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University challenge

Rafaela Peteanu surveys the challenged facing UK university language centres teaching Arabic speakers

A significant number of Middle Eastern students arrive in the UK every year aiming to study at a university, and many of them require a foundation course. In an attempt to discover what challenges they face, the Gazette contacted a number of university language centres.

To place our findings in context, we wanted to learn a bit about the language centres we were dealing with. How many Arabic speaking students did they normally enrol? What level were they aiming to study at? What was their English level (expressed as an Ielts score) before and after taking a course in a language centre?

Arabic speakers made up 10 to 20 per cent of enrolments in most of the language centres we contacted. A few had more, including Brunel, LSI Portsmouth, Warwick and Leicester. De Montfort University topped the chart: around 90 per cent of their enrolments are Arabs, at least at this time of year, while normally they have around 20 per cent.

The vast majority of these students are looking to take postgraduate courses. However their English is not always up to the level required, normally 6.5 to 7 at Ielts, and they need to study at the university language centre first.

Of the language centres we surveyed, only the London School of Economics (LSE) and Lancaster accept students with a minimum Ielts score of 6. Edinburgh, Brighton and Leicester accept students with Ielts scores under 5. The majority of our respondents, including Southampton and Birmingham, report students enrolling with Ielts scores of 5–6.

Language centres reported clear cultural problems with some of these students. ‘They are used to rote learning and memorisation … unwilling to learn new study skills … do not practise English out of class,’ one language centre representative said. Some have ‘attitude problems (arriving late to classes, picking up and sending text messages during classes)’, another one added. Typically they ‘lack writing background’, both in terms of grammar and spelling, and there was unanimous agreement that academic writing was a problem.

So how do these Arabic speakers get from their initial scores to the minimum 6 or even 7 Ielts points they need? According to the university language centres we surveyed, the most effective courses are academic English programmes with study skills, lasting anywhere from three to twelve months. These also seem to be the most popular with students.

Most courses run about twenty hours a week, but Leicester reported that intensive studies (21 class hours with a further fifteen self-study) for ten to forty weeks depending on entry level, proved the most effective.

To assist students even further with writing skills, the University of Brighton has developed its own class materials, while Liverpool offers in-sessional writing support, including one-to-one consultations, once students are enrolled on degrees. Essex provides Arabic-speaking students with short-term continual professional development courses.

Improving language levels is never a straightforward task. While some Arab students have good spoken English and come across as self-assured and at ease in a variety of social situations, almost all need help with writing, and UK university language centres help them achieve that.

The Gazette would like to thank the language centres at Brunel University, De Montfort University, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Edinburgh, Essex, Brunel, De Montfort, Essex, Lancaster, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Sussex, Warwick and York.