Focusing on Competitive Advantage in the IELP Marketplace
The following interview is with Andrew Scales, academic director of the English Language Institute at the University of British Columbia (UBC). International English language programs (IELPs) are often designed for traditional or high school-age students to achieve a basic level of competency in English before enrolling in postsecondary education in North America. UBC, however, has devised a different approach to the marketplace. Scales has taken time out to expand on the different niches higher education institutions can serve, and shares his thoughts on the importance of sticking to institutional competitive advantage.
1. Why has the English language program marketplace become so competitive in recent years?
It’s largely because English has become more and more recognized as the language you absolutely need to be able to speak to take part in the global society. Most of these English language programs have been around for quite a long time. The big difference is, over the last few years, there’s been a greater recognition of the programs because they’re expanding so rapidly. Particularly in North America, both in Canada and the [United States], we’ve seen a huge expansion in the number of Chinese and Saudi Arabian students, and if they want to go to university in North America, then they’re going to have to increase their English language abilities to the admissions standards of those universities.
2. How do Canadian institutions typically stack up against American institutions when it comes to attracting international English language students?
They stack up very well indeed. Partly it’s because the English language teaching industry — and it is an industry rather than a field — is international, so most of our standards are international. For example, if you look at test scores, there are a number of big testing organizations, and whether the students are studying in Canada or the United States or Australia or wherever, they’re going to be working toward similar kinds of standards.
3. Do Canadian institutions hold the same cache as American institutions when it comes to competing for these traditional-age students who look at English language programs as a pathway to enrolment rather than as an end in themselves?
The [United States] is probably a little bit ahead of Canada in that sense in terms of the development of pathway programs. [A common practice] is conditional admission where you will accept a student whose English isn’t quite there yet; it doesn’t meet the admissions requirements, but academically that’s a very valuable student. The condition is the student has to get their English up to scratch and then they can begin their credit studies. These kinds of programs have been around in the United States for a long time whereas in Canada it’s relatively recently that we’ve got more involved in conditional admission and other pathway programs. Having said that, though, it’s an international industry, so we understand very well what the requirements are and we understand it’s not just a matter of language acquisition — there are also social practices the students have to learn in order to participate in Western education.
4. Most English language programs look to attract traditional-age students and provide them with language skills to help them succeed in North American academic programs. How does UBC’s approach to the international English language market get away from that model?
We do have that model but we’ve now just introduced a new approach where we’re taking students at a lower English language standard and giving them a mixed approach, where they’re following credit-courses, but they’re often in smaller cohorts where the content instructor is working closely with the language teaching specialist to help students succeed in those classes. It’s a kind of two-way flow [between the teachers and instructors]. … The follow up side of that would be that those students would meet again in small cohorts and do seminars in the English language side to make sure they had actually followed the lecture and understood what the professor was saying.
5. UBC also has programs in place to attract working professionals and adults to go to British Columbia to engage in English language programs, more geared toward professional outcomes as opposed to academic.
We have those as well. Nowadays in this global society, you really have to have English in pretty much any area you’re working in. Just to get back briefly to the academic side for an example: in the academic world, the reality is that if you don’t publish in English, people are simply not going to read most of your work.
A similar thing is going on within the professional world as well. It’s been a long time now that the accepted language of international business is English. … If you want to succeed in [the business world], you’re going to have to improve your language skills.
6. Why is it valuable for institutions to look for niches within niche markets?
For the English Language Institute, the niche is the academic English niche; that’s our most important one — whether it’s helping students gain entry into UBC or even, once they’re in, to help them with their English language during their studies. Plus, you’ve got these huge private sector organizations. Now that [there are] a lot more of those general English courses — maybe even business English would fall into this category — [these classes may be] better done by those kinds of organizations. In business English, for example, you often have these very small classes; six people, for example, studying for two weeks. The private sector works better for that kind of niche.
But when it comes to a more academic niche, then students are certainly looking toward the universities.
7. Is there anything you’d like to add about finding new approaches to competing in the international English language marketplace and what higher education institutions need to do to maintain their market share as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other non-academic education providers are starting to rise in the market?
We see this market as continuing to grow enormously. The number of people in the world who are studying English is colossal. … The academic niche is the important one for us, but we’re still open to general English and business English, those kinds of programs. In terms of the way we compete, that has changed a little. Social media is [making an impact]. We have blogs, all those kinds of things, and it’s kind of nice. It’s that much more transparent because the students are writing about their experience and telling friends what they felt about the institute.
[Students] are kind of taking over the advertising for us and making it that much more targeted.