What’s the role of English in Higher Education? This was the main topic of an event which took place in Segovia (Spain) last week, as reported by the University World News. The British Council, in collaboration with the IE University organised this international meeting where universities from different countries worldwide and experts from the British Council and the European Commission were involved. The key issue of the meeting was to discuss the implications of offering English courses and programmes at university and to reflect on the quality of this academic offer.
It is no surprise that most universities are pursuing EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) programmes as a way to increase their reputation. EMI programmes attract international students to their institutions, and improve undergraduates’ profiles to match the needs of an increasingly demanding labour market. According to the UWN article, many institutions are aware of the need to implement the ‘mother tongue + 2’ objective set by the European Commission, and consider EMI programmes to be an opportunity of improving the quality of university teaching. However, there is still much debate on how this can be achieved in a short period of time.
From my point of view, we are mixing two ideas. One is that English should become ‘a lingua franca’, and the second is that English should become THE language of higher education. In my opinion, all university students should be helped and trained to have a good command of English, as this will help them not only in their professional but also everyday lives. That said, the way we are going to improve students’ communication skills in English is another debate, however I don’t consider a completely monolingual programme to be a valid option. It is not how often you teach in English, it is how well you do it, and here we deal with the issue of methodology. Is EMI good just because we are delivering subjects in the English language? Are all EMI programmes successful? I’m afraid not.
From the meeting held in Segovia, issues were raised on two main areas “policy implications for successful delivery of EMI courses, and “practical implications of EMI: methodology, quality and assessment’. In the first session, participants raised awareness on the danger of launching EMI programmes without prior training and preparation. Obviously, many institutions want to rush to offer the same academic degrees their counterparts are implementing, but organising a good EMI programme means a minimum training period of 1 year, according to my own experience. Also, participants mentioned the need to embed administrative and academic structures to support EMI projects. This is essential, as the EMI programme is a University academic proposal, in which everybody is involved in some way or another.
Regarding the second session, on the practical implications of EMI. Participants considered that this could be a ‘tool for improving the quality of teaching’. I couldn’t agree more. I consider that pedagogy has been disregarded in Higher Education Institutions. Many lecturers are leading experts in their fields of specialisation, but don’t know how to create knowledge in their classrooms. If we help these people to communicate more effectively, to work on higher-order thinking skills, to scaffold their input, etc, we are going to get better, long-term and more effective learning. Also, they will be provided with a set of teaching tools which are easily transferable to their classes taught in their mother tongue.
Another issue raised in the second session was the difficulty of establishing shared policies regarding language testing, and the need to compensate EMI teachers for this extra work they are doing. Bilingual projects in Spain have chosen Cambridge ESOL and Trinity Exams to assess students’ performance in terms of language competence. However, this is making many academic programmes suffer from the so-called washback effect. Besides that, I wonder what would happen if we measured the success of EMI programmes in terms of the 4Cs proposed by Do Coyle: Cognition, Content, Communication and Culture. Language performance is just a leg of EMI programmes.
All in all, I’m confident about the work Universities are doing to provide students with better instruction in or through English. The main issue that should be raised is that everything starts with the training provided to teachers. If head departments are happy just checking the English competence of their lecturers, EMI programmes will not be making the most of this opportunity of improving teaching-learning quality in Higher Education.
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