May 2011 issue

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Secure for success

Academic preparation, foundation and pathway programmes all claim to equip a student with the study skills they will need to ensure onward success at university. The range of options is vast, but any good programme will aim to position students linguistically, culturally and academically to ensure not only acceptance into a university but ultimate graduation. Amy Baker reports.

How best to prepare students for academic success overseas is a hotly-debated topic in the international education industry, which can engender strong views and polarity of viewpoint. In one corner, language schools believe they are flexible in delivery and well positioned to augment language skills and offer unbiased academic counselling about onward study goals; in the other corner, universities feel that an on-campus foundation programme that enables students to get to know the university campus scene and receive bespoke training for their subsequent degree is always going to be a superior option.

Sarah Greatorex of Colchester English Study Centre in the UK gets the ball rolling: “I think this [sector] will continue to be a battleground between language schools and universities. However, I am convinced that language schools offer a better preparation for Ielts,” she says, “and if Ielts is an [entry] requirement, then students are better advised to do their preparation year in a language school. Students often complain that they are not taught any language in foundation years.”

In the same corner as Greatorex is James Rice, Director of Connect School of Languages in Canada. He argues a point made by many language schools that are not affiliated to any particular university: that they offer better unbiased counselling to ensure a student is matched with an appropriate university. “Coming to a language school, taking a programme like ours and then researching the various schools is a much better option and much more cost efficient,” he claims. “You must find a college/university that matches your personality. You can’t do that until you see the place, the city, the atmosphere and especially their international student departments.”

Rice is also a great advocate for the foundation programme, full stop. He points out that “Many agents ask ‘what is the percentage of your students that get in to college after your programme?’.... what they need to ask is ‘how many students successfully graduate after our programme.” He says that Connect School of Languages has a 100 per cent success rate. “They never fail after taking our programme. The reason is that we treat them like a university student with the same expectations and similar styles. If they can’t handle our teaching and programme, they are not ready for university life. We are very serious about this point.”

However, while Rice and Greatorex make some valid arguments, Caroline Gear, Director of the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in the USA, does acknowledge that students often like the reassurance of having a conditional offer before they embark on their academic journey overseas. She relates that as a private institution, they can offer conditional acceptance to a number of partner institutions: “Students do prefer to have a conditional placement as choosing a school is a difficult task. If they have conditional acceptance, they can focus on their academic preparation without the hassle of choosing and applying to schools.”

Representing the public sector is David Quinn, ALP Director at Columbia University in New York, USA. He states, “Learning on this campus offers the advantage of membership in an academic and social community”. And Dajana Trapara of Bow Valley College in Canada, adds to this: “[Students] have resources available to them including the library, computer labs, student advisors, counsellors, tutors and much more. Students feel at ease when they start off their studies... because of smaller classroom sizes, international classmates. This helps them ease into the larger classrooms later on where they will be studying together with domestic students.”

At Niagara College, also in Canada, David Oancia also points out that his university offers a College Exploration Program, for students who do not have a clear idea about their future academic path. “This offers students the ability to explore a variety of interests... as well as hone English capabilities within an academic Canadian setting.”

At a recent Languages Canada conference, many public sector language teaching institutions were debating the development of the pathway programmes market and stating that they felt a) that no other institution could prepare students as well as they could for life at the university and b) in some cases, they had to convince their own Vice Chancellors about this point, faced with competition from private companies – such as Navitas, Into University Partnerships, Kaplan, etc – all of whom are developing international study centres on campus with public sector partners.

This is the third option available for study travel advisors and students to consider; opting for private sector provision on a university campus. Study Group is one of the companies that now operates International Study Centres on-campus. Brendan Webb, Sales and Marketing Director at Study Group UK, claims, “Our university partners frequently tell us that our students are performing better than international students who have been recruited directly.”

Clearly, advisors need to know what is important to their client and in which study scenario they would be most likely to thrive. Being on-campus seems to be one definite advantage that is touted by the on-campus operations, but private schools can offer a personalised service, high levels of welfare and the ability to select a good-fit degree programme after embarking on an academic preparation course.

Timothy Blake, Managing Director of the London School of English, acknowledges that it is a competitive market. “There is no doubt that smaller providers face increasing competition from large campus-based organisations, but we know that the very personal service that we provide is much valued.” And Dr Ines Molinaro, Course Director at St Clare’s, Oxford, states that their position – whereby they do not guarantee an offer from any university – “has not hindered enrolment”, despite some agents and students seeking such assurance. He elaborates, “All students who have successfully completed the UFC [university foundation programme] programme have secured a place on a university degree course. Also, EAS [English plus Academic Subjects] students have received and taken up offers for university degree courses in the US or the UK.”

One appeal for a university teaming up with a private school operation to work together is access to their enhanced marketing machine and global reach. James Fuller represents Navitas, another private education provider that works on campus. He states that there is ample room in the market for all, given the burgeoning demand and need for academic preparation programmes. “There is huge unmet demand for preparation and foundation courses due to a younger demographic profile in many countries and increasing household wealth.” He adds that OECD states that there were around three million students studying overseas in 2007 and that this might grow to eight million by 2025.

“A lot of students don’t quite make higher education entry requirements in many countries due to the need to improve academic or maths levels and public universities just cannot meet demand.”

As well as ensuring that students meet higher education entry requirements, a good academic preparation course does far more than that. Keith Pollard, Principal of Harrogate Tutorial College, warns, “Too many foundation programmes are glorified EFL courses, with little academic content”.

Nichole Paris, Director of International Admissions and Student Services at Rennert in the USA, states that their course combines cultural orientation, English language training and study skills. “Studying on an American college campus is a one-of-a-kind experience, but if a student is not prepared for the cultural particularities of American college life, our education system and the potential challenges they face in being in a foreign environment, far from home, their chances for success can be significantly diminished,” she states.

Rennert’s programme is the University Access Program (UAP). Paris explains, “The programme includes intensive English training and Toefl preparation (if necessary), academic reading, research techniques, writing and revising research papers, oral presentations, cultural awareness and critical analysis; all skills necessary for success in an American college degree programme.”

Students also receive one-to-one academic advising and have opportunities to visit college campuses and talk to college admissions staff on-site, although Paris acknowledges that many of their students obtain a conditional acceptance to a university or college before embarking on the UAP. “This is something that we offer in partnership with [another company] ISES.”

Gear at ILI stresses that students must become used to the strenuous academic demands that will be made on them at university. “We feel, aside from learning English, one of the greatest challenges for students... is managing the volume of work assigned in a degree programme. Having a rigorous foundation programme that reflects the workload and academic culture... will ensure they are successful students when they transition to the next step.”

And working in an academic environment requires the acquisition of a particular academic vocabulary, as Natalie Dawe at Bell observes. She cites a former Bell student who said of their University Foundation programme, “It is a demanding programme with lots of research. In addition to the subject modules, I’ve also found the academic skills helpful. I’ve learned how to write and structure essays, how to take notes, and learned new academic words in English.”

Academic preparation programmes vary greatly in length, composition and name. Bell offers English plus Academic Preparation; University Foundation programme and also Masters preparation. The first is a modular course, whereas the second is a full-time two or three-term programme. Paul McMahon at Skola in the UK says, “I think that it is important to differentiate between a Foundation programme and a Pathway programme. Foundation programmes are subject specific, eg Business, whereas Pathway programmes prepare students firstly in English language and Ielts exam preparation and then give students the academic skills they need – writing essays, listening and taking notes in a lecture environment, how to make reading easier.”

Denver Craig, Director of Think: Class in Australia, part of the Think Education Group, attests that in terms of advising students, “It is difficult for agents, considering the range of courses available in the marketplace.”

What Think: Class has done that is unique is to offer an academic programme that is taught at a student’s destination college and not in a separate learning centre. Craig explains, “Students are, therefore, enrolled in their final pathway college and not in an international programme in a separate English college. This allows the students to be immersed in the college from the beginning, meeting like-minded students that will be studying the same discipline as theirs. [They] participate in discipline based lessons, while improving their English, meeting new friends and settling into their new environment.”

Craig says that years of experience in this field led Think: Class to realise that ensuring students felt a good fit with their contemporaries led to greater retention rates and more motivated students during a 10- or 15-week preparatory course. “For example, we realised that design students prefer to be with the same – they need to be creative and motivated within their field of study. This greatly influences the learning outcome.”

Another programme model is one whereby students begin their foundation programme at a language centre but complete it while already at a tertiary institution. This is offered at East Coast School of Languages (ECSL) in Canada, for example. Its University Achievement Pathway (UAP) enables direct entry into any university in Nova Scotia and one in Prince Edward Island. Sheila Nunn at the school explains, “Each level takes three months to complete so depending on initial assessment, students may study the UAP for nine months full-time.” In the final three months, students are already at university studying one or two credit courses while completing the UAP part-time at ECSL: “This means they have one foot in the door of university while still receiving support from ECSL. These two elements – starting at a low level to build knowledge steadily and systematically and studying part-time at ECSL and part-time at university for the final three months – are critical success factors.”

Success, of course, is ultimately signalled by a student’s subsequent graduation. Nunn says, “Our students frequently come back to tell us how well they are doing and the grades they achieve.”

The advisor’s place in the distribution chain

With such a panpoply of programmes available, and so many countries to choose from, the academic preparation market is a minefield for education advisors, but many educators acknowledge that agents and advisors play a crucial role in the distribution chain.

Steve Phillips, Director of Internexus at Regent’s College in London, UK, says, “Agencies are vital for many overseas markets; especially those whose students have lower levels of English. They act as an important bridge between ourselves and the student.” He states that among those advisors who actively recruit for pathway programmes, there is a “good understanding of what the market offers and what is in the best interests of their customers”, adding, “We also offer agent training and visit our agents overseas to update them on new programmes and developments.”

Timothy Blake, Managing Director of the London School of English, adds his endorsement. “I am often very impressed by the professionalism and dedication of our agents in this sector,” he says. “It’s a huge job for them to become familiar with the wide range of options and to make the connections necessary to be able to make placements, but some of them are both expert and well-connected; they are also well aware of the factors that lead to success.”

In Spain, Bob Burger of Malaca Instituto, which provides programmes preparing students for further and higher education in Spain, says, “Agents are usually crucial in helping students, especially from the markets more distant from Spain and especially when visas are required!” He says that very often, a direct student enquiry will be fielded back to an agent in their country.

Anthony Stille of English School of Canada in Toronto also operates a similar policy. “All students are referred to a partner agency in their city,” he says, adding, “It is crucial that partner schools and agencies work together to ensure that students’ expectations are realistic and achievable.”

Most educators report that they get a majority of bookings for this sector via education advisors – Blake says 75 per cent of bookings come via agencies, including government agencies such as the Saudi Cultural Bureau.

However, word-of-mouth recommendation can lead to many direct enquiries at some institutions. This is the case at Internexus, as Phillips testifies. “Many students enrol directly with us, mostly through word-of-mouth or alumni networks. Referrals are one of our highest sources of students, especially from some parts of the world.”

At Study Group, although agents worldwide form a “signficant part of the process” – and receive support and training to keep them up-to-date about products and services – direct applications are now also being channelled via institutional websites that the company partners with, such as www.sussex.ac.uk/isc. Brendan Webb, Sales and Marketing Director at Study Group UK, reports, “We are shortly to launch an online application form. A team of Student Enrolment Advisors is available both in Brighton and locally in-market to advise and support these students.”
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