May 2013 issue

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Ticket to University: academic preparation

Although on-campus academic preparation programmes for international students are not a new trend, much has changed in the university ESL landscape over the last couple of decades, with joint-venture operations between universities and private operators mushrooming throughout the world. Gillian Evans looks at the changing face of on-campus ESL provision.

As social and economic factors enable more students to study overseas to gain a high quality education, demand for English for academic purposes (EAP) programmes continues to grow. Enticed by the ever increasing consumer base, it is not only private off-campus language schools that are expanding into EAP, but universities themselves are also increasingly entering the fray, as Brad Van Den Elzen, Director of the International Students and Scholars Office at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point in the USA, points out. “As public universities see funding declines, alternative revenue streams become increasingly important,” he says. “Intensive English as a second language (ESL) programmes provide a stable pipeline for international students and can be run responsibly while generating a modest amount of unencumbered revenue.” These days, on-campus ESL provision is either wholly run by the university itself or, increasingly, in partnership with a privately owned operator.

One of the many universities worldwide that has formed collaborative partnerships for the running of its ESL provision is the University of Canterbury (UC) in New Zealand. It has signed deals with two private operators, Navitas, which is to provide foundation programmes alongside UC, and CCEL, which will offer courses to prepare students linguistically for studying either at Nativas or UC. Rob McKay, CCEL’s Managing Director, explains how their partnership with UC works: “We offer a complete range of courses including English for Academic Purposes which leads directly into UC’s foundation or degree courses – the EAP courses are moderated by UC and there is no external examination. The courses are 12 weeks and include language and study skills for tertiary study as well as an intensive focus on examination skills and strategies.”

UC’s other partner, Navitas, is one of the trailblazers in university partnership programmes, having set up its first deal with Edith Cowen University in Australia in the early 1990s. It now has 30 operational university programme colleges around the world with the aforementioned UC International College at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and an international college at Birmingham City University in the UK scheduled to open in the next 18 months.“Through its English Division, Navitas has been delivering English programmes for more than 30 years and utilises courses and expertise from across a network of colleges and campuses to develop and deliver its programmes,” explains Annette Madjarian, Navitas spokesperson. In addition to its English division, Navitas runs SAE, which deals with audio, film and creative media education in Australia, the USA, the UK, and Europe, and its Professional Division, which is involved in vocational and higher education programmes in health, psychology and criminal justice.

Another company to specialise in “collaborative relationship building” with universities is Into. Since 2006, Into has formed joint-venture partnerships with universities in the UK, USA, Canada and China, to operate on-campus study centres. According to Into’s website, “The Into partnership model enables universities to avoid the pitfalls of outsourcing, allowing them to stimulate external investment without relinquishing control of their brand, academic quality or student experience”. Into currently has 10 partnerships in the UK, four in the USA, and three in China.

For universities, such partnerships can offer a lifeline to their international student strategies. For example, the University of Gloucestershire, which is Into’s newest partnership in the UK, is hoping to stymie its dwindling overseas student numbers through its deal with Into to provide its academic preparation and foundation courses. The university hopes that through Into’s comprehensive network of overseas recruiters, promoting not only Into’s range of academic preparation programmes but also the university’s degree courses, international student numbers will begin to rise again.

To outsource or not to outsource

The trend towards the outsourcing of ESL provision at universities has gained momentum in recent years and McKay believes this working model offers students distinct advantages. “We see the combination of high quality specialist providers as giving the optimum result for students,” he asserts. “UC has a world-class reputation for its teaching and research at tertiary level; CCEL has proven its excellence as an English language school with an extensive network of high quality agents. There is great strength in combining our areas of expertise and promoting our courses side by side.”

Madjarian also believes that the partnership between a university and a specialist ESL provider allows each to concentrate on their areas of expertise. By outsourcing, she says, “There is focused management on a type of business that is not traditionally university based.”

But Rupert Herington, Director of the Academic English component of the International Foundation Year programme & Marketing Coordinator for the Language Centre at the University of Leeds in the UK, highlights the advantages of universities running their own language and academic preparation centres. “Although there has been some outsourcing of EFL at British universities, it has been advantageous to the University of Leeds to have a well-established language centre in order to assist in the recruitment of international students to the institution and at the same time to provide high-levels of support to international students when they are studying at the university,” he asserts. “The fact that the teaching staff are professionals in English for academic purposes with significant experience of working collaboratively with other departments in the university is hugely advantageous to our students.”

While more players edge into the academic preparation sector, there is a danger, says Herington, of patchy standards. “The outsourcing of EFL in the tertiary sector may lead to further fragmentation in the sector,” he ventures. “Differentials between the levels of resourcing and expertise from centre to centre could affect the quality of provision provided to international students.”

On-campus benefits

These issues aside, there are several benefits for students of studying on a university campus, including having contact with the university’s student population, access to great facilities and the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars by experts in their academic field of interest. There is also the added plus for those students intending to continue their studies at that university of getting used to university life.

Listing some of the advantages of studying on their campus, Nadia Redman, Assistant Director of Admissions & Recruitment at the University of Delaware English Language Institute (ELI) in the USA, says, “Being part of the university community gives our students access to all of the university’s facilities and resources. Our students can have the ‘real’ American university experience. They can work part-time in any department on campus, attend sports matches, use the on-campus exercise facilities and swimming pools, etc.”

UK-based Kings Colleges has both on- and off-campus operations. Andrew Green, Kings Colleges Director, believes that there are advantages of both scenarios. “We find the off-campus model to be very successful in the UK. For many international students, particularly those from Asian countries, the prospect of being on campus right from the start can be very daunting. Culturally, there is often a large amount of adjustment required, and immersing yourself in a UK campus environment from the start can be overwhelming. For this reason, it can be far better for students to spend a year not only honing their English and academic skills, but also acclimatising to UK life in a supportive, personalised environment so that they are in a better position to cope with campus life, and to focus on their studies, when they start at university.”

In the USA, Kings Colleges does operate on-campus centres, but Green says these are on smaller campuses by design. “This provides a good basic grounding in US university life, before students transfer across to bigger universities with bigger class sizes and less personalised contact. With all of these programmes, Kings have on-campus staff in place to ensure that students have on-going support and personal attention, thus providing the best of both worlds.”

Many on-campus English language programmes combine language tuition with subject specific lessons to prepare students for their future academic field of interest. The Language Centre at the University of Leeds, for example, runs a range of academic preparation programmes, including academic English for postgraduate studies, for business and management, and the ‘InterComm’ - designed for students intending to join a Master’s programme in communication studies, politics, international relations, languages, translation and related fields. Outlining course content, Herington says, “All of the courses at the Language Centre contain tailor-made content, which is designed to focus on the students’ needs and future study or work requirements. On the English for academic purposes pre-sessional courses, instructional materials are designed to provide an introduction to specific subject areas and sample lectures are provided by staff from different departments at the university.”

Ticket to university

Many EAP programmes provide a smooth pathway into university courses, with successful completion leading straight into university degree programmes. At the University of Delaware’s ELI, Redman says, “Our students can be conditionally admitted to our university programmes, which means that they would never have to take a Toefl exam prior to matriculating.”

Van Den Elzen reports that as the University of Wisconsin operates its own ESL programme, students can benefit from “a seamless experience as they transition from language to undergraduate study”. He adds, “We offer conditional admission to undergraduate study through our ESL programme so students can put their minds at ease regarding university entry.”

Taking this a step further, Kings Colleges has recently set up programmes in the USA that enable students to complete a full degree in four years, which includes either one or two years of English tuition. Green explains, “The ‘1+3’ programmes, offered at Pine Manor College and Canisius College, enable students to complete the first year of their degree in a small campus setting, with dedicated Kings staff on campus to provide them with ongoing English and study skills tuition, and personalised support. They benefit from having main subject classes with American students, and are taught by faculty staff from the university. During this year, they earn enough university credits to transfer directly on to the second year of a course at a range of universities.”

Kaplan offers a similar course, as Kaplan’s Elizabeth Hess explains: “Our English language programmes form part of a Foundation Certificate, International Year One or Pre-Masters programme. Although students don’t earn university credits, they are guaranteed a place on the first or second year at the ‘host’ university in the UK if they successfully complete their course to the required level. They are then on track to graduate with their degree after completing their university course.”

In conclusion, with the establishment of further joint ventures almost certainly on the cards and new English for academic purposes providers, as well as the increasing range of targeted programmes on offer, it is clear that, for international students, the choice of academic preparation has never been greater.

Student origin

Reflecting the trends in the mainstream education sector, academic preparation courses tend to attract Middle Eastern and Asian students. When talking about key student nationalities at the University of Wisconsin’s International Students and Scholars Office in the USA, Brad Van Den Elzen reports an increase in Saudi Arabian students in recent years – largely fuelled by scholarships – while Chinese, South Korean and Colombian numbers remained steady.

Nadia Redman at the University of Delaware’s ELI in the USA reports that their top student countries of origin are Saudi Arabia, China and Korea. “These three nationalities have switched places over the past few years due to the global economy, the availability of scholarship programmes, availability of student visas, and new programme offerings in our department,” she observes.

Rob McKay at CCEL in New Zealand reports significant numbers from Japan, Korea, China and South America. He notes that Saudi student numbers have been low since the earthquakes in Christchurch but that confidence is expected to return soon.

In the UK, Rupert Herington at the Language Centre at the University of Leeds mentions high demand from Asian countries and the Gulf, but he adds that although in terms of nationality trends little has changed, they are finding that fewer students are enrolling, who have low level English language skills and who plan to study with them for a long period such as a year.


As well as benefiting from the use of on-campus facilities, many on campus ESL centre students are also provided with the same accommodation choices as mainstream university students. At the University of Wisconsin in the USA, for example, on-campus housing comprises shared double rooms or apartments with private bedrooms and shared living areas, while at the University of Delaware off-campus apartments, inn-style living, and homestay with an American family are offered. “All of our housing options are fully furnished and include access to kitchens, cable, electricity and the Internet - all included in a single rental bill,” adds Nadia Redman, at the University of Delaware’s English Language Institute.

Green at Kings Colleges says their students generally have the choice between host family provision or residential accommodation. Looking at accommodation trends, he says, “We have noticed a greater move towards catered and self-catering residences in particular, and as such have built a new residence in Bournemouth, and new ones in Boston and London are due to follow.”

Marketing moves

To target prospective clients, academic preparation providers use a whole armoury of strategies. “We use a cross-section of marketing tools to promote our pathways,” confirms Andrew Green, Director of Kings Colleges, which has centres in the UK and USA. “In-country visits from recruitment teams, university road shows within key source markets, agent fam trips, main brochures, print advertising [and] student testimonials including video diaries. We work with a trusted group of agents and educational consultants across the world, with representatives across all regions, [but] are also focussing more on the direct channel via online recruitment initiatives.”

CCEL in New Zealand also relies on its agent network, as well as working in conjunction with its partner, the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, at workshops and student fairs. Rupert Herington at the Language Centre at the University of Leeds also mentions agents as an important part of their marketing mix, but says they too market the university as a whole. “Our courses are part of the ‘overall offer’ to students wishing to study at the university,” he says.

“Extensive overseas travel to study abroad fairs, presentations, and promotion to bi-national centres” also feature heavily in the University of Delaware’s ELI, according to Nadia Redman at the US-based university. They also work in close contact with their agent partners, for example, co-exhibiting at fairs and forwarding local leads to them.

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