English as the lingua franca of higher education?

An international conference in Spain, “The role of English in Higher Education: Issues, policy and practice”, drew an international audience to debate the growth of English as a language of instruction.

The event took place last week in Segovia and was organised by the British Council, with the collaboration of IE University, a private non-profit business owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL.

A wide range of universities from Austria, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Finland, France, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and the UK were represented, as well as language experts from the British Council and the European Commission, and experts in the field of linguistics. The universities included those already delivering English as a medium of instruction, called EMI, courses and those considering EMI options.

Jorge Sainz, general director for university policy in Spain’s Ministry of Education, summed up the motivations of many when he said: “I am here because we are working to internationalise our universities. We are trying to promote the courses we offer in English and ensure the quality of both the materials and language taught; we want to put ideas from this conference into our system.”

English has increasing dominance as a lingua franca and its spread has major political, economic and cultural implications. From the outset, the conference provided a forum for frank and robust debate about the role English plays in how universities respond to the increasingly global context in which they operate.

Discussion ranged from broad and thorny issues such as whether EMI is being used for political ends and if it is elitist, to more specific themes such as the potential structural changes universities can make to deliver EMI and whether common criteria can be established when assessing the quality of work submitted by students in their non-native language.

English is playing a key role in how universities are evolving. Drivers of change for higher education institutions include student demands to be able to compete in a globalised labour market, mobility trends, and the need for intercultural and language skills. These developments are forcing institutions to address traditional methods of teaching and learning, and to promote mobility for staff and students through exchange programmes, dual or double degrees and research in foreign countries.

Many argue that those institutions that most successfully engage with these types of methods are likely to both boost their reputation and attract the best candidates.

In his welcome speech, Rod Pryde, Spain’s British Council director, established the importance of English for higher education institutions by highlighting the fact that the number of degrees taught wholly in English had increased by 30% around the world in the past year.

Graham Wilkie, policy advisor for the European Commission, kicked off his plenary on European higher education in the world by stating that the demand for higher education was set to grow from 100 million in 2000 to 400 million by 2030, and that of the four million students who currently studied abroad, Europe received 40%, largely because of the quality of education it offered.

Europe could not afford to rest on its laurels, however, because Latin America, China and India were also developing high-quality education offerings, Wilkie said. Part of Europe’s response to this challenge was to boost funds to increase mobility through schemes such as Erasmus Plus, which allow students, university staff and volunteers to do exchanges all over the world, and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme, which focus on PhD researchers and scientists.

Wilkie said that from 1 January next year, Erasmus Plus was expected to distribute €14 billion over a seven-year period, with 60% destined for mobility and the remainder predominantly for strategic partnerships.

“The Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme, on the other hand, will have €2 billion to fund around 25,000 PhD researchers between 2014 and 2020, and a further €3.7 billion for international research and industry-academic partnerships,” Wilkie said, adding that these programmes not only aimed to promote mobility and help people learn another language but also fed into economic growth.

“Our aims are to reduce youth unemployment and promote language diversity…we seek ‘mother language +2’ and if English is a part of that [formula], that’s great,” he said.

John Knagg, head of research and consultancy for English for the British Council, also stated his support for multilingualism, but emphasised that English was a commodity worth billions of pounds that “now belongs to everybody”.

“English as a medium of instruction, however, is only worth doing if it is done well…once it moves away from Buckingham Palace or Stratford-on-Avon, then non-native teachers can become assessors and experts, and this is a difficult issue to tackle,” Knagg said.

“If EMI is done badly then it is a bad thing as it can lead to failure in the education process. The issue is not the study of English as a foreign language, but using English as medium of transmitting advanced knowledge; the student is expected to already know English. We want to work with organisations to make sure EMI is done in a quality way.”

Knagg also raised important ethical issues such as whether a student had the right to learn in their own language, and the rights of teachers and universities to ensure their own survival. Did students have the right not to learn English and did governments have the right to protect languages through legislation? “Who are the potential losers?” he asked. “We need to take into account all stakeholders and should be explicit in terms of choices.”

Santiago Iñiguez, the president of IE University, offered his expertise as the leader of one of the few universities in Spain where almost all programmes are offered in English. “Teaching English is not about patriotism but reaching out to the international market,” he said. “In the 12th century Latin was the lingua franca in universities and now the working language is English.”

Iñiguez pointed to the growing importance of new technologies in teaching and learning and said that providers of online and blended MOOCs, such as edX, Coursera, Apollo and Khan Academy, were all working in English.

“Universities are not anymore the sole producers of knowledge,” he said. “But hubs are where this knowledge from all around the world is compiled and transmitted. And for them to be successful in this endeavour, they have to globalise their teaching, and that means focusing on English as a tool to bring together students and faculty from all over the world. You may be able to deliver your programme in your native language. But in the medium and long term you’ll need to deliver it in English.”

On the second day, before participants broke into workshops, Ernesto Macaro, director of the department of education at Oxford University, spoke on the subject of “Defining and researching EMI”. In terms of definition, Macaro pointed out that “we don’t yet know what EMI is, we are in a process in which it is best to start by asking what participants and stakeholders actually want from EMI”.

Regarding research, Macaro said it was particularly interesting to look at putting across the meaning of a difficult concept in a language that was not your own and through a language that was not the first for the students themselves.

“Language can be simplified, but if it is over-simplified it becomes problematic,” he said.

Ways forward for universities

Participants then broke into working groups, with one session focusing on “policy implications for successful delivery of EMI courses“ and the other on the “practical implications of EMI: methodology, quality and assessment“.

Key conclusions from the first session included that although EMI was expanding globally and some institutions had a clear strategy, many were now becoming involved so as ‘not to miss out’, and this apparent lack of preparation needed to be addressed.

Secondly, participants argued that the introduction of EMI required increased support for departments and it had to be embedded in both administrative and academic structures. Thirdly, it was noted that many governments were actively promoting their EMI programmes abroad, because EMI was seen as an opportunity to attract new international students and to promote local language and culture.

Session 2, on the other hand, included the contention that EMI could be a tool for improving the quality of teaching rather than just being used to attract students; and this provided an opportunity to look at pedagogy in higher education institutions, which had not traditionally been prioritised.

Furthermore, participants discussed, testing the language ability of lecturers and students was essential – yet many universities had no standard method of assessment, and some had none. Again, more resources were required for the additional workload that EMI involved, such as extra administration, preparation, marking and so on, raising the question of how EMI teachers would be compensated for this.

A presentation of the conference’s findings and recommendations will be fed into the British Council’s annual Going Global conference in Miami next April, and also into the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education in Brussels later next year.