June 2005 issue

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A solid foundation

Many agents and educators report that demand is rising for academic preparation programmes, as the advantage gained by paying for better focused language preparation becomes increasingly apparent to students around the world. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

Foundation programmes - which combine academic studies in the subject area targeted by the student with language and aspects of preparation such as study skills - are much sought after by Russian students, according to Russian agent, Ekaterina Baykova of Mister Case Education Centre. And, according to Bianca Panizza, Director of the Centre for English Language Teaching at the University of Western Australia (UWA), "The competition to provide pathway programmes has increased enormously over the last two to three years."

While overall demand for academic preparation appears to fluctuate, both private language schools and university providers have been attentive to the potential of this sector of the market over the past few years, with many educators launching new programmes or updating and enhancing existing ones. Panizza's own institution offers English for academic purposes at both upper-intermediate and pre-advanced levels in modules of between five and 45 weeks. To complement this provision, it has recently launched 10- and 12-week bridging courses for prospective undergraduate and postgraduate students at UWA. Designed to prepare students for university studies, these incorporate "study skills and cultural awareness, critical thinking [and] development of academic English language."

Meanwhile, in January 2004, UK-based Anglolang Academy of English introduced a new university foundation programme. Students who complete the full 33-week course satisfactorily obtain a nationally recognised qualification, which opens doors to many universities, according to Business Development Manager, Sarah Wall. And the current popularity of foundation programmes is underlined by the fact that Aspect is currently launching its own foundation certificate - already on offer in other Aspect colleges - in Dublin, Ireland. In New Zealand, at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology's School of English Language, Barry McKessar observes, "Studying English alongside a lower level mainstream course is a popular choice, particularly when some courses carry credit for the targeted qualification."

Higher level

A major growth area at present is pre-Masters and pre-MBA courses, according to Rachel Kimber of Aspect College in Bournemouth, UK, whose school offers preparation for entry into the mainstream education sector at various levels, from high school to postgraduate. Wall, too, has observed an increase in demand for MBA preparation, for which she notes that Russians are the predominant nationality. This trend is also underlined by Colin Furness of the Italian-based agency, ALP. He notes limited demand for academic preparation in the form of "a small number of postgraduates seeking a Masters [education]".

Interest in postgraduate study preparation is not only booming for the English language sector. According to agent Martha Franco, General Manager at Study Abroad in the Czech Republic, other languages are particularly requested for postgraduate preparation programmes.

In the context of increased competition among academic preparation providers, it would be expected that quality and price would grow in importance. One quality aspect that has been highlighted by a number of providers is course validation – that is, the provision of external endorsement by a recognised body. According to Kimber, "Offering external assurance is vital. Universities are increasingly only accepting students from validated programmes." She goes on to explain, "University admission departments are more aware of the variety of preparation programmes [available] and are therefore seeking greater clarification of course content and admissions procedure."

Validation also provides reassurance to the students themselves, and in many cases, offers them a nationally recognised qualification. For example, Anglolang's University Foundation Programme has been validated by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance as an Access to Higher Education course for international students.

However, even those schools not offering validation by a particular university do relate that their students usually successfully enrol on a university course, often by applying as a local student would, with help from their language school.

University-based or private

Given the built-in advantage of many university-run programmes - they can offer a guarantee of a place on one of the institution's own degree courses, and provide first-hand experience of the university environment - some agents report a client preference for these programmes. This is most especially the case, as Furness points out, if the student has already been offered a provisional degree place. As Mark Herringer of Canada's Malaspina University College in British Columbia observes, "We have the very thing that students looking to enter university or high school cannot find at private language schools. That is exposure to the real world academic environment."

However, there are also strong arguments for choosing a private language school. In Baykova's experience, entry requirements tend to be higher for university-run programmes, excluding many from applying. Dunja Burger of Carl Duisberg Centren (CDC) in Germany confirms this impression, while noting that, "CDC's advantages are small groups, individual approach and better equipment."

For James Martin of OISE, Newbury Hall in the UK, the advantages of his private language school lie in its provision of welfare. "Generally, we put more emphasis on the individual than larger volume providers can do," he says. "We take a lot of trouble to develop an awareness of cultural differences and to plan and execute strategies for minimising the impact of these on student performance." Wall, meanwhile, believes that private language schools such as Anglolang attract a different clientele from university providers. "We tend to attract students who want a lot of attention and prefer a smaller provider," she says.

Cost and proficiency concerns

Academic preparation programmes are never going to be cheap. Baklova comments, "[They] are more expensive than long-stay general English courses, but they are specialised programmes and can't cost less." Juan Carlos Izquierdo of Alcalingua, Universidad de Alcalá in Spain, notes, "The price is not as important as the goal students want to achieve." However, as he points out, the University of Alcalá is publicly funded, which makes the cost of preparation easier to cope with. For others, like Herringer in Canada, "Price is always a factor [considered by students]."

Some nationalities, such as Latin Americans, are believed to be more price-sensitive than others. As a result, "unfortunately, many students make short-term decisions based on price, that may end up costing them more in the end," Herringer warns. Kimber also counsels against cheaper academic preparation programmes, which, she stresses, "may not offer the same level of student services or support".

One problem, according to McKessar, is that students can be unrealistic in their expectations. "Most students want immediate access to mainstream study programmes and want to succeed in these programmes. The two don't usually go together!" He points out that there is widespread concern about the varying levels of ability between international students who have met the same required Ielts level – a concern that has been well documented in the international media. Therefore, to ensure students' success in their degree programme, his institution has begun more careful monitoring of student progress throughout the course and, in some cases, has imposed higher requirements for entry to more demanding degrees.

Kathy Ellis, Centre Manager at US-based Eurocentres Foundation for European Language and Educational Centres, underlines that international students need to understand that language proficiency required for entry and to succeed at a foreign university is quite high. "Intermediate students will generally need to commit themselves fully to their studies for at least six months and often one full year, in order to attain the English proficiency required," she says. Although many continue to underestimate the time needed, Burger in Germany has noticed a trend for students to undertake longer stays.

While it is inevitable that some students will continue to try to cut corners and reduce costs, Herringer is optimistic for the future. "I think international students going into academic preparation programmes are beginning to understand that there is more to [them] than [just] test preparation. We see much more success from the graduates of our academic English programme," he affirms, "than those who just achieve the minimum test requirements without significant exposure to a North American academic learning experience."

Demand diversification

Traditionally, Asian countries, such as Korea, Taiwan and, more recently, China, have been at the forefront of demand for academic preparation programmes. As such, these nationalities predominate in most destinations, despite the dramatic decrease in numbers of Chinese over the past two years. According to Alice Hsu, Director of IT and Operations at Vancouver Premier College in Canada, most Taiwanese, Chinese and Koreans study English for academic preparation purposes. At Eurocentres Foundation for European Language and Educational Centres in the USA, where around 30 per cent of students take academic preparation, Kathy Ellis reports a preponderance of Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese. Meanwhile, the profile at the Centre for English Language Teaching at the University of Western Australia features mainly Saudi Arabian, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Indonesian, Taiwanese and, interestingly, French students.

According to James Martin of UK-based OISE, Newbury Hall – where Chinese, Russians and Arabs are the main nationalities registering for academic preparation - shortage of local university education is often a factor in the pattern of demand. Rachel Kimber of Aspect College in Bournemouth, UK, also observes that students from countries where there is no equivalent to the UK final year of high school (age 17-to-18) tend to form the main market. This means basically those from outside Europe and the main English-speaking countries of the world. For some nationalities, such as Chinese, adds Kimber, visa issues provide an additional motivation - with the likelihood of obtaining a visa being enhanced for university-bound candidates.

Kimber notes that the nationality profile for academic preparation is becoming more diverse. Increasing numbers are coming to her school from the Baltic states, particularly Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. This is in large part thanks to the recent expansion of the European Union (EU). As she explains, "EU students pay the same as UK students, ie, about UK£1,500 (US$2,830) per year. For countries like Latvia, this has meant a big reduction in fees – before joining the EU, students paid between UK£6,000-8,000 (US$11,320-15,049) per year."

Although English is still in greatest demand when it comes to academic preparation courses, other languages are also requested. One notable trend at Carl Duisberg Centren in Germany, according to spokesperson Dunja Burger, is a rise in the number of Asian students requesting academic preparation courses – which may well be because university fees are only just being introduced in some German states (see Education Travel Magazine, May 2005, page 49). "Only a few [students] are confident enough to apply to a university alone," she explains, "so they come to a private [language] school where they receive support from staff and students."

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