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Watch those summer courses closely…

  • 4 June 2020
  • By Gavin Dodsworth

This blog was kindly contributed by Gavin Dodsworth, Director of the University Language Centre at the University of Manchester. Gavin is writing in a personal capacity.

As UK universities scenario-plan, best-case / worst-case worry and fast-track five-year online plans into a quick three months, there is one part of the sector that senior colleagues should be paying extremely close attention to over the next few months – University Language Centres (ULCs).

All universities have the equivalent of Manchester’s Centre, with broadly similar language and skills remits. At its simplest, these Centres employ highly-qualified tutors to teach, support and advise – usually over a 12 month cycle – mainly international students who do not have English as their first language. This year in particular sees these Centres and their roles coming to the fore, with all universities having extremely similar narratives occurring behind the scenes. These Centres and their courses should be watched very carefully by those trying to predict what is in store for the academic year 2020/21 as well as by those seeking some clarity within the well-meaning information blur that currently dominates our daily lives.

Nearly all universities run summer English language programmes called ‘pre-sessionals’ for students who have not yet achieved the language proficiency their institution judges necessary to successfully study for their chosen degree.

Not exclusively, but in general, these courses are dominated by Chinese postgraduate taught students who usually take an international language qualification before arriving in the UK. Based upon their result in that ‘entry’ exam, they aim to qualify onto one of the intense language courses which raise the entry level of ‘general’ English to a higher level of language ability in an academic environment (English for Academic Purposes).

What happens on these summer Pre-sessionals in 2020 will be the first real concrete data in what is likely to happen in the UK’s dominant overseas market vis-à-vis 2020/21 recruitment. At Manchester, for example, we are rapidly approaching meaningful deadlines where students have to make substantial decisions. Deadlines for payment onto the longer Pre-sessional courses hit the other day, with potential refund and withdrawal decisions having to be made by 8th June. At its simplest, students or their sponsors will start shifting their ‘indications’ into ‘actions’. This data should start to supersede the well-meaning but confused signals coming from sources such as the April 2020 British Council survey.

In a highly competitive environment, it is understandable that each university is keeping its registration numbers close to their chest, but the current provisional numbers indicate that pre-sessional registrations are running between 60 and 90 per cent of pre-Covid-19 expectations, with a noticeably late surge in applications coming through as deadlines approach. I suggest this should be cause for cautious optimism for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, these registration numbers are above the most frequently predicted numbers on international student recruitment being referenced during the March to mid-May period. As mentioned, these courses are dominated by Chinese students, but as these students are key to university recruitment, a valid and useful indicator.

Secondly, as all pre-sessionals will be online, it means we have the ability to guess more accurately what an entire academic year cohort of international students perceives of at least some of their study being taught virtually. What the numbers and application correspondence indicate is that, while there is no huge enthusiasm for this mode, it does not appear to be a factor that diverts their aspiration to study for a UK higher education degree.

There are a couple of obvious provisos here:

  1. Most universities will allow their pre-sessional scores to be carried over to academic year 2021/22, meaning that successful completion of pre-sessionals will not necessarily lead to confirmation onto main degrees in 2020/21.
  2. While the summer programme is a financial commitment, if the post pre-sessional experience does not look attractive for any of the myriad of reasons out there, the usual 90 per cent plus follow-through from pre-sessional courses to degree enrolment may be weaker this year.

However, overall, initial registration data does show some cause for some optimism.

Furthermore, as academic colleagues face a ‘challenging’ summer preparing for at least a first semester where teaching and learning will be predominantly delivered in a non-physical space, their colleagues in Language Centres will be facing even steeper learning curves that the main body of the university will hopefully be able to learn from.

Whilst the debate about ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ is ultimately nearer the beginning than the end, most universities are aiming for a teaching feat that six months ago, simply at a logistical level, would have caused palpitations.

At Manchester, we will be teaching students that are mainly based in a time-zone seven hours away, probably using at least two teaching platforms that most of us would not have known about in February. Add to that, universities are currently working round the clock to convert their full-time communicative language courses into synchronous and asynchronous provision, delivered in our case by over a 100 summer colleagues – again in multiple time-zones – and aiming for a teaching experience comparable to that of the campus based course.

Hence, if we as a sector ever want an example of how we can move as quickly and coherently as any other area of the economy, the way e-learning, IT, Finance, HR, Language Centres and senior management have rapidly come together within institutions gives us a prime teaching and learning case-study in what we can achieve when we have to.

Equally important for the coming academic year are the lessons internal teaching and learning institutes will be able to learn from these summer courses so that full degree experiences are optimal. Although we are not exactly the guinea pigs, we will be first movers in the coming academic year and will set the tone for what is to come.

So, as we head into the crucial summer period where many university colleagues will be scanning the near future with a justified feeling of nervousness, I suggest watching, learning and supporting what happens in your Language Centres this summer. I also tentatively suggest that there are cautious grounds for optimism in both recruitment and teaching and learning areas.

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