I work in the language department at an international university in Bangkok, Thailand. Our department teaches Chinese, Japanese, and, most importantly, English. English is most important because all instruction in the graduate and undergraduate programs are taught in English, which means all students must attain an acceptable level of English language proficiency before they are allowed to enter the university. As you can imagine, getting a degree in accounting or finance, for example, when all instruction is taught in a foreign language is quite difficult, making the success and efficiency of the English program very important.
The English Program
Students in our English program attend 24 hours per week of intensive classroom English. Last year, the program had three levels, beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Each level, if one studies hard, takes one 12-week term to pass. We run three terms per year. As professional language acquisition teachers, we in the department knew that having three levels of English was simply not enough. Comprehensive language acquisition programs at other institutions typically have five or more levels. Having only three levels means that the jump in difficulty from one level to the next is very big, which causes many students to fail the second course they take. Having only three levels also makes it very difficult for us to place students in the correct academic level. For example, our beginner course may be too easy for a student, so we have to place them in the intermediate class, which is far too difficult, causing them to fail.
Knowing that having only three levels was not acceptable, we made a plan to add a fourth level. This level, we decided, would be a pre-beginner level, as we were getting a large amount of new Chinese students who had little to no English language abilities and who were failing our lowest level. To start, we assembled a team of our best teachers to formulate a new, more comprehensive curriculum. Using the Common European Framework, an internationally accepted language development guide, we rewrote our entire curriculum, including using new books, materials, and assessments. With the entire curriculum redesigned we presented it to our admissions department, so they could explain it to our new students. It was, we thought, going to be a great benefit for our students and our institution. We were very proud of all the work we had done.
Unfortunately, being academics, we were not quite educated in how the sales department in our institution worked. English, as it turns out, is not something our prospective students are excited about learning. Instead, they see it simply as a necessary requirement and something that pushes back their degree completion date. For example, if a student starts in our beginner level, it will take them one year of study before they are even allowed to enter the university and begin taking credit courses. Logically, this makes no sense. If one wants to study at an international university, where instruction is in English, one must attain a certain level of English proficiency, which students should see as a benefit, as English is currently the international language used in business and political contexts. Nevertheless, there is a direct correlation between the number of English levels we have and our admission department’s ability to recruit new students. The more English levels we have, the more difficult it becomes to enroll new students. Because of this, the head of admissions went to our institution’s CEO and complained. Being in charge of revenue growth, our CEO took the side of the admissions department and killed our project.
Our project was dead in the water, but we still knew that what we wanted to do was the best thing for our students and our university. We had also learned something very valuable—making academic arguments in regards to why we needed to expand our program was not going to work. We needed to speak the language of our final decision maker, the CEO. This language included talk of growth and revenue, not academic success. In order to do this, we began tracking something that he cared very much about—student attrition rates. The English department is the starting point for most of our students—all non-native English speakers. Using various tracking methods over three terms, a full year, we were able to make a report showing a stunningly high attrition rate, which means lost revenue for the university. This attrition rate, we showed, was directly related to course fail rates, and the high course fail rates were directly related to us having only three levels of instruction. In the end, this argument won, and this term we have resumed the project. The major lesson we have learnt in this process is that no matter how detailed and logical your project may be to you, if you don’t have the support of key decision makers, your project will ultimately fail.