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From Russia to Regent’s Park

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As the new Institute of Languages and Culture at Regent’s University London opens its doors, Melanie Butler talks to its director Steve Phillips about his academic journey

‘In 1993, clutching my Celta in my hand, I went to work in the most interesting country to be in, which at that time was Russia. I got a job at the Moscow Linguistic University and, three weeks later, the tanks rolled in.’ Undaunted, Steve Phillips, now director of the Institute of Languages and Culture at Regent’s University London, stayed on – ‘It was fascinating’ working at two universities and one business school for a period of six years.

Steve and I are sitting in the sun outside a restaurant on London’s Marylebone High Street, just five minutes from Regent’s University London’s main campus in leafy Regent’s Park and a hop, skip and jump from the brand new Institute of Languages and Culture. He has been working and living in the area since he came back from Russia in 2000.

‘Originally the plan was to come for two years while my wife, who is Russian, took her MBA. But I ended up getting a great job as principal and part owner of a language school in Regent’s Park just as Russia hit an economic crisis and the rouble plummeted.’

The school shared premises with two business schools. ‘From the beginning I wanted the language students to be able to take advantage of the life and facilities on campus,’ Steve explains. The two business schools merged and in 2013 became Regent’s University London, only the second private not-for-profit university ever to be given degree-awarding powers in the UK, and in 2008 bought out the language school, turning it into the university language centre. ‘Now many of the language students live on campus, take part in the activities, use the library and some come in as language students and then go on to take a degree with us. At the beginning, maybe ten students a year did so, but in the last intake it was about one hundred.’

The language school merged with the department of Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies to become the Institute of Languages and Culture, teaching not only English but nine other foreign languages. ‘Our own undergraduates are multilingual – 80 per cent from outside the UK – and value learning new languages as part of their main degree programme. We recruit from outside the university too. The numbers enrolled in courses for languages other than English are around the same as for our English courses.’

This explains the word languages in the institute’s name. But what about culture?

‘As part of our undergraduate degrees most students study abroad for a year. We believe that the secret of making that a successful experience is to do cross-cultural training.’

Regent’s is well and truly plugged into the global market for foreign exchange, with programmes with over 200 universities, both private and public, around the world, both through schemes like Erasmus+ and through individual partnerships. ‘A group of Japanese students have just arrived at the institute,’ Steve tells me. This constant flow of international students from around the world, together with the work with their own undergraduates, makes the place very different from typical language schools.

‘Our average student stay is twelve weeks.’ Steve smiles. ‘We are full all year round. All our staff are on contract – that makes us different not just from the average language school but from many university language units.’

So what is the biggest challenge involved in running the institute?

‘The challenge is that, coming from an EFL culture, as a group we’re not used to the administrative culture of universities: committees, research groups, academic policies. It’s certainly worth it though. We are not just a language unit, we sit alongside the two faculties of the university, so we are absolutely integrated into the system.’

And the biggest benefit? ‘Research. We have our own research department, headed by an academic team, doing real research into language learning. And some of the English teaching staff are getting involved too – getting time out of teaching to help the research team. I really find that exciting.’

As we sit drinking our coffee a gaggle of schoolgirls spills out of the school attached to St Marylebone Parish Church. There has been a church on this site for over 800 years and the school dates back to the 1790s. The area, tucked in between the park and Oxford Street, has the feel of a village, of which Regent’s, which also now owns the school of fashion and design on the High Street, has become an integral part.

‘Last week we had a graduation ceremony in the beautiful church just over there, and there was a student who had joined us for an Ielts course five or six years ago. And there he was one of our own graduates – that is what really makes me proud.’