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Which unis do well – and why?

University Salford

University language centres make up the most consistent of the accredited sectors, judged by the strengths awarded across all five of the standards inspected by the British Council, Melanie Butler writes. It is also excels at classroom teaching, with over 50 per cent of all universities achieving a strength in this compared to just 20 per cent of accredited centres overall.

The fact that universities excel at classroom teaching is more of a surprise than you might expect: the criteria for classroom teaching are designed to cover every kind of English course, from a summer school for eight year-olds to academic English programmes for post-graduates. 

Some of the areas covered, such as teaching pronunciation using the International Phonetic Alphabet, are not well-suited to university courses designed to teach academic writing skills. There are even stories of academics threatening to mutiny over criteria they feel do not conform to the latest research evidence, but the sector has one main advantage: it attracts the most highly qualified and experienced English language teachers in the country, and this shows not only in their academic profile, an area in which many gain a strength, but in their classroom teaching.

The universities are consistent not only in their classroom teaching but in the number of strengths awarded under the standards for teaching and learning. Just over half of all centres received an area of strength in three or more of the areas which come under this standard, including a strength in classroom teaching. The top universities in the areas of teaching and learning are not necessarily the top-scoring ones in the scheme. The top university in the EL Gazette rankings is Brighton, which does not quite match the five areas of strength awarded to the top four in our teaching excellence list – but is close behind. However, the universities which do well overall in the British Council inspections are the most likely to top the teaching list. All but two of our teaching excellence centres rank in the top 20 per cent in the country.

So what do the best university language centres for teaching have in common? Well it certainly isn’t their banding on the TEF. Or even their rankings on the REF – though most of them operate in universities that offer masters in fields related to language teaching. As in the TEF, a post-1992 university is just as likely to make it to the top as a Russell Group member or a world-ranking university. This is equally true at the bottom. Salford and UCL may rank one and two for teaching but the two lowest-performing universities, Nottingham Trent and Warwick, score no points in teaching at all.

Student dissatisfaction with London universities is not reflected in their teaching results, as all but one of the capital’s universities accredited by the British Council make it into this list. Overall, metropolitan universities predominate, which is perhaps to do with the relative ease of attracting skilled staff, especially during the peak summer season. It is clear from conversations with them that universities outside the main centres for English language teaching have problems recruiting qualified staff. It is equally true that the fastest-growing markets for language teaching in the last decade have been in major university hub towns, notably Leeds, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Partly because of this, metropolitan universities make up the majority of the sector. None of the ancient universities opt to be inspected, unless you count Dundee on the grounds that it used to be part of St Andrews. Dundee is also the only Scottish university in the scheme and there are only two from Wales. There is also a dearth of accredited campus universities.

It is the quality of the teachers that makes university language centres stand out, due in part to the fact that they pay more than twice as much per hour as their FE or private language schools peers. Only the boarding school language centres can compete in terms of teaching, and indeed beat the universities hands down when it comes to the area of care of under-18s.

This does not mean, of course, that the teaching quality in the language centres mirrors the quality in the rest of the university, except perhaps for modern foreign languages, with which many of them are also involved. The fact is that teachers in language centres, though some of them are notable research academics in their own right, almost all started out as teachers in classrooms in schools.  They have been trained to teach, something which is no longer in fashion in the UK schools system, let alone in universities.

Pic courtesy: Anthony P Buce