Higher Education Commentary, Studying in the UK

Pre-sessional English Courses: a win-win?

When I first got to the UK, I was shocked to meet international students who were hardly able to express themselves in English. I am used to working with people who use English as a foreign or second or third language, but I was rather confused when I saw fellow grad students struggle to keep up with a group activity / discussion. I suppose it would be OK under forgiving circumstances where everybody is able to work at their own pace; but in time-pressured circumstances, someone who doesn’t have the vocabulary to express their ideas or even the ability to spell and type at a reasonable speed can lose out big time on learning opportunities. Even if the group mates are understanding and let the person work at their own pace, time will inevitably run out and the group mates with better language skills will dominate the task and finish it off, leaving the person with poorer language skills in the dust. I don’t blame any of the group members for this unfortunate turn of events – they are just making the best they can out of a bad situation, but I was quite horrified to see it happening right in front of me.

Now to be fair, I don’t think it’s the students’ fault, but rather that of the university or the programme. It can be either as I have seen students with astonishingly poor English ability accepted and studying in top-tier Russell Group universities; I have also heard of students applying to the same university but get turned down due to inadequate IELTS results – this indicates that the issue lies at the programme / departmental level. I have also encountered situations where the programme director lobbied to raise the admission criteria, only to be told by superiors that it is not allowed – thus making this a university level problem. It doesn’t matter at which level it is occurring, this phenomenon is still terribly problematic to me.

I think it is inherently unfair to students who pay tons of money with high hopes and then find that they are unable to keep up with the classes, and the university does not have adequate supports in place to ensure they are able to stay abreast. It is heart-wrenching to see them left behind in group work, and left vulnerable to micro-aggressions by local students with better language skills who treat them like they are stupid just because their language abilities do not enable them to hold their own. The worst part is that some of these students with poor language skills are actually highly respected professionals in their home countries. They have the intellect, and would probably even outperform the local students in optimum circumstances, but their language skills disable them and I can imagine how difficult it must be.

But you know what? In a commercialised dog-eat-dog competition university system, I’m not sure how much the universities actually care. A colleague in the UK system related that when universities admit students via pre-sessional English courses, they don’t lose feepaying overseas students AND they get to charge for the (pre-sessional) course – how is that for a win-win?? I’m not sure if anybody wins here – those particular students, their classmates, and their lecturers (who then have to commit large amounts of time on remedial English work) are all affected. The university is the winner in the short term as it makes a load of money off international student fees, but if such circumstances are kept up over a long period of time, would it not hurt the reputation of the university? Or perhaps if international student admissions with pre-sessional courses are kept to a minimum and the graduates return to their home countries thinking they were the ones who weren’t good enough (rather than recognising that there is a systemic issue) – then the damage to reputation is negligible and doesn’t matter?

If you’re a university administrator reading this and you want to know if your pre-sessional English courses are good enough for your international students, get the students to take the IELTS (or an equivalent English test like TOEFL) after the course and see how they fare. If they are able to meet standards, then it’s doing its job. If not, it’s doing the students a disservice. Same goes for prospective students taking pre-sessional English courses – if you want to make the most of your education in the UK, do the IELTS after and see what results you get. If you do well, good on ya – if not, there are many other world-class universities in various countries where English is not the first language and you can get on with your learning with fewer language distractions (unless you’re taking a course which is only available in the UK and nowhere else, then my best advice is to get your language skills up to par before applying in order to make the most of it).

If universities are trying to be inclusive and thus lowering their admission policies, then the onus is on them to provide adequate support. Worried that raising the bar is going to affect your income? As a former senior administrator, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about that as well (and I still spend a lot of time thinking about it). We’ll talk about that in a later blog post.

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