Within EAP, pre-sessional courses have become as synonymous with the British summer as washouts at Wimbledon, picnics in the park and saucy postcards from the seaside. The majority of UK universities provide a glossy menu of such courses for international students whose proficiency falls below standard entry requirements (Pearson, 2020, p.420).
If you type the term “pre-sessional” into a search engine, you are confronted with branding as slick as food delivery marketing. But … imagine a world where restaurants waited for Deliveroo or Just Eat orders to come in before they thought about hiring chefs. Sadly, across much of the HE sector, this is the way in which pre-sessionals are delivered. Generally, teachers are hired from outside the university to deliver these courses on non-permanent contracts, and even staff on permanent contracts associated with these courses sometimes have secondary status within universities. Such practices facilitate accusations that these courses are no more than an exercise in “linguistic corner-cutting for financial gain” (Pearson, 2020, p. 420).
Does anybody actually understand the workload involved in pre-sessionals other the managers, teachers and students who have direct involvement with them? Probably, because of their taking place over the summer and the status of those who teach on them, the answer is an emphatic no. Paradoxically though, if higher education takes the form of Achilles, then pre-sessionals are a heel that needs to be well-covered. These courses are a gateway to thousands of international students entering the UK at the end of every summer. Despite this importance, very little has changed in terms of the status of those who work on them in over two decades (Turner, 2004; Copland and Garton, 2011; Pearson, 2020). Peopled with part-time staff, these courses exist in the margins of someone else’s space. Those who work on them are othered.
Even as a teacher on a permanent contract, I have witnessed how contractual agreements need to be made as regards the specific needs of people involved with these courses – whether full-time staff or hired hands. Institutions that pride themselves on their sense of compassion often have a blind spot as regards the need to apply the same principles to staff on pre-sessionals. One example from my own experience comes in how I was made to work from home in the week when a family member died. This was because the university had no formal process for compassionate leave, even though I had already made sacrifices in holiday and research time in a way that colleagues in other departments were not expected to.
The image of someone checking emails on the day of a funeral is a far cry from the yoghurt and yoga offerings of corporate wellbeing. Unfortunately, I am not alone in such an experience and I don’t say this in any attempt to cite Hamlet’s “Oh, woe is me” speech. I’m doing it as a means of holding a mirror up to the UK Higher Education sector and asking whether it’s time to make sure this kind of thing stops happening because in some quarters that’s not the exception. It’s the norm for those associated with pre-sessional courses because of their status in the university.
At the same time there are many good outcomes from these courses. To begin with, for many teachers their first foray into pre-sessionals is the equivalent of being asked to perform in a West End theatre. It’s the chance of a big break, with decent wages for the duration of the show too. Simultaneously, others could argue that this is a false economy. I know people who have built their working lives around the summer bonus of pre-sessional teaching to the detriment of professional development. However, working on these courses is not just about monetary reward – otherwise many conscientious people would simply walk away.
Working on pre-sessional courses is incredibly tough but rewarding, especially for people who have a genuine passion for education. These courses put into practice many of the values that today’s universities espouse. They require interactivity and innovative pedagogies. They offer scope for teaching-informed research. They are student-focused. They are international in outlook and characterised by awareness of diversity. Yet this is not really appreciated in universities or sometimes even within Academic English departments themselves. Very often, universities are devoid of other academic life when pre-sessional courses are happening (Copland & Garton, 2011). Thus, when summer ends, these courses and the people who teach on them largely disappear as if they were never there. Paradoxically though, in 3 months, these temporary pre-sessional staff will have taught more than some staff members employed on research contracts year round.
That has to be recognised and valued. We also have to move beyond the culture of victim blaming. When I first wrote a draft of this article, the focus was on how people can enhance their employment prospects in universities after pre-sessional courses. That was to be my attempt at supporting social justice for practitioners on pre-sessional courses. But in doing that I realise now that I was also falling into a trap of victim blaming in suggesting that people somehow always need to do more in order to be accepted and that they should feel guilty about not doing enough to gain that acceptance. A position of true social justice is one that argues for fairness and equity. Therefore, if people are deemed good enough to come into universities and teach a huge number of hours for part of the year, they should be given a greater sense of belonging. If, on the other hand, they are not good enough then why are they not being given the professional development that they need? If they are not good enough to be there year round, then why is higher education not changing the mode of delivery to something more in line with its needs and values?
On the whole then there is a lot of work still to be done in this area, even after several decades of these courses being delivered here in the UK. Decency should not stop at the door of pre-sessional staff rooms. Universities need to balance the need for recruiting students onto their degree programmes with the need to treat staff equitably. Teachers need to be developed properly in this profession. Senior managers need to recognise the stresses involved in running and teaching such courses. Often when they are complete, there is a university-wide culture of acting as if nothing important has happened over the summer. The courses are gone and forgotten, alongside the efforts of those who worked on them.
In line with ideas from Argyris and Schön (1974), universities need to find a balance between ‘espoused’ and ‘actual’ practice when it comes to wellbeing. Proper contracts and greater opportunity for work throughout the academic year would be a good starting point, though something more than that is required. The value of pre-sessional courses has to be recognised and that reflected in their status within universities. In their present format, they are largely successful because of the efforts of people who go above and beyond the call of duty outside the regular academic year. There needs to be more recognition of that and also systems designed to make them a more essential part of university life. They are a huge source of revenue and a gateway for so many international students who might not otherwise get to study here, so need to be given the respect across the sector that they fully deserve. In some places that does happen, thankfully, but if it was universal, there wouldn’t be such a need for temporary delivery drivers of EAP’s staple diet.
by Anonymous EAP Practitioner
We invite you to contribute to Padlet based on this blog release. We have set up the page so that contributors remain anonymous, and would ask you not to name any institutions in your posts (or include any details which would identify an institution). The main purpose of this Padlet is to share experiences and build a picture of current practice across the sector with a view to moving the discussion forward. We hope you find the post useful and engaging, and please do feel free to share the link to the blog post ands the Padlet with any pre-sessional tutors on non-permanent contracts who you know who may not be on this list. We would love to reach them and hear from them too: https://padlet.com/eap4socialjustice/qbhl176vxbaz0a12
Argyris, C., and D. A. Schön. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Copland, F. & Garton, S. (2011) “I felt that I do live in the UK now”: International students’ self- reports of their English language speaking experiences on a pre-sessional programme. Language and Education, 25(3), 241–255.
Pearson, W.S. (2020). The Effectiveness of Pre‐sessional EAP Programmes in UK Higher Education: A Review of the Evidence. Review of Education, 8(2), pp.420-447.
Shakespeare, W. (2007). Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623: Third Series. A&C Black.
Turner, J. (2004) Language as academic purpose. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 3(2), 95–109.