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Four Internal Challenges and Considerations for International English Program Administrators

Four Internal Challenges and Considerations for International English Program Administrators
International English language programs cannot be made successful overnight; they require dedicated management and careful consideration for the elements that make these programs unique.
This article describes some of the challenges managers of self-supporting university-based intensive English programs (IEPs) face in addressing internal program issues such as program size and quality, staffing and curriculum development. The focus is on IEPs that prepare students for admission to American undergraduate and graduate degree programs. “Self-supporting” IEPs rely solely on student fees and receive no funding from the university or any outside source; they typically are a part of a university extension or continuing education unit.

1. Enrollment Management

One of basic facts of life in IEPs is we rarely know how many students we’ll have until the first day of the program, and even that number is likely to change within the first week or so. “No-show’s” are common even when students have paid their fees in advance, and occasionally there are students who arrive unannounced. In self-supporting programs, the number of students enrolled in the IEP is a critical factor that not only affects program finances but also program quality. After all, it impacts how well students can be placed in class sections according to their English language proficiency and with respect to class size; generally, we associate smaller class sizes with program quality because instructors can devote more time and individualized attention to students.

While some students believe the optimal program size is 60 to 100 students — to guarantee maximum attention for each student — this is often not the case. To do a good job of placing students in appropriate proficiency levels, it’s better to have at least 150 to 200 students with about 10 to 13 class sections (about 15 students per class). Some may say 15 students per class is too large, but for classes that use project work, the class size is manageable. Most programs have six proficiency levels with two basic levels, two intermediate levels and two advanced levels, and with 10 to 13 class sections and slight proficiency gradations in each. IEP managers can do a better job of matching students to appropriate proficiency levels in large programs than they can with small enrollments.

Total enrollments and the number of students per class are critical for the financial success of an IEP. Self-supporting programs are expected to cover not only all direct and indirect expenses, but also to generate excess revenue. Ideally, each class section should be self-sustaining and cover the cost of the instructor and a portion of the administrative and staff support, as well as overheads including classrooms, utilities and institutional expenses. In most cases, even non-profit programs and institutions need to generate excess revenue to cover losses in other program areas and to build reserves for capital expenses (for example, replacing computers, updating language lab equipment, refurbishing classrooms and building projects).

IEP managers need to plan their program budgets well in advance of each new fiscal year, calculating all direct and indirect expenses including margins, projecting enrollments and establishing tuition and other fees to ensure a sustainable annual budget. They also need to develop contingency plans in the event that enrollments exceed or fall below projections. If there is a shortfall in revenue, they need to decide in advance what corrective measures to take. Some approaches here include reducing certain expenses and/or increasing class sizes to make up for losses. Conversely, if enrollments exceed projections, there will be additional expenses for instructors, classrooms and support services, but those variables can be taken into account in the context of advance contingency planning. The good news is that this budget planning process addresses and removes many of the uncertainties in running an IEP and also yields information on the number of enrollments required to reach a break-even point. Once the break-even number has been reached, excess revenue accumulates rapidly and potentially allows for reductions in class sizes and possibly the easing of other budget constraints.

Since most managers of self-supporting IEP programs have experienced periods with low enrollments, it’s difficult to turn away students; however, large, unanticipated enrollments can result in another set of problems, including finding qualified instructors, having enough classrooms and providing adequate student services. When enrollments exceed capacity, it’s often necessary to increase class sizes to compensate for the lack of classrooms and instructors. Thus, IEP managers are caught in an ongoing balancing act between generating as much revenue as possible and maintaining a high level of program quality. In some cases, it may be advisable to turn away applicants in order to maintain the balance of resources and program quality.

2. Finding and Keeping Strong English Instructors

Most self-supporting IEPs employ a combination of full- and part-time instructors; some offer only part-time or casual positions. Full-time teaching positions are usually annual, renewable appointments with benefits whereas part-time positions are “by agreement” and provide employment only for a specific academic session with no guarantee of employment for the next session. Programs that offer only part-time positions are constantly vulnerable because instructors tend to be on the lookout for full-time positions and their departure can put the IEP at risk.

Programs that offer a combination of full- and part-time positions are at less risk because they have a solid core of salaried instructors to maintain consistency and program quality. However, this combination creates a two-tiered system with respect to job security and benefits that can result in resentment among part-time instructors and, in some cases, labor disputes. When part-time instructors leave these programs, their departure is not as disruptive as it is when all instructors are part-timers. Nevertheless, replacing a good part-time instructor can still be problematic and interfere with program continuity and quality.

Four Internal Challenges and Considerations for International English Program Administrators
Maintaining strong and dedicated academic and support staffs is central to the ongoing success of an international English language program.

3. Maintaining Support Staff

In today’s competitive environment, it’s not enough for IEPs to offer strong academic programs. They need to also provide student support services for housing, academic counseling and activities coordination, and also maintain critical business functions, such as application processing, record keeping and responding to enquiries.

These support roles usually involve full-time positions, because they provide the ongoing infrastructure needed to keep the IEP running. This irony is not lost on disgruntled part-time instructors and points to another one of the challenges that IEP managers face.

4. Coordinating Curriculum and Instruction

IEP curricula need to be structured and orchestrated carefully so instruction at each proficiency level is consistent in preparing students to meet the demands of the next level. When there are multiple sections at the same proficiency level, instructors in these sections need to cover the same materials and skills so students are ready for the next level regardless of which instructor they have at their current one. This consistency is important and informs instructors at the next level regarding what has been covered, allowing them to build on that foundation.

Thus, the overall IEP program curriculum is an important roadmap that needs to be structured horizontally so instruction is consistent in all class sections at the same proficiency level and vertically from level to level to ensure overall instruction aligns with the end goals of the program, that is, that students will be able to enter and succeed in their university degree programs.

Although there are textbook series for IEPs that address both English language and academic skills at multiple proficiency levels, program managers and instructors usually prefer to select textbooks and materials that meet program and student needs. Thus, it takes a lot of work and careful coordination to develop an IEP curriculum that instructors will follow and that guides students through their IEP studies.

Developing a viable curriculum is complicated. An IEP curriculum is not static and must evolve over time to meet the changing needs of the program and its students. In order to achieve instructor buy-in, there need to be opportunities for instructor input and feedback. Curriculum development is neither linear nor straightforward, and can be incredibly time consuming. Given the day-to-day workloads of instructors and IEP managers, it’s difficult to find the time and financial resources to support curriculum development. Consistent implementation of curricula is especially complicated when programs rely on part-time instructors who often are not available to provide input or attend meetings.


Although IEP managers face daunting challenges, they are not insurmountable. Over time, budget planning and end-of-year analyses provide important baseline data on average enrollments and on revenue and expenses. If enrollments and revenue are consistently strong and more classroom space is needed, the IEP manager can demonstrate how much more revenue can be generated by adding that space.

In programs that hire only part-timers, enrollment and financial data can be used to support arguments for a viable core group of full-time instructors to increase IEP stability and quality. In programs that already have a core group of instructors, ongoing enrollment and financial data can be used to support the hiring of additional full-time positions and/or additional support staff.

Although difficult to achieve quickly, quality curriculum development can be mapped out and achieved over time. It’s better to approach curriculum development slowly and thoughtfully so all instructors have opportunities for input and feedback. Initial stages of development can focus on broad program goals and then move on to more specific goals for each proficiency level. If maintained electronically, subsequent stages of the curriculum can be fleshed out with objectives for courses within each level. To ensure new full- and part-time instructors understand and adhere to the curriculum, IEPs can require mandatory orientation programs before instructors are assigned classes.

Ultimately, successful IEPs are not “born;” instead, they emerge gradually over time with careful planning, solid record keeping and ongoing analysis that supports the growth and development of quality programs.

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