As more private language schools have limited funds for training and development, Hannah Alexander-Wright explores if teaching English as a foreign language at a university could be the natural next step in your career.
The Gazette asked five university tutors, based both in the UK and the US, what it’s really like to teach in academic institutions.
All staff had different experiences as each employer has different policies on pay structure, job security and CPD.
But one uniting experience was the problem of the status of the subject: TEFL at universities can be seen as remedial support by students and staff, something that a student has to do in order to do the subject that they want to.
There is frustration that what the students learn in the department is non-credit-bearing, and therefore not as ‘important’.
The pay can be better than at private language centres but job security can be problematic as full-time positions are scarce.
In the UK, university tutors seem to enjoy a more generous CPD programme, whereas in the US this is more limited.
What are the pros and cons of working at a university, compared to a private language school?
One UK-based tutor told us they find the work ‘more challenging’ because language work is more embedded in degree level content. ‘I get to learn many other subjects by working with students studying these specialisms’, they said.
Another working in the UK private sector said the main difference is the fact that academic English at university is high-stakes. Students often need to attain certain proficiency levels to progress to the next stage of their academic career.
And the mindset of students can be different. A US-based tutor said: ‘In the private language setting the student is a “customer,” and more often than not, has a feeling that they are buying language ability instead of buying instruction. The positive side of the private language school is that there is a lot more flexibility with curriculum and content. In the university setting, there are specific curriculum objectives and learning outcomes that constrain the teacher.’
What are the pay and conditions like?
Private institutions may have more flexibility with their pay structures, a US-based tutor said. ‘This means they can increase salaries to attract more qualified faculty, but can also decrease salaries based on the market’ needs, they said.
A UK tutor added: ‘I am on a fractional contract that I can top up when there is extra work, but this cannot be relied upon. Hourly pay rates have not increased in eight years and the grading system means we are not classified as teachers (we’re professional services). There’s no mechanism for promotion unless you move into management. I earned more in my previous job in a private language school than I do now due to profit-related pay and teacher training bonuses, but I enjoy the variety of this work much more.’
“I personally find the work more challenging because language work is more embedded in degree level content ”
Other UK tutors told the Gazette that pay is ‘significantly higher’ than in private language schools they had worked in. ‘There is the option to be part of the pension scheme. The holiday allowance is good for permanent staff’, they said.
Although pay is higher, tutors report there is a lack of permanent, full-time positions in the industry, with university departments relying on freelance and fixed-term contracts.
Did you find it easy to get a job teaching at a university?
Tutors have reported it is harder to get a job in the halls of academe.
One UK tutor said: ‘It’s not easy to get a secure university job in the current climate, except for summer pre-sessional jobs (that’s how I started) and hourly paid work– though this is getting harder too. Friends in London have to take work at two or three universities to earn enough to live on.’
Do you feel that you are treated like other university academics?
A US tutor said they are ‘absolutely treated differently’.
‘Often our programmes are housed in continuing and professional studies or non-degree departments. We are also usually referred to as instructors rather than professors. This is reflected in both pay and collegiality.’
UK tutors complained that they thought other university departments were unclear as to their role.
One said that in terms of conditions, benefits and opportunities staff were treated the same, but they did not have the same ability to progress in their career as others.
One said: ‘There is no way to reach the next pay grade without taking on a management role when you are a pre-sessional/in-sessional tutor.
The structure lacks a senior tutor position for us.’
One tutor said that EAP staff were ‘often treated as less essential to or on the periphery of the university.’
Qualifications needed to teach English at university in the UK and US
US: Depends on university:
• Full-time teachers often require an MA, but there are many part-time and on-and-off positions for teachers with BA degrees or with Tesol certificates.
• No federal standard and even accrediting agencies don’t hold one standard for all programs.
• There are schools that require not only an MA but also a certain number of years teaching, and even a certain number of years teaching in a specific context.
UK: Depends on university:
• Most universities require at least a Level 7 qualification (Delta or masters)
• Celta is the basic requirement to teach at most universities but a BC/Baleap – recognised centres often request a diploma as the minimum requirement.
For more details on UK opportunities, see:
For more details on US opportunities, see: