Nick Woods reports on the English language courses that are a boon for universities' coffers and culture
"Everyone speaks English anyway." That is the typical argument British people use to avoid learning a foreign language. It is an excuse that puts the nation to shame, especially as some universities are now being forced to cancel first-year modern languages enrolments.
But it is easy to understand how some Britons come to believe they need to know only English - just look at the worldwide demand for courses that teach English as a second language. This market is reflected in UK higher education. International students are flocking to the UK to learn English in increasing numbers.
These students add millions of much-needed pounds to the coffers of universities and billions to the UK economy as a whole. They also help the higher education sector meet the international recruitment targets set by the prime minister. But the UK's success in teaching English to non-native speakers - especially those from China and East Asia - is itself causing problems, with university capacity being stretched by the push to accommodate ever-rising numbers of international and - of course - domestic students.
It was in June 1999 that Tony Blair announced his prime ministerial initiative. The goal was to increase the number of international students in the state sector to 150,000 by 2005, up from 100,000 in 1996-97. All the signs are that it will be met ahead of time.
Because this rise in numbers from abroad coincides with the government's plans to raise the proportion of young people in the UK who have been through higher education from 43 per cent to 50 per cent, classroom space will be at a premium.
Universities are already looking to partnerships with further education colleges to give them room to expand. But the space that colleges can provide is also being squeezed by another Blair initiative - that seeks to lift the number of international students in further education by 25,000 to 52,000 by 2005, up from ,000 in 1996-97.
It is hard to calculate exactly how much money international students pour into UK universities because the level of quantitative data available is poor and because not all universities account for the income they receive from international students separately from that gained from domestic students. But most experts in higher education accept the estimate that teaching English to international students brings well over £1 billion to the UK economy, and may be as high as £1.5 billion when accommodation and tourism are taken into account. Of this, about £900 million is generated through private and public-sector courses accredited by the British Council, of which Pounds 300 million goes to the state sector, including £200 million to higher education institutions.
The language centres at higher education institutions offer a wide selection of courses. Some courses are provided free of charge alongside degrees; others, such as summer sessions, cost about £200 a week. At several universities, the biggest money-spinner is perhaps one-year pre-entry courses, which cost international students between £6,000 and £8,000. Compare this with full-time tuition fees for a UK or European Union national of just over Pounds 1,100.
The prospect of cash rewards is hard to resist, but some institutions are already finding it difficult to cope with increasing demand.
Last year, the University of Manchester reaped £675,000 from its general English and English for academic purposes programmes, which last from four to 12 weeks. The university has put on an extra general English course from September to December to cope with increased numbers of enrolments.
Leicester University has had to turn away 20 students on one ten-week full-time course because it was full - Jthe move cost it about £34,000 in potential revenue.
It is hard to overstate how important income from English for speakers of other languages (Esol) courses is to the higher education sector, which is in a constant battle for more public funds. Martin Kenworthy, director of the English Language Teaching Unit at Leicester University, says: "Without this revenue, those universities already suffering would go further into the mire."
But it is uncertain whether universities will be able to go on profiting from this niche given the restrictions on their ability to keep expanding provision and given the proposed introduction of top-up fees and other charges being levelled at international students, such as visa extension charges.
Critics of top-up fees argue that they will deter Britain's young, particularly those from poor backgrounds, from entering higher education.
If that is true, there may be a similar deterrent effect on EU students, who must be treated in the same way as UK students and so would be liable for top-up payments. EU students wanting to study English in the UK could face a double whammy of paying more for a poorer education experience (think overstretched teachers, cramped classrooms and so on).
The University of Bath gets about £800,000 a year from more than 300 Esol students. There is room for a few more, which could earn Bath about Pounds 100,000 extra. But teaching capacity is under pressure from other expanding courses.
Howard Thomas, director of the university's language centre, says: "We would really like a few more to take us up to capacity, but we have to think about the resources available."
To try to circumvent the problem, the university is looking into the idea of forming a partnership with further education colleges to make the most of classroom space. But it could be hampered by the government's 50 per cent UK target, reducing its revenue and possibly its ability to operate at the same level. "If the ability to take in more international students is eroded, it will clearly impact on revenue," Thomas says. "You can't have both, it's simply a question of space and priorities."
It is not just the income from the Esol courses that universities seek.
There are also lucrative spin-offs. Improving the English of international students increases their ability to embark on follow-on full-time degree courses, with all the additional financial benefits this brings for higher education institutions.
June O'Brien, director of English language programmes at Manchester, says:
"The importance of English-language teaching to the institution derives more from its contribution to overseas student recruitment - the need to meet English-language entry requirements, post-registration testing and support and, not least of all, as a welcoming first point of contact with the institution." But it is in this area where it is feared that top-up fee plans could wreak most havoc.
Sue Bromby, chair of the British Association of State English Language Teaching and associate head of the School of Languages at Salford University, says: "One of the reasons many EU students come to Britain to study is because there is an easy progression from public or private language schools to a university degree afterwards." She adds: "This is one of Britain's main selling points, but top-up fees are going to dissuade students from continuing their studies in Britain if they decide to move into higher education.
"Fees will dissuade students from staying if tuition is free back home or in another EU country. We are not likely to lose students at lower levels of study, but top-up fees are likely to have an impact at higher education level."
The government is also under fire over visa extension charges for foreign nationals. Since August, international students who want to remain in the UK to complete or continue their studies have had to pay to have their visas extended. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate charges £155 for a postal application and £250 for an application in person.
Most universities agree that the administrative charge is unlikely to deter international students from coming to the UK to study, but they believe it contradicts the spirit of the prime minister's initiative and fear that it could leave a bad taste in the mouth of those who have to pay it.
Kenworthy says: "These huge charges are a slap in the face from a government that is encouraging us to recruit international students. Does it want them to come here or not? I suspect that students will come all the same because education is important to them, but it does nothing for public relations."
Thomas agrees: "The government has found a cheap and easy form of revenue.
It is highly unlikely that it will affect numbers, but it seems unfair and will make students feel exploited."
Kenworthy adds that despite all the emphasis on the money that international students bring, their social contribution should not be underestimated. "They add to the vitality of the university and its standing," he says. "And they enrich the teaching and learning process through their differing viewpoints and perspectives."
The overall feeling is that increased numbers of international student may also relight a desire among some UK youngsters to learn a foreign language.
"It remains my hope that the international student presence in Britain will encourage a more open and tolerant society and increased language awareness," O'Brien says.