By regular and popular guest writer “TEFLista”
“Walks Like a Duck, Quacks Like a Duck, But Sometimes It’s a Toad: The University Language Institute.
When I started writing this guest piece series about two years ago, I never thought I would ever end up writing about universities and how some of them could be misleading people. If there’s one place that ought to be good for TEFL training then surely it must be at a university, right? Well, this is something that I would really like to believe, but unfortunately it’s not always the case as far as TEFL certificate courses are concerned.
Now, before some of you get all bent out of shape, I want to preface this post by saying that just like anything else, quality control in education can be a very broad tent. Visit a university in the States and you will likely find that everyone employed has at least a relevant MA or a PhD, and quite experienced too. The best universities in developing countries may approach that, but visit a few “university language institutes” (note the words “language institutes”) in countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, and you might be surprised to learn that in some cases only 10 percent of the teachers working there even have a relevant qualification. To put it another way, a university and its language institute may be near polar opposites in terms of quality, even though they are both located on the same campus. Let’s begin by looking into some of their quirky relationships and why this is so.
What They Are and What They Do
If the concept is new to you, then the first thing you need to know is what university language institutes are and what they do. By and large, most university language institutes offer similar services to private language schools, but often on a larger scale. Overseas, the majority of their courses are usually English language courses and courses in the local language. In Korea, you’ll find that many of them have large English language and Korean language programs, and in Japan you’ll see many that have large English language and Japanese language programs. They may also have courses in various other languages, test preparation, and sometimes the odd TEFL certificate course too. All of this housed under one roof as the “university language institute” and is often located somewhere on or near the university campus, or sometimes in a completely separate downtown location.
In general, courses are non-credit and are designed for a range of clientele. There are usually classes for business people, adults, and young learners, and even “mothers’ classes”. Courses are usually taught throughout the day, but early mornings, evening and weekends are often the busiest times.
What They Are Not
Don’t confuse the university language institute with the department of English. That department is almost always housed elsewhere on campus and offers credit courses for university students.
Some Important Differences
The first thing to know about university language institutes, which are sometimes also called language centers, is that they are almost always autonomous institutions that have a business relationship with the university. Simply put, this means that the institute can pretty much do as it pleases so long as it gives back a certain percentage of its profits and doesn’t defame anyone (some aren’t always so successful with the latter!) In return, the institute gets to use the university’s name for the purposes of marketing. Keep in mind that there are many other businesses on campus that also do the same thing , such as restaurants, clothing shops, you name it… When thinking about taking a course at a university language institute, it’s always best from a consumer point of view to think about them in the very same way that you would any other business.
Another important difference is that language institutes may follow different business models. The way that all universities work is that they collect money from students and then cover their expenses, which includes a set rate for teacher salaries. While many language institutes may also do this, they often don’t have to and they are free to experiment as they wish. They could, if they so choose, elect to become involved in a system of profit sharing, whereby a certain number of individuals take a percentage of the net profits. In this case, people stand to make more if they have more students. The danger here is that this sort of business model can lead to a mentality that the number of “bums on seats” and full classrooms is more important than quality of instruction. Worse yet, they may even place people on your TEFL course that clearly ought not be there in the first place.
The quality of teaching is a third factor that can set the two apart. Because they are autonomous institutions, they can also hire anyone they want – including anyone with a pulse and a passport – if they so wish. They may have some very good trainers or some completely unqualified ones, there’s no real way of telling unless you properly check them out as I’ve suggested in other parts of this series. Chances are, though, that if there are some unqualified people working on campus, then the university language institute is where you’d find them.
Same Same But Different
There’s a saying in Thailand that often gets printed on T-shirts that goes “same same but different”. So far we’ve looked at the differences, but it’s the use of the same university name at the language institute that can really dupe people into taking a bad TEFL course. Somehow when people see the word ‘university’ they completely forget about the institute part altogether and let their guard down, so all the important things go unchecked. They assume that everything is high quality and it’s all being carefully looked after.
Institutes are masters of exploiting the university name, too – to the point where many of them can be downright misleading. For example, the “About Us” sections on language institute websites may only mention facts about the university and nothing about the actual institute at all, and all in a misleading way. The actual institute may be only two years old, have two hundred students and employ unqualified staff, but what they’ll put up on their page is spruced up university information. So what you’ll read is something like “X University has a 75 year history of providing outstanding education and is one of the best universities in the country… with more than 30,000 students and 10 international programs we offer… our campus is more beautiful than the Swiss Alps.”
When It All Goes Wrong
For a shining example of how this arrangement can go seriously wrong, you need look no further than what happened this week in Chiang Mai, Thailand. After apparently failing an inspection by immigration officials, Chiang Mai University replaced the administration at its Language Institute (LICMU) and halted all of its international programs on the first of the month. In the weeks approaching the deadline, more than 250 students were left in limbo when the University failed to renew or provide support for educational visas. The policy impacted all foreign students, including those enrolled in language, volunteer and cultural exchange programs and out of sheer frustration many simply gave up and returned to their homelands.
For more on this sudden development, see this thread on ThaiVisa forums:
From Ducks to Toads to Horses and Beyond
In closing, I’d like to end our discussion that began with ducks and toads by brining one last animal into the petting zoo. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says ‘good people get cheated, just as good horses get ridden’. I think that there’s certainly a lot of truth in that as far as TEFL certificate courses are concerned and what we’ve seen in the example above really isn’t all that different from what we’ve already seen in this series, in that it all boils down to people not fully understanding what it is that they are signing up for, then paying and not getting the goods. Hopefully, after reading this piece, you’ll think twice before dashing for the credit card and signing up for anything with name ‘university’ in it. And with any luck, you might remember a few important animals, too!”
Many thanks as ever to TEFLista, whose dedication to scam busting puts my own brief efforts to shame!
Please also have a look at Parts One to Three of this series: