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Top team leads to top ranking

Melanie Butler asks Patrick Brook, director of the University of Brighton’s Language Institute, how he ended up running the British Council’s top-ranked uni language centre

Patrick Brook is director of the Language Institute at the University of Brighton, our new number-one-ranked university language centre based on British Council inspection reports. But being the director of a top language centre was not one of his childhood ambitions, he admits to me.

‘I wanted to work for the National Trust,’ Patrick says over coffee. But having taught English in France as part of his undergraduate degree, he headed back there to teach English after becoming disillusioned with teaching French in UK secondary schools. ‘I found it all rather challenging – a lot of crowd control!’ he explains.

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LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN Language Institute director Patrick Brook and assistant director Sally Nichols (front), with vice chancellor Debra Humphris (behind Patrick) and key staff (Courtesy University of Brighton Language Institute)

He ended up moving on to Cyprus and Russia before returning to work in London. ‘In 1999 I went to do my masters in Tesol at the University of Brighton. They offered me a job, and I’ve never left.’

When Patrick arrived at the university, there was not a language centre as such but a number of different sections offering different types of English courses to different types of students, often in different university departments.

‘I was lucky over the years that I have taught and coordinated each of the different sections,’ Patrick says, adding that a number of years ago he was instrumental in synthesising ‘what seemed to be a disparate bunch of courses’ into the Language Institute, of which he is now director.

‘I didn’t do this by myself, and I don’t want to take all the credit,’ he says, singling out his deputy, ‘the meticulous and infinitely patient’ Sally Nichols. ‘Our creative discussions were really the driving force behind the changes. I couldn’t have done it without her, nor without the team of highly qualified academic staff who not only know how to think creatively but also how to operate in the wider university culture.’

A cohort of academics is just one of the elements you need for a successful English language centre, according to Patrick. The second is a group of specialised language centre administration staff. ‘Ours pride themselves on understanding the international student experience, and they get involved in every aspect of pastoral care.’ He is also a firm believer in transparent systems ‘which operate in the best interests of all students on a year-round basis’.

He is, I suggest, lucky to be at a university that takes its language centre seriously, as all too often in my experience they stick it in a basement and hide information about it deep in the bowels of the university website. Patrick agrees, adding that when the Gazette phoned to tell him that Brighton was the top-ranking university centre, even the vice chancellor came down to celebrate.

‘The university really recognises that the Language Institute has an important central function. It knows that for international students a course with us is going to be their first experience of the university, and that’s really important.’

Patrick, who is nothing if not thorough, had a hand in how the institute features on the university’s redesigned website. ‘We have our own section, but links to our courses can be found on most of the degree programme webpages, reminding students of their English language options.’

He boasts of support from academic services, marketing and even the finance department. ‘It was a nightmare for them when we set up our extended masters programmes, a type of validated and integrated pre-sessional programme which involves students going from the language preparation to their degree programme as an “unconditional” student. University finance systems just don’t cater for that sort of thing – but they did it!’

The extended masters is one of Patrick’s proudest academic achievements. ‘The idea was to integrate the language with the student experience – also organising students spending time at their subject area departments once a week, not just sticking them in English lessons for a period of time and them throwing them into their faculty.’ He also talks fondly of the language assessment descriptor system he designed with Sally – ‘We are able to give a really accurate account of how well a student has done whilst being able to identify areas they need to work on’ – as well as the growing number of bespoke professional programmes they run in the summer.

Patrick knows that he is lucky, though his luck is bolstered by his charm and his sheer dogged determination. When it comes to the location of the university, though, Patrick’s character doesn’t come into it. ‘Brighton is a great student city. Popular, lively, vibrant, on the sea and just an hour from London.’

But the university’s close link with the community also feeds into the international student experience. ‘We get Chinese students volunteering to help out local people – it really makes them feel part of the city.’

It is a city that Patrick is now part of himself. Coffee finished he heads back there, pleased as punch at his team’s success in the British Council inspection, and with a head full of ideas about the things he wants to do next.