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New measures of excellence

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Matt Salusbury rakes through the rankings for UK university language centres and explains why different listings measure very different aspects of learning.

If you want to use rankings to choose a UK university language centre which teaches pre-sessional courses to international students, you may start off with a series of seemingly contradictory lists. We have three tables on this page, each of which uses a different metric to ‘rank’. Table 1 lists the top UK universities from the THE World University Rankings.

This is a ranking of universities, not individual departments, but we have only included those that run their own language centres – not those who contract out pre-sessionals or run joint ventures. The THE ranking is a measurement of a university’s excellence and reputation in research. A university’s academic research is a different game to teaching the English and academic skills its ‘internationals’ need in preparation for a degree course. Academic high fliers whose published work contributes to a high score for their university in the World University Rankings may or may not have any impact on the quality of the unit that teaches academic English. World-class universities can be more selective and feel less need to cater for international students without already excellent English. It’s noticeable, though, that most of the UK’s top twenty THE-ranked universities do have English language provision. Even Imperial College, specialising in science and not offering any arts or humanities degree courses, has an English language centre. Universities have no requirement to get separate accreditation for their English language centres. Some, including those at the top of the table, don’t feel the need to seek it, and that is their choice.


Many, though, do have an accredited language centre. The British Council accredits language schools – and also university language centres – based on the quality of their English teaching in general. EAP providers’ association Baleap has an accreditation scheme for English language centres, which focuses in the quality of EAP provision in particular. The British Council publishes its results – see Table 2, our ranking of British Council-ranked UK university language centres. This is based on the number of ‘area strengths’ in their most recent summary statement (inspection report summary). Many even opt for ‘double accreditation’ (see Table 1) – with both the British Council (for its English teaching in general, with a score, see Table 2) and with Baleap (focussed on EAP, but with no score available).

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As you will notice in Table 1 there is another way of ranking a university’s status in language teaching. The REF – the Research Excellence Framework, which was last carried out in 2014 – looks at the quality of postgraduate research in a particular subject. Not all universities with language centres submitted research to the REF in a Tesol-related field (education, English language or applied linguistics), but for those that did, we have their ranking in that subject. A high REF score means there are staff in that university who are strong in these fields, which may also impact positively on the quality of their English language centre’s teaching.

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Finally, there’s the relatively new TEF, brought to you by England’s Department for Education (DfE, many Scottish universities aren’t yet part of it). It’s based on indicators such as the ‘student experience’ of the university and is supposed to reflect teaching quality rather than research excellence. It seems to favour newer campus universities over more ancient established universities and those in bigger cities. So new is TEF that all we have at the moment is a ‘modelling’ of the top ten by the THE World University Rankings, included here (Table 3). Even among these less-well-known TEF ranked institutions, the top ten all have a language centre, and some of those those near the top are accredited.