Improving English channels

A course from the UK can’t simply be transplanted overseas even if the language used is the same, says Rebecca Hughes

April 10, 2014

The UK should benefit from the rise of English as a medium of instruction, but a degree cannot simply be transplanted

Language, culture and education systems are inextricably linked. Yet increasingly, the desire of ambitious higher education institutions to internationalise is leading to an “unbundling” of language, culture and education.

Driven by highly influential models of what a “great” university looks like, leaders of all kinds of tertiary institutions are adopting the model of the global research university, with its international flows of academics and students using a common language. That language is English. In Europe alone, there has been a 42 per cent increase in taught master’s programmes in English since 2011.

As teaching and scholarship in English grows, the temptation for the UK academy is to see this as an easy win. There are certainly clear benefits. A quarter of academic staff in the UK now come from non-English speaking countries; a common language is a tool that can take down barriers. But the model of the global research university is not the only model, or necessarily the best model, for higher education institutions. In the next 20 years, it will be teaching quality and the student environment for learning, whether online or face-to-face, that will define success for many universities – the role of the university as a grounded centre of learning serving the needs of society. And while research thrives on international perspectives, successful teaching and learning must be embedded in the local context.

The UK, the US, Canada and Australia are quite rightly envied for the quality of their English and anglophone culturally oriented degrees. However, as their universities expand their presence overseas through transnational education, massive open online courses, blended learning and other partnerships, issues of language and culture must be treated with more caution.

New research by the British Council that will be published later this month at Going Global, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international higher education, suggests that these hybrid teaching and learning environments are only going to become more prominent.

Of the 60 countries analysed in the study, English as a medium of instruction (EMI) is rapidly increasing in the majority of countries, especially in the private sector. But most of the countries studied lack official statements or policies on its introduction in the public education sector. Few have clear guidelines on the pedagogical approach to delivering education through EMI. Most teachers who are expected to use EMI are not native speakers, and there are no clear regulations on the level of English language competence required.

None of this is good news for teachers, learners or indeed the aims of education. Academics report not being able to use their mother tongue to write about their discipline; others find that while they have high-level academic English they feel that they are wrong-footed in their interactions with English speakers. Research has suggested that students giving a seminar in a second language can fail to express up to 25 per cent of what they would be able to explain in the same time in their first language.

As the trend towards teaching in English continues, the global higher education sector will require thousands of well-trained academics with a passion for teaching in English. With growing experience, they will provide new models of excellence. The UK should be well placed to benefit from the growth in EMI, as it has already benefited from the experience of teaching an influx of talented and well-prepared international students.

But we must also recognise that teaching in English to international students in the UK is very different from teaching in English to international students overseas. A degree cannot simply be transplanted from one setting to another or taught in a different language. While Moocs and EMI are powerful developments, they must be combined with the social and cultural strengths of a traditional bricks-and-mortar university. The UK’s higher education institutions must be prepared to transform their approach.

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