May 2007 issue

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Academic preparation and foundation courses that prepare international students for studies in a different country can be invaluable in helping them make the transition from novice to confident and successful student, yet there is a lack of transparency in the sector and a lack of understanding from some agency clients as to the inherent value of such courses. Gillian Evans reports.

To arm today’s international student with the necessary tools to succeed at a university or college overseas, there is a whole raft of academic preparation (AP) and foundation courses that combine language learning with academic skills training. As Victoria Donnelly, International Recruitment Officer at Newcastle College in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, points out, “degree courses can be very expensive and extremely hard work so it is important that the student be well prepared for them”.

Jeanette Gallina, Director of Studies at the Young People’s Language School of Canada in Ottawa, ONT, Canada, sums up what such courses can offer international students: “[Our new foundation programme] bridges the gap between completing high school in the home country and beginning university in an English-speaking country both linguistically and cognitively,” she relates. “It offers students with excellent high school records but weaker English skills the opportunity to improve their proficiency in the language, and students with solid English skills and good high school record to acquire more content knowledge in the basic subject area to increase their [grade point average].”

While some schools, such as Gallina’s, are moving into this area for the first time, other education centres have been fine-tuning their AP provision for a number of years. The International Centre for English Language Studies (Icels) at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, UK has been running such programmes for 15 years. “They were introduced because of the need for international students to have a comparable educational background and preparation as UK students,” explains Ciccie Feng at the centre, underlining that such programmes “allow the students to get the most benefit” from their undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Jungle of courses

Broadly speaking, there are two types of course: first, academic preparation programmes, which are generally less than six months in duration and incorporate language exams, such as Ielts or Toefl, and some academic skills tuition; and second, foundation courses, which can take up to one year to complete, incorporate lots of academic skills classes, often including attendance at lectures, and are accepted as a substitute for the final year of high school education. Successful graduates of a foundation year are guaranteed a degree place at the same institution at which they were studying (if appropriate) or easy access to the institution of their choice.

But within these broad definitions, individual courses vary widely. Webster University in Bangkok, Thailand runs English language courses that not only claim to improve language skills, increase Toefl scores and show students how to write “grade A” academic essays, but also earn the student credits towards their bachelor’s degree.

At the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, NSW, Australia, students can take one of four foundation programmes, lasting between nine and 12 months. According to Margaret Drury, Manager of Marketing Operations of UNSW Foundation Year, each offers “both a university entry qualification and an excellent preparation for undergraduate study”. UNSW foundation courses are full academic programmes in which students are allocated to one of several “streams” depending on the university programme they wish to follow. “Successful students continue on mainly to our own university, UNSW, but are accepted by all other Australian and New Zealand universities,” relates Drury.

In the UK, Frances King School of English in London offers a nine-month foundation programme – or a six month fast-track version for those with a higher English proficiency – which, according to the school’s Paula Bailey, has six modules: business studies, economics, IT, British culture and university life, academic English and Ielts. The school also offers a pre-Masters programme and a flexible semester and academic year course, which students with an elementary level of English can participate in, and new enrolments are accepted each month.

Private language schools can often offer shorter academic preparation courses. LAL Group of Schools, which has language centres in five countries, set up an academic preparation course at its UK, Malta and US centres specifically for students “whose long-term study goal is entry to a university in the UK, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, where a high score in the Ielts exam is required”, says John Dimech at LAL. The course duration ranges from four to 12 weeks and includes “practice in important skills university-bound students require such as essay writing, lecture note taking, etc”.

As evidenced in the snapshot of courses above, there is a bewildering range of foundation and AP programmes available, and not all include the same components. Tatiana Mokhova, Director of York Group Educational Services agency in Russia, points out, “Some AP/ foundation [courses] are merely language programmes with minimum academic involvement.”

In the UK, action has been taken by a group of English UK members to develop a standard framework for foundation programmes that prepare international students for further education in the UK (see Language Travel Magazine, April 2007, page 7). The framework developed is intended to serve as a guideline for foundation course providers and stipulates various areas that should be included in foundation courses such as academic study and communication skills; subject study that is typical of final year of high school; and an external examination such as Ielts.

To navigate the plethora of such courses in other countries, students can find themselves relying on the professional discretion of their education counsellor or language travel agent as to the efficacy of each particular course and its suitability for their needs.

Demand demographics

While the main English-speaking countries teach the lion’s share of international students embarking upon education overseas, other destinations are also becoming increasingly popular study destinations for international students. Germany and Denmark, for example, have attracted increasing numbers of overseas students in recent years thanks largely to the free university education they used to offer foreign nationals. This changed in Denmark last year, although a university degree for non-European Union (EU) students can still be cheaper there than, for example, in the UK (see Language Travel Magazine, January 2007, page 51). Some states in Germany have also just introduced fees for non-EU students (see page 35).

When it comes to academic preparation or foundation programmes in some of these countries, provision can be patchy. The University of Copenhagen in Denmark, for example, has around 1,500 international students on its books but does not offer an academic preparation course as such. John Andersen, Director of International Affairs, says, “We do offer a growing number of our international students Danish language and culture preparation courses, and the interest for this service has grown considerably during the last [couple of] years.”

In Germany, the Goethe Institut offers a four- or eight-week “Campus Intensiv” programme specifically designed for international students wanting to study at German universities and many private schools are active in this domain too. Increasingly, German universities are also developing their own academic preparation courses. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich, Germany, launched its academic preparation course, called Profis, in October 2005. Raffaella Delli Santi at LMU explains, “There has been a major study in Germany showing that international students have problems adapting easily to the German academic system and are losing precious time during their studies – and as a consequence, quitting before they have a degree because they don’t succeed in time.”

She explains that Profis was created as a pre-semester course that teaches both the German language and academic working and writing. “In the latter [section], students also learn more about the system here itself, where to find what at the university; they are advised and integrated into the student community to adapt to the new culture/environment,” she says.

Growth prospects for the sector

Despite the steady stream of demand for overseas education and the increasing number of countries developing their education export sectors, there are certain factors that stand in the way of growth for university pathway programmes. Christiane Carry at the Université de Franche Comte in Besançon, France, which offers both AP and foundation courses, says, “Two factors are hampering [the] growth of both courses: visa issuance problems for non-EU students, and the high [value] of the euro versus the US dollar.” However, she adds that France has a big draw over many other destinations: “university tuition fees are much lower in France than in the USA [for example]”.

Feng in the UK agrees that cost, coupled with visas, are the most important factors for students when selecting an academic study destination. “Pricing is a big issue plus visa regulations in different countries, and the competition from other popular education destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, and North America, are also very important factors.”

Another barrier to the growth of this sector are the students themselves. Some students do not believe they need to take an AP or foundation programme, as they feel their language proficiency is sufficient – and of course, university pathway programmes do not come cheap either. For example, to study on a three-term foundation programme at Bellerby’s College in the UK – a well established private provider in this sector – the cost is UK£12,690 (US$25,116).

While some students feel this is an investment in their future, others feel they can do without it. As Dinah Carvalho at Kangaroo Tours agency in Brazil observes, “Brazilian students tend to think their English is better than it actually is. We have had cases of students saying they don’t need an AP course having a hard time [adapting] to the Australian education methodology, whereas those that have done the programmes have a smoother transition.”

However, Mokhova in Russia argues that AP and foundation courses are not necessarily beneficial for all students. “For some students, they are useful, but not always,” she suggests. “Some kids at 17 years old are not yet prepared for an independent life, but this is totally dependent on the student, as others are very mature, with good Ielts scores and a decent academic standing.”

Pooroosautma Mootoosamy at Excel Education Services in Mauritius believes AP and foundation programmes are extremely useful for his clients. “[Undertaking such a programme] helps in getting into top universities,” he asserts, reporting that about 30 per cent of clients take such courses.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, Ben Chang, Director of UR Edu & Info Co., states that there is a lack of awareness among students of such courses, which is holding back demand. “[University pathway programmes are] not so popular because most students do not know about them and [even after they have been told about them] most of them prefer to go to study at undergraduate school straight away,” he says. However, if agents can equip themselves with knowledge of a highly effective range of academic preparation and foundation programmes in various countries, and students are counselled about the intrinsic benefits of such an approach, this sector surely holds considerable promise for the future. Clearly, those experienced in working in this area can testify that the money spent on good preparation can mean more satisfied – and successful – clients.

University or private language school?

As AP and foundation programmes prepare students for studies at a university, many students have traditionally favoured taking such courses at the institution at which they intend to study afterwards.

Dinah Carvalho at Kangaroo Tours agency in Brazil reports, “Usually students choose to do an AP at the university they wish to study, mostly because they will be in the same environment they will do their formal course, but also because some institutions do accept their academic preparation programme as a way for entry into the university.”

Tatiana Mokhova at York Group Educational Services in Russia reports a similar trend among her clients. “In most cases students prefer a foundation [course] run by the university as they think it gives them priority during the admission process,” she relates.

As foundation courses usually include an element of academic study, some university sources argue that they are best placed to deliver them. “The University of Leeds International Foundation Year is taught on the University of Leeds campus by members of staff from the university,” affirms John Uren, Director of the International Foundation Year there. “This means that the students are taught by university academic staff and are considered to be exactly the same as conventional undergraduate students – they are entitled to exactly the same privileges.”

However, private language schools counter that they are the experts in language tuition. “Foundation courses fall outside of the realm of university level study and UK education establishments naturally provide university preparation more suitable for UK students and native speakers, rather than international students,” claims Mark Henwood at MLS International College in Bournemouth in the UK.

Sarah Greatorex, Principal at Colchester English Study Centre in Colchester in the UK, agrees. “I think language schools provide the best preparation, but universities are

trying hard to take the academic preparation courses away from language schools,” she says. “The universities are not so able to stream students according to level and provide such focused training.” Henwood also argues that taking a course at a language school can enable students to be more flexible. “MLS’ experience is that students may come to the UK with fixed ideas of what and where they wish to study, but after a year in the UK, may often change their perspective,” he says. “Foundation courses need to offer choice for students, bridging them to a wide range of university courses, both in subject content and geographically.”

Victoria Donnelly at Newcastle College, Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, suggests that colleges as well as private language schools are also better placed to advise students on their onward academic plans. “Studying a foundation programme at a college gives you a lot more flexibility than a university because after this six-month or nine-month course you can then choose which university you want to study at,” she says, “whereas if you study your foundation at a university you are then tied to that university for your three-year degree course.”

To bridge the gap between university and language programme, many language schools have joined up with universities

to enable students to enjoy the best of both providers. For example, at Frances King School of English in London, UK, students on the foundation programme visit Roehampton University to attend lectures and learn how to make maximum use of a university library.

Last year, LAL was appointed an official agent of the University of Malta to facilitate applications from non-EU students. “[We have] teamed up with the university to offer pathway programmes to meet the needs of university-bound students who can enrol on preparation programmes for up to six months to reach the required Ielts score,” reports John Dimech at the school.

University or private language school?

The nationality breakdown of AP and foundation classes reflect the main student overseas nationalities that enrol at universities in a provider country, and factors such as costs or visa access determine who studies where. Dinah Carvalho at Kangaroo Tours agency in Brazil says that among their clients, Australia and New Zealand are the most popular destinations for foundation and AP programmes and mainstream academic studies. She explains that this is because “Brazilian students can work for 20 hours per week while they are on a student visa” and also because universities in Australia have a good reputation.

In the Russian language travel market, the UK is most popular, according to Tatiana Mokhova at York Group Educational Services in Russia, “due to its academic reputation and geographical closeness” and this is in spite of the fact that all Russian students are required to complete a foundation year, as their high school exams are not accepted. “Our students are successfully being accepted by American and Canadian universities but need an extra year – if not two – to be able to enter a British university,” says Mokhova. Surprisingly, she says, “It doesn’t make the UK less attractive [to Russians].”

For Pooroosautma Mootoosamy’s clients at Excel Education Services in Mauritius it is the ease of access that has made Ireland their top academic destination. “It is easy to get a part-time job [there],” he says, “and holders of a Mauritian passport do not require a visa to enter the Republic of Ireland.” AP and foundation course providers in a range of countries report that China ranks as one of the main sources of international students, although many schools have experienced a drop in demand from this country in recent years. Trish Cooper, Course Coordinator at Wits Language School in Johannesburg, South Africa, reports that although Chinese still make up their single largest nationality group, their numbers have slowed in recent years. “We now tend to have fewer Chinese students and more students from Turkey and Brazil than in previous years,” she says.

Jacqueline Dunkerton at Scarborough International School in the UK also notes a “dramatic” drop in Chinese numbers enrolling on their academic preparation programme. She ventures, “There is a better provision for Ielts training in China and the Chinese government is encouraging students to stay there to study.”

Paula Bailey at Frances King School of English in the UK adds, “There are many reasons for the drop in Chinese students – more university places available in China; difficulties in getting a visa to the UK; and competition from UK university foundation programmes which can offer easier entry on to degree courses.”

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