‘Big five’ losing monopoly on English-language degree courses

Almost one in five English-medium degrees now taught outside Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US

December 7, 2021
Source: Alamy

Competition in English-language tuition is heating up, according to a study showing that the number of courses outside the major anglophone study destinations has rocketed by 77 per cent in four years.

Almost one in five English-medium degree programmes is now taught outside Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, says the report published by the British Council and Studyportals on 7 December.

“Students have more choice than ever, and I think it’s a bit of a wake-up call as well: that you cannot just rely on the fact that teaching in English is what you do, because it’s no longer a unique value proposition,” said Carmen Neghina, a senior marketing analytics consultant at Studyportals and one of the authors of the report.

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Drawing on Studyportals’ course listings, the report counted 27,874 programmes taught in English outside the major anglophone destinations in May 2021, up from 15,742 in January 2017. Sixty-three per cent of these were offered within the European Higher Education Area: while the Republic of Ireland led the way in Europe with 2,776 courses, significant growth was also reported in the Netherlands (1,937) and Germany (1,826).

The number of English-medium programmes offered by universities in China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan more than doubled over the four-year period, to 3,389, and now represents 12.2 per cent of the global total outside the “big five”. Other key hubs included sub-Saharan Africa (2,253 courses, 8.1 per cent) and east Asia (1,851 courses, 6.7 per cent).

“If you look at China and east Asia, it’s just a handful of programmes at the moment for the institutions teaching in English. But if you think about just how many other institutions are not yet teaching in English, if they also start doing it, or if they start doing it at the rate of Europe, that completely changes the landscape of international education in English,” said Dr Neghina.

While most English-taught programmes outside the big anglophone sectors are at master’s level, growth is happening most quickly at bachelor’s level, up by 85 per cent on 2017, compared with 74 per cent for postgraduate degrees.

At a disciplinary level, the number of English-medium education and training undergraduate courses offered outside the big five has grown by 155 per cent since 2017. At master’s level, while medicine and health courses have increased most quickly, up 135 per cent, education and training courses have reported 97 per cent growth. Expansion in teaching courses will further boost English-language tuition generally, as teachers trained in English go on to use it, said Dr Neghina.

Global growth may force a re-evaluation on sectors that have long made English a big part of their offer, according to Joanne Pagèze, vice-president for internationalisation at the University of Bordeaux and chair of the language and culture expert group of the European Association for International Education.

“The fact that there are more programmes in the Chinese region [and] the sub-Saharan African region is very interesting. That’s an underlying movement that’s going to have been accelerated by Covid, and it means that places like Australia, where their higher education system is highly dependent on that flow, are kind of in a difficult place”, she said.

The growth of English-language courses also raises questions about universities’ efforts to serve their local communities, said Rosemary Salomone, Kenneth Wang professor of law at St John’s University-New York and author of The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language.

“There’s an inequity built into these programmes. They do favour students who are a bit more privileged,” she said.


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