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Responding to Multiculturalism in Higher Education: English Language Support in one British University

Réponse au multiculturalisme dans l’Enseignement supérieur: les cours d’anglais de soutien dans une université au Royaume-Uni
Sarah Michelotti
p. 52-62


The British Higher Education Sector has been recruiting international students onto its degree courses for many years. This has resulted in a rich exchange of languages and cultures, bringing both benefits and challenges. For English language teachers, one spin-off of this phenomenon has been the development of a wide variety of courses and materials specialising in English for Academic Purposes (EAP).
The University of Surrey has considerable experience in running in-sessional, English language support courses for its international students. Following on from interviews with international students and tutors’ experience, this paper illustrates how the needs of these students are addressed through the University’s English Language Support Programme (ELSP).
Culture is highlighted as an important part of communicative competence and attention is paid to the notion of academic culture in the UK. Finally, the future of such programmes is considered with particular reference to the development of courses for specific disciplines at the University of Surrey.

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Background: International Student Mobility

1The notion of the ‘wandering scholar’ has been popular since earliest times when knowledge was disseminated through the oral tradition and people would often travel long distances to listen to the words of famous orators, scientists and philosophers. The Bologna process, signed in 1999 with the aim of harmonising university education in Europe, has been a driving force in facilitating more recent academic mobility. As a result, nowadays, ‘international student mobility’ is firmly on the political agenda in most countries and students are encouraged to pursue at least part of their tertiary education outside their native homeland. The following UNESCO policy statement reflects this changing world:

The internationalisation of higher education is first of all a reflection of the universal character of learning and research. It is reinforced by the current processes of economic and political integration as well as by the growing need for intercultural understanding. (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation 1995: 10).

2The motivating factors for this phenomenon differ according to the protagonists. For example, students may travel abroad to enhance their employability, to learn or refine their knowledge of a foreign language or to experience cultural diversity. University teachers may encourage mobility of their students to enrich the potential for cultural exchanges in their classes and to sustain institutional partnerships. Finally, universities’ governing bodies, particularly in the UK, look upon the internationalisation of their institutions as a valuable source of additional funding and respond accordingly to a growing demand to internationalise curricula in the interests of research and teaching quality in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

3In the UK, the internationalisation strategy of most higher education institutions has resulted in an influx of international students on UK campuses and the creation of foreign campuses for a number of UK universities. Internationalisation has also seen the development of a number of joint ventures. These allow students to study different modules in different locations and thus to divide their time between different countries whilst pursuing their degree programmes.

4Although on the surface this international student mobility could be thought to favour foreign language learning, the truth is that English is the predominant language. This is partly attributable to the fact that approximately sixty percent of the world’s top 100 universities are in English speaking countries (Graddol 2006) and also because an increasing number of European universities are now introducing programmes of study through the medium of English.

5This paper, which is based on the experience of English language tutors at the University of Surrey, Guildford, considers some of the implications for staff and students of the presence of international students on university campuses in the UK. Firstly, some of the concerns of the students are described and then the paper goes on to illustrate how these concerns are addressed through the English Language Support Programme at the University. Finally, consideration is given to the evolving nature of such programmes with the inclusion of some examples of developments that are planned for the future.

International Students at the University of Surrey

6The University of Surrey, in common with most British universities, receives a large number of these modern-day ‘wandering scholars’. There are currently almost 3,000 international students on campus representing approximately 120 different nationalities. Many of them are pursuing a full course of study but there are also a number of students on shorter Erasmus exchange programmes. A small sample of the latter category was selected for informal interview and they were asked to comment on their impressions and perceptions as foreigners studying in Britain.

7The students, in general, were very positive about their experience. However, they acknowledged a few concerns, which mainly centred on issues of practicality. Unsurprisingly, language featured as one of their main preoccupations and in this context, they highlighted the following:

  • the need for ‘everyday English’;

  • difficulties understanding the English students;

  • problems with non-verbal communication;

  • pronunciation weaknesses;

  • the need to think in English;

  • a general lack of confidence.

8When questioned further about their perceived lack of ease communicating in ‘everyday English’, one student commented: “It’s easier to speak about international law than about the latest movie or match”. This is interesting as the focus of much of our teaching at the University is on English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to help the students communicate about their subject. However, this comment indicates that we should also be concentrating on some basic language learning if we are to contribute more fully to the language learning experience of these students.

9Also of interest was another student’s impression that “I can write it but not speak it”. This would probably not correspond to her subject lecturer’s opinion and our own experience also suggests that these students are generally more at ease orally than in writing. In fact, there is a broad consensus of opinion among subject lecturers at the University that writing is the skill most in need of improvement, thus it is treated as a priority in our EAP portfolio.

10It seems perceived cultural barriers or insecurities about how to adapt to an unfamiliar environment were considered an important part of their strategy for survival. The following is a list of the most common cultural concerns:

11The repetition of the issue of confidence here is significant. These students’ lack of confidence may be partly due to insufficient preparation beforehand. As one student said: “There are a lot of simple and useful things we don’t know when we come to England”. This could easily be addressed by a few simple preparatory sessions before they depart. Receiving universities in the UK usually offer introductory training to help students cope, but the more prepared the students are when they arrive, the more useful these kinds of last-minute introductory and awareness-raising sessions tend to be.

Culture Shock

12When these students are in the UK, therefore, they often experience an element of culture shock caused by the impact of moving from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar one. A useful model to bear in mind is the W-Shaped Curve of Adjustment (UKCOSA 2007), which illustrates the emotional and physical adjustment patterns of students studying abroad (see Appendix 1). Its stages may reflect the experience of our students as they move from the honeymoon stage through rejection of and hostility to the host culture before arriving at the independence stage where differences and similarities are valued and important.

13As a receiving institution, therefore, we need to bear in mind that our students are going through this process of cultural adaptation as we teach them.

14The cultural focus of our classes is particularly on the academic culture of British Higher Education. The aim of many of our programmes is specifically to help students to study in a UK academic environment. Cortazzi and Jin (1997: 77) define academic cultures as “the systems of beliefs, expectations and cultural practices about how to perform academically”. With this in mind, it is clear that both staff and students should not only be culturally aware but should also remember that there are two important processes at work in our classes. These are that our students are “learning to communicate across cultures” and are “communicating for learning across cultures” (Cortazzi & Jin 1997: 76).

Academic Culture in the UK

15The sample of exchange students were asked for their impressions of the academic culture in Britain after they had been in the country for several weeks. Their comments focussed on the following areas:

16Their views concur with the general view taken by most EAP practitioners that in UK Higher Education institutions students are expected to be independent learners to a larger extent than in their home institutions. They are more likely to be expected to think critically; be creative; undertake project-work in small groups; engage in dialogue; challenge and participate in class. In many disciplines their teachers may value the memorisation of lists of facts less than creative thinking and writing. Students are encouraged to engage critically with authorities in their fields and should look upon their teachers as facilitators who will often be using an enquiry-based methodology.

17In this scenario, the role of study skills is not only highlighted in EAP programmes but also promoted in the institution in general. Most British universities have invested in centres promoting the innovation of learning and teaching towards more student-centred methodologies. For example, Surrey opened its Student Personal Learning and Study Hub (SPLASH) in 2007. Exchange students need to be encouraged to use these facilities as an effective mode of induction into the culture of learning in UK universities.

The In-Sessional Programme at the University of Surrey

18The University of Surrey in-sessional programme (ELSP) sets out to help students meet their linguistic and cultural challenges. The programme is extensive and varied (see list in Appendix 2) and most of the courses have in-house materials, which have been developed over the years and are constantly reviewed to reflect new trends in learning and teaching. The following provides an overview of the courses Surrey offers and is largely representative of university EAP programmes.

19The Critical Thinking course is particularly popular. In it, students are set a number of problems and given situations, which challenge their assumptions and usual ways of thinking. They discover how to assess the validity of an argument, for example. Student feedback indicates that the methods used are seen to be engaging, interactive and relevant to the learning experience at Surrey.

20In the Academic Reading and Note-taking course, students practise their skimming and scanning techniques, learn to recognise writers’ attitude and purpose, how to infer meaning and guess the meaning of unknown words. One of the aims of this course is to show students that specialised terminology is not usually the main challenge in studying in a foreign language: subject-specific vocabulary can be looked up in dictionaries or understood from context; it is much more important for learners to focus on problems of collocation and cohesion in order to be able to read and produce academic texts.

21A considerable amount of time is spent on writing skills, focussing on essays, reports, dissertations and theses. Attention is paid to structure; organisation; introductions and conclusions; how to build an argument; paraphrasing and referencing skills. There is particular emphasis on the features of academic style and students are given practice in writing to achieve the correct register.

22Technical writing is also taught, highlighting specific areas such as describing data and using the language of graphs.

23There are listening classes, which help students to develop strategies in listening for gist and for detail and practising note-taking from lectures. Students are also given practice in listening to everyday speech since, as previously mentioned, they often express the need to understand the colloquial language used by their native English-speaking peers.

24Similarly, everyday English is focussed on in the oral skills classes although most attention is paid to the language functions necessary to participate in seminars or discussions and to give presentations. Students are often keen to work on their pronunciation and there are classes in language laboratories aimed at helping them to improve in this area. Recently we have also introduced work on the language of online discussions as some of their learning takes place through the University virtual learning environment (VLE) and discussions feature as part of their coursework. Students sometimes find it difficult to achieve the appropriate balance between formal and informal register when participating in these discussions and guidance on this can be valuable.

25Courses on British Culture and Humour and Contemporary British Society aim to help students integrate into the host culture and gain an understanding of certain aspects of modern Britain. These classes are run largely as discussions, often based on texts or video recordings.

26Materials for the Surrey EAP courses have been designed with the age, interests and intellectual profiles of the students in mind (see Appendix 3 for some examples). They often reflect aspects of UK academic culture to raise awareness and stimulate discussion. Where possible, texts are chosen from the disciplines most represented in class and often students are given a choice of text to enable them to work within their own subject area. This has the advantages of enhancing face validity and motivating the students.

Responding to the Disciplines

27An important part of our work involves discussions with academics from departments across the University. Some interesting differences between discourse communities have been revealed through these meetings. This has highlighted the importance of keeping up to date with developments in the field of ESP/EAP. For example, it is well known that for citation purposes, introductory verbs vary across the disciplines (Hyland 1999) and this fact needs to be reflected in our materials.

28Furthermore, it is often maintained that academic writing should be impersonal and formal, avoiding the use of the first person pronoun at all costs. However, we have noticed that disciplines vary according to the importance of authorial voice and there are some disciplines where the use of personal pronouns and active voice are positively encouraged (e.g. Dance). We aim to make students aware of differences in academic conventions not only between their native languages and English, but also between disciplines within the English-speaking world and within a rapidly changing international research culture.

29Referencing systems also vary across the University. Most departments adhere to the Harvard system but there are exceptions (e.g. Psychology) so it is very important that students are taught to reference in the system appropriate to their discipline.

Future Developments

30Distinctions such as these provide the background to the move away from generic EAP courses to more discipline-specific courses at Surrey. Although there are certainly aspects of EAP which can be taught in a general way to students from very different disciplines (e.g. skimming, scanning, note-taking techniques), there are certain aspects which benefit from being addressed in groups composed of students from the same discipline. We are therefore gradually expanding our programme of in-sessional support to include classes designed for students at certain levels or from specific disciplines. In this way, the generic skills are taught on the general programme where students also derive social and cultural benefits from meeting others with different backgrounds. However, they also have the opportunity of learning skills specifically identified by academics from their departments in their departmental classes.

31This underlines the importance of collaboration within the University. Our EAP programme has the advantage of being located in an academic department, which gives us access to academics and decision-makers across the campus. Experience has shown that it takes time to forge relationships between departments but we are currently in a strong position to take our plans for the development of discipline-specific learning materials forward through meaningful co-operation with academic colleagues.

32The current tendency within British Higher Education to sub-contract English language provision to corporate providers threatens to reverse this trend towards more targeted and student-centred provision. Private providers of English language courses tend to favour generic programmes, which can be delivered across a maximum number of institutions and disciplines. Interestingly, a growing awareness amongst students about their English language needs for university study has begun to exert pressure on universities to continue to provide quality EAP provision which is firmly positioned within the university framework. English language support is one of the main concerns for students opting for an institution in an English-speaking environment; the quality of universities’ EAP provision has thus become an important selling point in an increasingly competitive higher education market.

33Having provided in-sessional classes for many years at the University of Surrey, we have also noticed the need for changes in the mode and timing of delivery. Students are increasingly subjected to constraints of time and money, which reduce their availability to attend English support classes. We are therefore moving from long 10-week courses to shorter, more intensive, sharply focussed courses and workshops and are gradually introducing a blended mode of delivery which will also appeal to the growing number of part-time students. In addition, our popular programme of one-to-one consultations is expanding since the time and attention that we devote to discussing students’ writing, in particular, on an individual basis is highly valued.

34Finally, as the multi-cultural nature of British Higher Education has become a permanent fixture, there is an increasing need for staff cultural-awareness training. University teachers need to be aware of students’ learning backgrounds and expectations in order to be able to engage with them in a meaningful and effective manner. We now work in interesting times in which not only a high proportion of the students are from diverse cultural backgrounds, but the staff teaching them may also represent a wide variety of cultures. It is widely acknowledged that the English language is no longer the sole preserve of the English people and that this realisation needs to inform English language provision across the globe. We need to recognise that issues of cultural identity are also on the agenda when it comes to supporting an increasingly mobile student body.

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Cammish, N.K. 1997. “Through a glass darkly: Problems of studying at advanced level through the medium of English”. In McNamara, D. & R. Harris (eds). Overseas students in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Cortazzi, M. & L. Jin. 1997. “Communication for Learning Across Cultures”. In McNamara, D. & R. Harris (eds). Overseas students in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Dow, E. 2006. “Britannia meets Bologna: still making waves?” Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 10(1): 9-14.

Graddol, D. 2006. English Next. London: British Council.

Hyland, K. 1999. “Academic Attribution: Citation and the Construction of Disciplinary Knowledge”. Applied Linguistics. 20/3: 341-367. Oxford University Press.

UKCOSA 2007. “International Students and Culture Shock”. In Guidance Notes for students 2003/4 [online]. Available at:

United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation 1995. Policy Paper for change and development in Higher Education. Paris: UNESCO.

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Appendix 1

W-Shaped Curve of Adjustment (UKCOSA 2007)

W-Shaped Curve of Adjustment (UKCOSA 2007)

Adapted from "Orientated for Success", edited by M. Barker. Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, 1990

Appendix 2

University of Surrey, English Language Support Programme (ELSP) Courses

University of Surrey, English Language Support Programme (ELSP) Courses

Appendix 3

Sample Materials from the University of Surrey English Language Support Programme

Sample Materials from the University of Surrey English Language Support Programme
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List of illustrations

Title W-Shaped Curve of Adjustment (UKCOSA 2007)
Credits Adapted from "Orientated for Success", edited by M. Barker. Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, 1990
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Title University of Surrey, English Language Support Programme (ELSP) Courses
File image/png, 33k
Title Sample Materials from the University of Surrey English Language Support Programme
File image/png, 176k
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Bibliographical reference

Sarah Michelotti, « Responding to Multiculturalism in Higher Education: English Language Support in one British University », Cahiers de l’APLIUT, Vol. XXVIII N° 2 | 2009, 52-62.

Electronic reference

Sarah Michelotti, « Responding to Multiculturalism in Higher Education: English Language Support in one British University », Cahiers de l’APLIUT [Online], Vol. XXVIII N° 2 | 2009, Online since 25 February 2012, connection on 08 August 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Sarah Michelotti

Sarah Michelotti, BA (Hons) en Langue Française, RSA Diploma en Anglais Langue Etrangère (TEFLA) et MA en Linguistique appliquée. Elle est à la tête de la coordination des programmes d’anglais au sein de la faculté de langues et traduction de l’Université du Surrey depuis 2000. Elle enseigne l’anglais en tant que langue étrangère depuis plus de 25 ans. Ses domaines de prédilection sont la langue parlée, l’anglais à visée académique appliqué aux différentes disciplines ainsi que l’enseignement des différentes compétences incluses dans l’étude de ces disciplines (study skills).

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Association des Professeurs de Langues des Instituts Universitaires de Technologie

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