Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Meet your mentor

Can befriending increase the effectiveness of support for non-native speakers at English medium universities?

(This article first appeared in English Language Gazette of January 2009)

Matt Salusbury


WITH THE continued rise in international students in English-speaking universities, more EAP and Foundation courses are springing up. But alongside training international students in English and in study skills, there’s also another strand to support for non-native English speaking students to ensure that they can stand the course – mentoring. Course descriptions for courses designed for international students on various UK university websites increasingly show less emphasis on many hours of generic EAP in groups, and more emphasis on tutorials, one-to-one English language sessions, and mentoring. What is mentoring, and how can it be used to help international university students succeed?

Mentoring is an increasingly popular tool in the UK, according to the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation (MBF), who run training projects for mentors through nine regional coordinators round the country, backed by the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. Mentoring is a concept being used in many areas of life – from tackling bullying at school to settling young offenders back into the community.

Mentoring (the term is often used interchangeable with ‘coaching’) is about helping people acquire the awareness and confidence necessary to fulfil their potential. Several Chinese students on MA courses in the US interviewed for our recent survey, for example, said life at a US university got much easier when they suddenly realised they were expected to ask for help when they needed it. This realisation, while vital for their success, has little to do with English or study skills. Within mentoring there is ‘peer mentoring’ – in universities this will be by other students – and ‘classic’ mentoring, which usually means a role taken on by university teaching or support staff. Properly done, mentoring should always be monitored, usually by the university. The MBF run the Approved Provider Standard (APS), which has benchmarks and best practice for mentoring.

Charlotte Leather of the MBF told the Gazette about some of the developments in mentoring projects aimed at international students at UK universities. These are most peer-monitoring projects which engage students who are already enrolled in ‘befriending’ roles – providing social support for international students when they first come to the UK.

Charlotte says these befriending projects are important part of ensuring retention of international students across UK universities, and that students who ‘befriend’ incoming international students can also fill an important role in familiarising them with areas of the subject they are coming to study. Universities are usually able to get established students to work as ‘befrienders’ on a volunteer basis, as the experience gained by mentors is seen as very valuable to their future career. Academic departments or units that have a lot of international students are also starting to work closely with students’ unions on these mentoring projects.

Rong Huang of Plymouth University has done extensive search on mentoring support for international students at every level, and how mentoring affects success. On one course, for ‘direct entry students’ students from China and other countries joining a course in its third year, he found there was a 43 per cent failure rate, and that the international students’ ‘transition has currently been managed on an ad hoc basis.’ His response was to train student mentors, including international students who had just arrived, and to use feedback from the ‘direct entry students’ and their mentors to compile materials for the next international intake of this course. There’s now a ‘special visit day’ for potential students of the course, at which the university goes to gatherings of potential applicants abroad and provides them with a full orientation. As a result, the university’s agents abroad can provide much more precise information about what the student can expect.

Charlotte told the Gazette that the University of Exeter’s peer mentoring scheme now starts six weeks before the start of the degree course, when the student arrives at the airport to be met by a student peer mentor. It’s followed by introductions to subject areas, the library, the university and the UK, all before the course starts. Mentors are older students – at the request of the international student body they are a combination of international and ‘British’ students, as international students felt they weren’t meeting enough students from the UK.

Another innovative mentoring project is the one at Sheffield University, which has 23 international student mentors who can be contacted through an email network for enquiries about orientation and on subject areas.

Rong Huang notes that there’s a tendency to see international students in terms of their country of origin, and how this affects their learning styles – how the UK’s academic culture is different to that of Asia, and particularly China, for example. While there’s been a lot of work on addressing these specific issues – see the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCIS) ‘Prepare for Success’ for example – Huang says there’s been little research into the international student body as a whole. His research at Plymouth University showed they were generally satisfied by their courses and support services, but less happy with courses’ value for money and the quality of their seminars.

It was in their participation in social activities and sports that the international students surveyed felt dissatisfaction. Most international students were not ‘socially active,’ and their friends were mostly from their own countries. Only 15 per cent of them reported that their friends were ‘British’ students, and 77 per cent thought that UK students were ‘hard to get to know.’

Limited by their English? With increasing numbers of international students, is UK education risking its reputation? Read this article here

Friday, 2 January 2009

Picture research for writers, get that photo book published, Guardian multimedia “podheads”

The January 2009 Freelance is now on the web. My articles include…

What photo book publishers want
Advice on getting photography books published, from a specialist in the field, independent publisher Dewi Lewis. Read this article on the Freelance website.

Cash from pic research
Writers can make more money on the picture research side of the features they write - if they ask for it.
Read this article on the Freelance website.

The pod people are here! - at the Guardian.
The Guardian and Observer have just moved to a new site at Kings Place (apparently with no apostrophe) in King's Cross. Their operations will completely change. The staff will be re-organised into "pods"…. Read this article on the Freelance website. Thanks to Tom Davies for the info, and to my editor and co-author Mike Holderness for inventing the word "podhead" to describe the leader of a Guardian media ‘pod.’ (Picture: Guardian Media Group office reception, opposite the old Guardian and Observer offices, recently vacated, in Farringdon Road. © Matt Salusbury)

Snapping or writing about coppers to become a crime?
Reasearching the details of individual police officers or members of Her Majesty's armed forces may soon become an imprisonable offence, under the Terrorism Act 2008, which received Royal Assent in November… Read this article on the Freelance website.

These police officers from the Metropolitan Police Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) seem to have taken a keen interest in me over the years, enough to have given me the "photographic reference number" 1481. Would I now be committing an imprisonable offence if I tried to find out more about individual officers with FIT or other units? Picture: © Matt Salusbury

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Limited by their English?

With increasing numbers of international students, especially at Masters level, us UK education risking its reputation?

Matt Salusbury


(This article first appeared in English Language Gazette of January 2009)

ACADEMICS are sounding the alarm about the huge number of overseas students recruited to UK despite some of them barely speaking English, and the effect is it having on the quality of their universities’ brands. (And see the front page for news of 46 international students at Newcastle University whose TOEFL scores were faked.) But there are also many international student success stories in UK universities, and we analyse below some of the secrets of their success.

The UK has been keen to embrace international students. BBC News estimated that as of July 2008, more than 60 per cent of the UK Masters students are from outside the country. In 2007, there were 44,225 non-EU overseas students in the UK.
Dr Avrind Sivaramakrishnan of the Asian College of Journalism, writing in Education Guardian in July, reported that 20 out of 80 foreign students reputedly left one particular course because they found their English was inadequate. Sivaramakrishnan says educational agents ‘are sometimes economical with the reality.’ One of his students ‘went to a British recruitment event, and returned saying they only wanted MBA and technology students with chequebooks at the ready.’
A British academic based in Chinese university, using the pseudonym Victoria Adam, told Education Guardian that Foundation programmes were an excellent idea, but ‘as the programmes proliferated, standards have not been maintained. In China, a business teacher said that in one of his classes, 75 per cent of students failed.’ The consequence, according to ‘Victoria,’ is that ‘Chinese students who cannot listen, speak or write after eight years of formal English education may well still find themselves on the way to Britain.’

An anonymous academic from a prestigious Russell Group university told BBC News this summer that ‘I tried to speak to a student who could not understand a simple request; in the end, we had to resort to pen and paper…once students have arrived at the university… it becomes difficult for them to be failed or sent home.’

The BBC News report highlighted another problem – it’s ‘unusual for students to fail postgraduate courses.’ Higher Education Statistics Agency analysis of trends for degrees ‘does not explicitly contain the concept of failing a course.’

One reader of this report posting a comment on the BBC News website claimed that ‘Our university is known for passing students with poor English skills.’

The repercussions for the reputation of the UK’s universities was highlighted by the case of Kai Lee, a Chinese Masters student whose ‘essay-writing empire’ was busted last November. Lee advertised his services through Mandarin-language posters on the campus of the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), charging up to £1000 for essays and dissertations for students at several universities. Lee was uncovered by Uclan student newspaper Pluto, but many Uclan students leaving comments on Pluto’s web forum felt it was a victimless crime, blaming a ‘university system’ that recruits high-paying non-English proficient students.

Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute warned BBC News that ‘the concern about international students and their language ability is actually two way.’ Bekhadnia says foreign governments are concerned that students they send to the UK on scholarship programmes spend so much time getting their English up to scratch that that they don't learn much of their subject. This problem influenced the Chinese ministry of education’s decision to end its funding for students on UK Masters courses. The British Council in Beijing confirmed that the Chinese ‘ministry of education support (in the form of scholarships) is now focused on PhD students and not Masters’

What solutions are there to the problems posed by a surge in non-English proficient international university students? A coherent programme of mentoring is a must (see my article on this here). Universities should admit only those international students who are strong academically. No amount of EAP support will help a student get a degree in a subject in which they are weak. Get students on Foundation courses as early as possible, and our earlier survey of EAP courses produced general agreement that students need a minimum IELTS score of 5 even to get on a Foundation course. (See the April 2008 Gazette.)

We asked some EAP units with a good reputation what factors they felt influenced non-native speaker international university students succeeding

Alison Strandling, from the Language Centre of the world class London School of Economics (LSE, part of the University of London) says its centre has one-to-one consultations for EAP students as part of its programme, and its EAP teachers also have office hours when students can receive individual help and support. LSE’s virtual learning platform is becoming increasingly important in supporting international students. No additional fees for EAP are charged on top of the standard subject course tuition fees, which encourages students to maximize their use of them.

University of East Anglia’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (academic) Professor Edward Acton told the Gazette, ‘ I think each of the solutions you cite is important. The one we have poured much energy into is the development of pre-university pathways,
combining academic and intensive English language tuition, provided on campus… Immersion in an English-speaking environment and habituation to UK study methods before starting a degree course seems to be paying great dividends. As a group, international students coming to us from this route are thus far distinctly outperforming those recruited directly.’

Saudi scholarship surge

Literally thousands of Saudi scholarship students are appearing in universities and EAP courses around the world

Matt Salusbury


This article first appeared in English Language Gazette January 2009

ENGLISH language schools and English medium universities around the world are already experiencing an influx of Saudi students as a result of the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education’s King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP). Approximately 17,000 Saudi nationals a year join the programme and study abroad, with numbers likely to grow further in the next few years. The destination countries for KASP students transcend the English-speaking world, with English-medium universities in continental Europe and Asia as part of the deal.

According to official Saudi diplomatic sources, ‘The Programme of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz for Foreign Scholarship’ was launched in April 2006, and was based on a plan submitted by the Higher Education Council. King Abdullah’s name has been associated with numerous large-scale education projects, including the King Abdullah Institute for Science and Technology and the brand new university being built in the brand new King Adbullah Economic City in the desert.

The original King Adbullah Scholarships were for Saudi nationals to study in ‘the United States and the Asian nations’ and the US remains by far the biggest destination for KASP students, recently facilitated by an apparent easing on the US visa regime for those with passports from the Middle East. Saudi Cultural Attache to the US Dr. Mohammad Aleissa said that the King Abdullah scholarships were part of a Saudi initiative in partnership with then President George W. Bush’s administration to counter ‘some misundestandings’ between the US and Saudi Arabia post-9/11. According to Tom Green, vice president for enrollment management at East Michigan University in the US, the King Abdullah programme’s organizers ‘hope to sponsor 20,000 students by the end of 2008, and by the end of 2009 they hope to have 25,000 students in the United States.’

The Asian destinations for 3,000 KASP students in the first intake of the programme were China (200 KASP scholars were in China as of June 2008), Japan, Singapore and South Korea – presumably on English-medium programmes at universities there. Shortly before we went to press in November 2008, 138 King Abdullah scholarship students went to an intensive orientation session on Riyadh, in preparation for going out to higher education study in India.

Since its inception, King Abdullah scholarships have increased in the scope of the countries that its scholars go to, and in the range of students it sends abroad. The programme originally had a ‘cap’ restricting it to the top five per cent of students in Saudi schools, Now the cap has been removed, and less high-flying students can get on the programme based on a checklist of various demographic and academic achievement criteria, although a look at the criteria suggests that students still have to be in the top ten per cent for academic achievement. While the ministry of higher education runs the scheme, the selection of candidates is in the hands of ‘independent academic committees’ made up of representatives of various Saudi university faculties in relevant subject areas.

KASP Director Dr Majed Alharbi was in the UK in late 2007 to talk to universities, and following this, KASP students are turning up in the UK in increasing numbers. See page 6 for the impact of KASP on London’s EFL school market. A quick Gazette ring round UK universities showed that some were hoping to recruit more Saudis through KASP, while others were already keeping a close eye on the number of Saudis arriving, in case this began to impact on their mix of nationalities.

And the range of countries covered by KASP has grown. In Holland, Groningen University took 79 medical students under the programe in 2007, and the University of Twente in the north of the country has been actively recruiting KASP students. The Gazette came across university websites in Italian that mention agreements through KASP. The British Council in Saudi Arabia forwarded the Gazette an introductory document from the Saudi deputy ministry of scholarship affairs (part of the ministry of higher education) which said that KASP students are also currently studying (as well as in all the above countries) in Australia, Slovakia, Hungary, Ireland, Germany, Malaysia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, New Zealand, Canada and Spain.

There are currently a total of 40,000 Saudi students on KASP scholarships or who have completed them. The programme is currently in Phase 4, which focuses on studies for medicine, pharmacy, engineering, computer science, mathematics, physics, accountancy, insurance and e-commerce. 5000 KASP places are reserved for Masters and Doctorates courses. It’s a generous package, covering air fares, accommodation, a monthly stipend, an allowance for books and clothes, living costs for dependents and also medical and dental insurance. It funds up to a year’s ‘language preparation’ in preparation for courses of study.

The normal KASP progression route is an intensive English course followed by a university degree course. Saudi students can usually apply through the Saudi Arabia consulate of the country they want to study in. In the US, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission works with the Washington DC-based Academy for Educational Development (AED), which runs an admissions service for KASP students. AED is currently ‘focusing its efforts on placing new KASP students in intensive English language programmes’ and ‘researching academic program opportunities appropriate to each student's academic goals and admissions credentials.’ The local Saudi consulates monitor the academic progress of KASP students, and particularly their attendance at English classes, and the Saudi Gazette recently reported that 512 KASP students were ‘recalled’ due to their ‘weak performance and poor attendance records.’ The programme has now beefed up its compulsory pre-departure orientation courses.

KASP has been sending abroad middle class Saudis who normally wouldn’t get the chance to study overseas for an extended period. Many of its students are women, and these face an additional complication. Scholarship students going abroad need a mahram, a Ministry-approved male relative to accompany them for up to four years. Western immigration authorities are puzzled by the concept of mahrams and what exactly the purpose of their visit is, which leads to additional complications. Recent developments in Saudi Arabia such at the founding of the new Riyadh Women’s University and the admission of women into training for the diplomatic corps may lead to a eventual relaxation of such restrictions as the mahram requirement. Women who pay their own way when studying abroad can already go without a mahram.

KASP has stimulated demand among Saudis for study abroad in general. London and South African schools report they are receiving many more ‘young Saudis,’ including juniors, who aren’t eligible for KASP. In Australia there have been several recent conferences on the impact of so many Saudis on its EFL sector, with teachers with Middle East experience advising on how to prepare these students for university.