By Ben Gray

24 March 2016 - 14:35

'[E]conomic constraints mean that departments are poorly resourced in terms of books, journals...and access to learning resources.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

What problems are common to English language departments at universities in developing countries, and how can they be tackled? Ben Gray, Director of English at the British Council in Libya, looks at the issues.

In developing countries, a university's English language teaching (ELT) department can be one of many things. Commonly, they are departments in faculties of arts or languages working with students majoring in English, or in faculties of education working with pre-service teachers of English. Alternatively, they might teach English courses to students not specialising in English, such as computer science or economics students, who are required to study the language as part of their degree programmes.

Certain countries have highly specialised departments. Many universities in the former Soviet Union, for example, have departments of English translation or linguistics. In Libya, on the other hand, the Libyan English Teaching at Universities Project (LETUP) established language centres to teach English to graduate students planning on travelling to the UK to take up postgraduate scholarships. Despite the range of ELT departments at both country and regional level, most of them share the same challenges and reform-related needs. Here are seven of the most common ones.

Reform departmental management structure

Libya provides a good example of this, as a typical ELT department consists of a head of department, a deputy and one to two senior teachers, as opposed to a defined management structure. Furthermore, these staff, although professionally well-qualified and experienced, are unlikely to have any management training. This has implications for everything from timetabling to programme development, and is one reason why, in my positions in both Libya and Sudan, I ran a number of management and leadership programmes for heads of departments and their deputies.

Improve admission policies

In many countries, ELT departments are forced to admit large numbers of students, many of whom have low levels of English – even the ones with school certificates stating they are proficient in the language. Despite typically having limited resources, departments are often forced to work with large mixed-level classes. In Sudan, for instance, I regularly saw teachers working with classes of over one hundred. Instead, departments need thorough quote-and-entry testing systems to develop ways of controlling both levels and numbers.

Invest in resources

In most developing countries, economic constraints mean that departments are poorly resourced in terms of books, journals, information communication technology (ICT) equipment, and access to learning resources. In Libya, the challenge has been slightly different. Before the revolution, the Gaddafi government, although it had the money, elected not to spend it on improving ELT, as it did not view English as a priority subject. Following 2011, the lack of a transparent and functioning way of obtaining funding was a barrier to most ELT departments being able to secure budgets to pay for teaching and learning resources.

Provide staff development mechanisms

In certain countries, such as Libya, academic staff are well-qualified (most Libyan university lecturers have PhDs from the UK), but are not trained as teachers. In other countries, such as Sudan, the English levels of academic staff can be a problem. Providing on-the-job training in both pedagogical skills and English language for staff – which most universities tend not to do – would help tackle these issues and improve staff motivation. Giving staff a proper career structure – absent in most contexts – is also important.

Put in place a system that ensures quality

ELT departments rarely have effective systems to monitor the quality of their programme design or teaching standards against agreed expectations, and departments typically put together their own course programmes – often at the last minute – which usually contain lists of courses and the topics covered by each. This means that teaching standards vary – even in the same department – and teachers often only pay lip service to the programmes they follow, and instead use recycled content they are familiar with and have taught before (known as the ‘tatty notes’ scenario). If these departments commit to rigorous systems of quality assurance, they stand a better chance of giving students the instruction they need. Ultimately, such systems also supports the credibility of the university’s degrees, as employers and foreign universities will value qualifications awarded by universities that have effective systems of quality assurance in place more.

Put in place effective assessment systems

Most ELT departments, due to a combination of limited staff time and student numbers, rely on 'discrete items' testing, i.e., testing one element of language at a time, to assess students. This means that language skills, particularly speaking and writing, are not tested, despite these skills being students’ ultimate goal. Moreover, because state regulations departments are rarely able to remove failing students from their degree programmes, most departments try to pass all their students. As a result, departments generally assess their students by inappropriate tests, and even those who perform badly obtain their degrees.

This practice has wider consequences if students then go on to secure jobs that require knowledge of English. Departments need to put in place effective systems of assessment, if they are to award degrees reflecting their students' genuine ability in English. Students who perform less well should be given an alternative award, such as an intermediate exit certificate. Combining this approach with improved admission policies and the implementation of a quality assurance mechanism, would make the assessment system manageable and maintain standards.

Develop a culture of educational research

Research is generally an important part of university work. Yet, in developing countries, ELT departments rarely pursue research projects. This is due to a combination of factors, such as a lack of training and incentives, limited time, and the view that most staff take – many of whom have UK PhDs – that they occupy the position of a teacher.

Studies (e.g., by TaylorIon and Belloch, and others) indicate that a vibrant research policy is a significant factor in a university’s academic development. As well as contributing to the university’s standing and staff development, it also leads to improvement in a range of areas, including teaching standards and staff motivation. Indeed, there is an argument that encouraging staff to carry out research in their universities is the most effective way to identify problem areas and solutions for carrying out reform in areas such as student assessment and acquisition of resources.

The British Council in Libya is working with Libyan universities to help improve their ELT programmes. Yesterday, it hosted an event that brought together the heads of English language departments from around the country to discuss the issues.

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