Claudia Civinini investigates the options facing an Italian mum finding a course for her teenage son
Where would a southern European mother send her seventeen-year-old son to study English in the UK? Probably she would contact an agent or book a course in a language school, but we at the Gazette wondered whether she should also consider universities.
For a foreign student trying to learn English, practice outside the classroom is essential. With Italian, French and Spanish making up 40 per cent of all private-sector UK EFL summer school students, this demographic may get too many chances to speak its mother tongue. Growing up in Genoa, Italy, I witnessed teenagers returning from a vacation course in the UK speaking a perfect Roman or Neapolitan dialect but no English.
By contrast, the main language groups of foreign students enrolled at UK universities language centres are Chinese, Arabic-speakers and Thais, so it’s harder for a southern European to avoid practising their English. European students increasingly need a good level of English for their continuing studies – for example, Spanish students with B2-level English get three university credits – and universities could provide the appropriate academic focus.
Most universities in the UK have language centres offering presessional academic English to support their own international students. Some also run general English courses open to external students. Not many of these, however, accept under-eighteens. Under British law, sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds are considered children (‘minors’). Strict child protection regulations apply, so not many universities are prepared to accept them.
How easy would it be for our mother to find out which universities are suitable for her son – which offer general English courses and are geared up to take care of him? To find out, I made up an identity – an Italian mother looking for a language course at a university for her seventeen-year-old son. I then emailed universities accredited by the British Council and Baleap that appeared to offer open EL courses.
I asked all the important questions – do you offer general English courses for students still in high school? What type of accommodation is available? Adding ‘Please email me a copy of the canteen menu’ would have given authenticity to my claim, but the kind administrators I contacted still believed I was a genuine Italian mother and generally got back to me pretty swiftly.
Out of 35 universities I contacted, eighteen offer general English courses and eleven can enrol under-eighteens. Three of these, Leeds, Wolverhampton and Liverpool, require a guardian living in the UK to be responsible for the student.
Among the universities that enrol under-eighteens for English language courses, some stood out for the clarity of their information. The University of the Arts offers only one accommodation option, homestay, and its under-eighteens policy is very precise. Regent’s University has clear provisions on accommodation for such students.
Some universities displayed excellent customer service. Bangor University and York St John University responded in record-breaking time to advise me that they do have English courses but can’t enrol under-eighteens. (Bangor took just six minutes, St John took ten.)
The responses from the University of Leeds and the University of Liverpool were very informative, explaining they couldn’t guarantee constant supervision, and outlining their policies for under-eighteens. Leeds also attached all the relevant documents.
Sometimes, however, the response was disappointing. Four of the 36 universities I contacted didn’t reply. Some other universities that run open EFL courses weren’t clear on whether they accepted under-eighteens, or didn’t have a clear policy on minors. Only one university, St Andrews, employs an agent to recruit Italian students. I emailed that agent, but to no avail.
Universities can offer a valuable alternative to language centres for international students aged sixteen to eighteen. However, booking such courses can be daunting for parents with limited English. Apart from the University of Wolverhampton’s brochure in Italian (but no other foreign languages) it’s difficult to find relevant information translated. The lack of clear detail on safeguarding and supervision of under-eighteens could make a parent think twice. Clear publicity for an international audience with all the relevant information would help attract more late-teen language students to UK universities.
Universities we had heard from before we went to press were: Aberystwyth*, Bangor*, Canterbury Christchurch*, De Montfort*, Manchester Metropolitan University*, Middlesex University*, Nottingham Trent, Oxford Brookes, Queen Mary University of London, Reading, Regent’s*, St Andrews*, Swansea*, University of the Arts*, Bath*, University College London, Edinburgh, Essex, Gloucestershire*, Kent*, Leeds*, Leicester, Liverpool*, Manchester*, Sheffield*, Warwick, , Worcester*, York St John*. Universities with * confirmed they offer general English courses open to external students. Thanks to the University of Wolverhampton, whose brochure in Italian answered all my questions