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Does English have to be used in transnational HE?

The drive for increased internationalisation in higher education has taken hold in many countries worldwide. However, there seems to be a widely held assumption that internationalisation means teaching in English as this will be the lingua franca needed by the global citizens of the future. Individuals, universities and governments have all subscribed to this view.

In 2008, half of all students studying abroad were in one of four Anglophone countries: Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States. Governments in countries as far apart as Lithuania and Malaysia have established targets for public universities to deliver programmes in English.

European universities have introduced more than 6,400 programmes taught in English to achieve internationalisation objectives, such as recruiting more international students and improving the employability of graduates.

Since the turn of the century, the international branch campus has accounted for the largest percentage increase in student enrolments in transnational programmes.

International branch campuses

International branch campuses are educational facilities that higher education institutions operate outside the countries in which they are based. At the start of 2014, there were more than 220 international branch campuses worldwide.

The majority are located in higher education hubs such as the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malaysia. China also hosts 17 international branch campuses.

Students studying at international branch campuses usually follow the same programmes delivered at the institution’s home campus and they achieve the same degree awarded from the home campus.

However, regardless of the native language in the country where the institution is based, most international branch campuses deliver their programmes in English. For example, Xiamen University, which is based in China, plans to open a campus in Malaysia in 2015 for 10,000 students and all programmes will be taught in English.

Growth of non-English languages

Although English is currently the language used most as a lingua franca in international business, science, diplomacy and international higher education, other languages are also growing in popularity.

More people speak Mandarin than any other language and it is one of the official languages of the United Nations. By 2030, the Chinese economy is forecast to be the world’s largest, which will increase the demand for speakers of Mandarin.

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world today and it is an official language in 21 countries. There are currently 18 million students studying Spanish as a foreign language and the number is increasing.

Although non-English lingua francas currently dominate only on a regional basis – for example, Spanish in Latin America – 90 universities in China offer Spanish courses to more than 25,000 students.

Branch campuses not teaching in English

Of the 220 branch campuses that exist worldwide, it is estimated that fewer than 10 teach the majority of their programmes in languages other than English.

Dr Stephen Wilkins and Dr Jolanta Urbanovic, researchers based in the United Kingdom and Lithuania respectively, recently conducted a study that investigated the motives of universities for establishing campuses abroad that deliver degree programmes in languages other than English as well as the problems and issues experienced by these institutions.

The research involved analysis of seven case studies, for example: a Chinese university in Laos teaching in Chinese; a French university in the United Arab Emirates teaching in French; a Swedish university in Russia teaching in Russian; and a university from Chile in Ecuador teaching in Spanish.

Most of the case study institutions claimed to be primarily interested in enhancing the welfare of others, at both individual and country levels, rather than seeking to generate revenues and profit.

For example, the University of Bialystok in Vilnius seeks to raise the educational achievement of ethnic Poles living in Lithuania; Saint-Petersburg State University of Engineering and Economics in Dubai essentially serves Russian-speaking expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates; while Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi aims to contribute to the emirate’s economic and social development.

Language proficiency and student recruitment

When the home country of an institution uses the same language as the country where the branch is located, language proficiency is not usually a barrier to student recruitment.

For example, Arabic is the native language in both Lebanon, where St Joseph University is based, and the United Arab Emirates, where St Joseph University has a branch.

Professors delivering transnational programmes commonly believe that their students lack sufficient proficiency in English, which leads to high student drop-out rates and grades awarded that are too high compared to those awarded at home campuses.

English is the main foreign language taught in institutions in the United Arab Emirates and neighbouring Gulf States so many applicants at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi have insufficient proficiency in French.

This might explain why the university had only 700 students in 2013 although it has a target of 1,500 students by 2016. Even at Soochow University in Laos, where the majority of students are ethnic Chinese, it was found necessary to put all students through a Chinese language course before starting their degree programme.


International branch campuses are generally required to hold accreditation in both their home and host countries.

When the two accreditation systems have conflicting requirements, gaining dual accreditation can be a complex and time-consuming task.

The accreditation agencies in some countries – such as the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK – do not favour programmes taught abroad in languages different to those used where the awarding university is based.

The degrees of some international branch campuses are not recognised by host country governments. This means, for example, that graduates of Saint-Petersburg State University of Engineering and Economics in Dubai cannot gain employment in the United Arab Emirates public sector.

Prospects for non-English teaching

Although two of the seven international branch campuses examined by Wilkins and Urbanovic have been operating for more than 16 years, none of the institutions had more than 800 students at the start of 2013.

Most of these campuses operate from rented space in office blocks or similar accommodation and they do not offer the range of facilities and equipment found at home campuses. This explains why many students prefer to study at larger institutions that teach in English.

It is clear that transnational programmes delivered in non-English languages can offer a range of benefits to students.

The University of Bialystok in Vilnius helps to raise the attainment of academically under-performing Lithuanian Poles; the executive MBA programme at the Stockholm School of Economics Russia enables managers and business owners in Russia who are not proficient in English to achieve a classroom-based Western-style business education from a leading European business school; and St Joseph University in Dubai delivers its programmes in Arabic to meet the requirements of the local labour market for lawyers, judges and legal professionals.

Several of the institutions delivering transnational programmes in non-English languages are partially or fully funded by home and-or host country governments. The long-term viability of these institutions may depend to a large extent on the future willingness of governments to continue funding them.

In conclusion, English need not be the language of instruction used in transnational higher education. There is evidence to suggest that transnational programmes taught in non-English languages might increase in popularity in the future, but languages such as Mandarin and Spanish are likely to be used on a regional rather than global basis.

* Stephen Wilkins is a lecturer in international management learning at the University of Plymouth in England. This article is based on a paper recently published online before print in the Journal of Studies in International Education, “English as the Lingua Franca in Transnational Higher Education: Motives and prospects of institutions that teach in languages other than English”, by Stephen Wilkins and Jolanta Urbanovic, doi: 10.1177/1028315313517267.
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