Expectations of and on international students in UK HE: Perspectives on English for Academic Purposes

On 16th September, I and my colleague gave a talk at BAAL/Routledge Workshop ‘Expectations of and on international students in UK HE’ at Manchester Metropolitan University. The workshop was a very fruitful event which brought together researchers, professionals of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and international students. Our talk entitled ‘Internationalisation in UK higher education: Experiences of international PhD students’ drew on our own experiences of academic writing and intercultural communication with reference to internationalisation agenda of higher education. During my PhD journey, it was the first academic event in which I gave a presentation which was not directly related to my PhD (learner language), though I made some reference to my research and other relevant research studies.

I focused on the dynamics of my identity as an academic writer and my experiences of being a teaching assistant of Study Skills course which encompasses critical reading, identifying appropriate literature, and academic writing. Study Skills course is delivered to MA students in order to improve their academic reading and writing skills, and it is useful to provide shortcuts to the conventions of academic writing in English. However, the generic content of academic writing may not enable students to understand how they can present their arguments and contribute to the debate in their own specific disciplines and sub-disciplines. For instance, the way the arguments constructed in TESOL can be markedly different from those of educational technology. Admittedly, it is hard to design a discipline-specific study skills course, but there is room for improvement. Special corpora that would include journal articles and academic books in MA students’ specific disciplines can be used to improve students’ knowledge of linguistic choices, evaluation of the previous literature and argumentation. Additionally, students can be trained to create their own personalised corpus by using the virtual corpus functionality within the Brigham Young University’s collection of corpora.

The second point I made was the academic writing support provided to students. Though we are lucky to receive academic writing support at institutional level, the way it is framed should be changed. In its current format, academic writing support/tutorial service at many universities in the UK is generally available for students whose first language is not English. This makes the assumption that students whose first language is English would not struggle with academic writing, and/or that students from a non-English L1 background would have problems that should be ‘remedied’. In fact, corpus research shows that novice writers may share the same struggles in academic writing, regardless of their first language. Therefore, academic writing support at universities should be given to all students, as the labels ‘home’/‘L1-English speaking’ students and ‘international’/‘L2-English speaking’ students may divide ‘us’. Though there are changes to this approach, the change is slow, and it is remarkable that research in this area has informed the practices little in this area so far. As one of the discussants in the workshop noted, researchers may need to find more effective ways of reaching out to stakeholders in this area. 

calvin-and-hobbes_2During the workshop, there were similar talks and discussions on academic support given to students in UK higher education. Until the workshop, it was inconceivable for me to hear ‘EAP’ referred to as ‘industry’ followed by the rationalisation that ‘it is the reality.’ Although we cannot deny the ideological and economical underpinnings of EAP through which major publishing companies make profits in the Anglophone context, seeing EAP as ‘industry’ would benefit neither students nor educators. Instead, EAP can be framed as collective endeavour of students, educators and researchers. At the risk of romanticising, students’ progress in EAP would be of priceless value to both students and educators.

The state of English in Higher Education in Turkey

In November, the British Council published a report entitled ‘The state of English in Higher Education in Turkey – A Baseline Study‘ which explored English language teaching and English-mediated education categorised as English-medium instruction (EMI), Content & Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), and English for Specific Purposes (ESP). One of the most large-scale of its kind ever conducted in Turkey, the report has broad implications for English language teaching and English-medium instruction at universities in Turkey. These might also be relevant for other developing countries. The findings are divided into five sections under the following headings: ‘International context: globalisation’, ‘national context: language of instruction’, ‘institutional context: language teaching programs’, ‘departmental context: English language teaching’, and ‘department context: English as medium of instruction’. In this post, I would like to reflect on several issues addressed in the first four categories.

The first section ‘International context: globalisation’ is mainly concerned with the league tables, ranking of Turkish universities, research performance, and internationalisation which is conceptualised as the number of international students and staff, their mobility and international collaboration. The key finding of this section, and at the same time that of the report overall is that “Turkey’s ‘English deficit’ is a major factor affecting the quality of higher education, restricting access to academic resources, international research publication and the mobility of staff and students” (p. 14). The report also concludes that two-thirds of Turkish universities can be considered as “research-inactive”. Though English deficiency is definitely a factor affecting all those areas, there are also other factors that can account for them. Universities are part of larger socioeconomic systems, and academics and students may not have full access to necessary facilities and resources in a developing country. As the report states, 56% (n=98) of universities that currently exist in Turkey have been founded in the last 12 years, so the majority of universities in Turkey now can be considered newly-founded. There is also a shortage of academics at universities in Turkey. In this climate, I believe that the report’s suggestion of “a periodic ‘research assessment exercise’ (RAE) [currently ‘the research excellence framework’ (REF) in the UK] of the kind carried out in other countries” (p. 42) may not be beneficial, at least in the short term. It is preferable to allocate funding and resources to universities and academic staff for continuous professional development, research and teaching purposes. There are already some initiatives and incentives for those. For instance, since 2006, Turkey has granted scholarships to approximately 1,000 students (per year) for graduate education abroad in return for obligatory service in Turkey.

The second section ‘National context: medium of instruction’ reviews English as medium of instruction (EMI), Turkish as medium of instruction (TMI), and mixed-medium (T-EMI) programmes at Turkish universities. Here I find the recommendation of introducing parallel TMI and EMI programmes very important, since this has the potential to be more successful than the other ones which have been identified as problematic for students and academics in the report. In parallel programmes, students are given the choice to access programmes and be assessed in either or both languages. This recommendation calls for further research into effectiveness of parallel programmes and maybe piloting them in other universities, as very few universities offer parallel programmes now. With regard to EMI, there is one striking finding in that “some EMI academics complained that they were ‘blackmailed’ into giving their EMI lessons in Turkish by students who threatened to give them poor feedback if they insisted on giving their lectures in English” (pp. 61-62). This suggests that there is tension between students and academics in relation to EMI. However, this situation may also be linked to wider issues of global higher education sector today. This section conflates the findings of state universities which provide free education and those of foundation universities which charge tuition fees. It might have been better if findings had been presented separately for two groups of universities. Arguably, foundation universities may have different academic culture from that of state universities.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson October 31, 1989

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
October 31, 1989

In the third section, the distribution and curriculum of English   language teaching in Turkish universities are examined. The key recommendation is the necessity to shift from English for General Purposes (EGP) classes to English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classes that should be specific to students’ disciplines. EAP teaching is one of the main weaknesses of Turkish universities. EGP is not very beneficial for students who are required to accomplish various academic tasks in English. In the UK universities, students, especially non-native English-speaking ones are usually offered tutorial service and/or in-sessional language courses that aim to improve their EAP skills. The report emphasizes the importance of discipline specificity for EAP courses and also recommends English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) course in the final year. Even though I am in favour of specificity in teaching EAP, this may not be possible in some contexts. English for Academic Purposes classes can equip students with transferable skills which students will be able to utilise in their degree programmes and in professional/work-place contexts. For instance, students who have given presentations in their EAP classes can use their foundational skills to make subject-related presentations in the future. The issue transferability of skills should be made explicit to students who have reportedly low motivation for English language classes. The report also recommends training English language teachers for EAP teaching at universities, which is likely to enhance EAP teaching.

The next section ‘departmental context: English language teaching’ addresses how English is taught at preparatory schools at universities. The report states that “the main problem in most English classes is the lack of student-student interaction” (p. 94) and “most teachers constantly miss opportunities to introduce student-student interaction in the classroom” (p. 111). From the perspective of both a student and a teacher of English, I can say that this is very difficult to ensure that students will have conversations/activities in English with their peers because many of them have not been used to activities that involve student-student interaction before starting university. As university examinations put a heavy burden on students at secondary level, there used to be little place for student-student interaction in English language classes. Although the system of university examinations and curriculum of English language classes have been changing, the development of student-student interaction may be slow in English language classes at university.

"The main problem in most English classes is the lack of student-student interaction," says the report.

“The main problem in most English classes is the lack of student-student interaction,” says the report.

Overall, the report provides a good overview of English language teaching practices and English-mediated education at Turkish universities. The fact that there has been little or no mention of relevant concepts, including English as a lingua franca, intercultural awareness, a bilingual/multilingual university in the report is unsurprising to me. As the report is a baseline study, future research might address these in more detail. The report in general raises a lot of questions, and they probably need to be examined in more context-specific studies to inform current practices.