Macquarie University language centre – which offers academic English courses that feed into its 10-week university entry English preparation programmes and guarantees a place at Macquarie upon successful completion – observes, “The trend in Australia is towards discipline-specific university preparation programmes in which students are prepared for the language, academic skills and expectations of their chosen faculty or area of study.” 

Kings Colleges has expanded its university preparation programmes to offer extended A-level and extended foundation courses for students who need more academic and/or language preparation. “This is proving highly popular in core source markets such as China, where English language levels are generally such that additional preparation is required,” says Green. They have also developed bespoke foundation programmes, such as a specialist foundation and diploma in tourism and hospitality management.

At the English Language Company (ELC) in Australia, students choose elective classes for five hours per week in a choice of subjects including Ielts exam preparation. “Expanding the range of electives based on students’ needs is another way for us to customise the programme,” says Anne Menard, ELC’s Marketing Manager. “We find that most students from the Middle East need an even stronger focus on their writing skills.”

University preparation courses are not only the preserve of English-speaking destinations, although in many other language destinations, the university preparation sector is still in its infancy in terms of development and might be little more than an intensive language course. However, things are changing. French in Normandy in France has changed its course to include visits to partner institutions, tutorials and mock exams “to ensure that our students have the best possible chances of reaching the necessary language level and successfully integrating their chosen study programme”, says Eleri Maitland at the school.

Other language providers focus on preparation for the exam necessary for university entrance. For example, Malaca Instituto in Spain offers a preparation course for the Selectividad exam, which is required by all Spaniards and most non-EU students who want to enter an undergraduate course. In Italy, Accademia Italiana and Linguadue in Italy run university preparatory courses that include general Italian and university admission test preparation. But from this year, Linguadue has expanded its range of courses to include a university foundation programme, which, according to Giorgia Biccelli, the school’s Director, helps students develop the Italian language and academic skills needed to study on an undergraduate degree course in an Italian university.

High demand
Interest for university preparation courses is on the up, according to many sources. “[Demand for] higher education overseas has grown in Mexico in the last [few] years,” comments Andrea Escalera Nava at Mundo Joven in Mexico. “Students and parents are more willing to invest in their education and are aware about the need to have a bachelor’s or master’s [degree] with well recognised universities, plus the negative impact of the social, political and economic problems in Mexico. Students nowadays have a good level of English and the tuition fees are similar to private schools in Mexico.”

Green at Kings Colleges believes it is demand from developing countries, especially Brazil, Russia, India and China – the so-called BRIC countries – that is driving enrolments for academic preparation ever higher. “The growth in these courses is a result of well-known social-economic drivers: the increased spending power of the middle classes within the BRIC and other emerging economies coupled with the lack of local provision for higher education in source markets. As such, university preparation courses are in the main recession proof, being seen as an investment rather than a luxury outlay,” he says.

While university preparation may not be too adversely affected by economic factors, they can be damaged by government policy, particularly when it comes to visas. Jane Dancaster at Wimbledon School of English in the UK relates that they receive fewer non-EU students on their longer-term academic programmes because of visa restrictions. “We offer 24 and 36 week academic year programmes which provide English language preparation for students intending to go on to university but who are starting with a relatively low level of English,” she explains. “These courses have been badly hit by the minimum B1 [English] level requirement for students requiring a General Student Visa (GSV). Although such students can come to the UK on a Student Visitor Visa or an Extended Student Visitor Visa, they cannot extend [their stay] with those visas, they can only extend if they have a GSV. Of course, if they are going on to tertiary education after their time with us, they don’t want to go home to get another visa, they need to be able to extend their visa whilst here,” she argues.

Dancaster warns that the current visa regulations are deterring genuine students from going to the UK for language and university study. “Instead they are going into the welcoming arms of our competitors including not only all the English-speaking countries, but education hubs [like] Singapore, Malaysia, and other European countries who conduct many degree programmes in English, have more welcoming visa regimes and lower fees.”

Visas aside, there are other stumbling blocks to growth for university preparation programmes, not least the fact that some students deem them unnecessary. Susana Gaviño Robles Gil at Mega Tu Experiencia Educativa in Mexico says that generally students believe that an intensive language course and exam preparation is sufficient. In addition, Mexican universities have agreements with global institutions and it is cheaper for students to go to the overseas university via their Mexican university.

Irina Potapova at MNB Consult in Russia, says that the perception of their students is that university preparation courses are unnecessary. “When students cannot avoid the university preparation courses, as for the UK where students from Russia can not apply directly after Russian secondary school, they will take this course. But when they can apply directly, as for the US universities, they would rather save money on such a course and just do a short Ielts/Toefl preparation course instead,” she says.

Notwithstanding the problems that could stand in the way of growth, students from a wider range of countries are taking university preparation courses. “Demand for places at British universities from foreign students is certainly on the increase,” relates Rosie Ganne at the London School of English in the UK. The Middle East and Brazil are real growth areas, she adds. Anna France at Langports in Australia notes they welcome a high proportion of South American students, while interest among Europeans has peaked.

Off campus or on campus learning?

Both off-campus private language schools and on-campus university language centres/private centres offer courses that prepare international students for university study. Is it better to learn on a university campus or in a smaller off-campus language centre? Krista Borg at Access Macquarie at Macquarie University English Language Centre highlights the benefits of taking a preparation programme on campus. “As part of the university itself, students benefit from having teachers who teach both in the language centre and in the faculties themselves. They can be sure that the tuition they are receiving is both high-quality and relevant to their chosen field of study.”

Kings Colleges, which has centres in the UK and the USA, is well positioned to see the situation from both sides of the fence as it offers its university preparation courses at its own language centres in the UK, but on campus in the USA. Andrew Green, College Director, says there are advantages to both models. “Our international colleges in the UK offer a ‘soft landing’ to students and provide them with close, personal attention in terms of both academic and pastoral support. This enables students to fully adjust to life in the UK, both academically and socially, before transferring to the scale of a university campus and the learning style of UK higher education.” The student profile at their Boston centre however, is slightly older. “[These students] intend upon entry to the second year of an American degree [and] will benefit from feeling part of university campus life from the outset,” he observes.

IIn the UK, Jane Dancaster at Wimbledon School of English argues that studying at a private off-campus language centre can be beneficial in helping students acclimatise to the culture of their host country. While Rosie Ganne at the London School of English asserts that, as they work with a small number of students, they can adapt a programme and tailor it to suit individual needs. She also believes it is a distinct advantage not to be restricted to a certain university upon course completion. “We don’t narrow our students’ options by only working with one university, as we believe it is in our students’ best interests to have free and equal access to all UK universities, regardless of our relationship with them,” she explains.

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