Institution wide language programmes

Author: David Bickerton


Institution Wide Language Programmes emerged in the 1980s to 'service' growing demand for tuition from non-specialist language learners. Today they operate in various guises in the majority of UK universities. Many report buoyant numbers, but they are financially exposed for organisational and funding reasons. The best examples of IWLPs succeed in offsetting a natural tendency to uniformity through clever design of modules and by making available a wide range of resources, often through a Language Centre, to meet individual needs.

Table of contents

1. Origins

The demand by non-specialist language students for language learning opportunities caused many universities in the 1960s and 1970s to create special arrangements to 'service' a wide diversity of needs. In the following decade demand grew strongly. This was a time of growing internationalisation of UK universities and of increasing awareness of the importance of the UK's European links.

However, 'the ethos of servicing, which placed the emphasis on difference and customisation, became increasingly difficult to sustain ... as resource constraints began to bite' (Fay & Ferney 2000:3). Resource pressures, and also growing quality assurance concerns, led, by the 1990s, to a shift in provision away from fragmented servicing towards unitary university-wide schemes. These were often termed Institution-Wide Language Programmes, or IWLPs in the UK. Their rationale was primarily organisational, and they sought to cater for the greatest number of students irrespective of their disciplinary affiliations and different stages of learning.

Today (2002-03), most UK Universities claim in their prospectuses to cater specifically for the needs of the so-called non-specialist language learner - that is students on awards not naming language(s) in their title. The most common form of provision is an IWLP managed by a School, or a Department of Languages, or a Language Centre, with teaching being delivered by an earmarked unit of full-time (and, increasingly, a significant proportion of part-time) staff.

Using Higher Education Statistics Agency ( figures it has been estimated (Marshall 2000) that in 1998/99 there were 121,000 students studying programmes containing a language element in the UK (6.4 % of the total UK student population). For half of these, language(s) was the major element; the other half studied modules in IWLPs or other special programmes.

2. Definition of the IWLP

IWLPs normally provide credit-rated elective modules with the following characteristics:

  • broadly generic curricula, but with some allowance for special purpose requirements emphasis upon functionality, reflecting the motivation of learners; transferable skills (e.g. summarising oral or written inputs, bi-lateral interpreting, presentation skills etc.) are seen as being directly applicable to the 'real-world' contexts in which foreign language skills are used
  • size of classes limited to 20 (in some institutions to 12), although cohorts are ideally larger where assessments are to be norm referenced
  • standard rate of progression (i.e. not intensive) with 40-70 hours of contact for a 20-credit module (the equivalent of one-sixth of a one-year programme)
  • quality assurance by one external examiner covering each language at all levels
  • separate identity from most modules taken by students on specialist language degree programmes

IWLPs offer classes at up to six levels of competence (from ab initio through to the equivalent of 'degree level'). The bulk of students study at levels 2-4 for languages such as French, of which they have prior knowledge, and at levels 1-3 for languages learned ab initio.

In some universities IWLP units work closely with client faculties or departments to offer content matching the learners' subject specialisms. In other universities, however, it would seem that combining a choice of (a) level, (b) language and (c) subject focus, produces classes too small to timetable or operate economically, and the only provision is purely generic. However, the prime challenge for IWLPs, given their origins and rationale, is precisely that of finding ways of adapting the uniformity of their provision to the diversity of their learners' needs. On the one hand, institutional and financial pressures encourage the provision of generic curricula, taught at limited levels of competence, whilst learners look for the subject relevance found in LSP programmes.

3. Current issues

High costs

There are indications that in recent years IWLPs have fared better in the competition for students than programmes for language specialists. However, despite this buoyancy the costs of delivering IWLPs can place them in budgetary difficulty, and this for several reasons:

  • Whilst the students can be numerous, they do require significant individual administrative support.
  • Per capita income (driven by crude resource allocation models) is generally low, since students enrol for few credits.
  • Programmes drawing students from a wide variety of subject areas can prove difficult - if not impossible - to timetable.
  • Students of different languages and levels cannot be taught en masse for any part of their studies.

Quality assurance

Quality on IWLPs is assured in several ways:

  • by applying models of QA developed for LSP/LAP programmes [link to WG] as found in national accreditation schemes such as those developed by BALEAP ( (Satchell 1997).
  • by making available resource collections to meet a wide variety of interests. In this way coursework and learning materials can be provided which help meet the learners' desire for subject relevance.
  • where learner numbers are unavoidably small, and entry to classes cannot afford to be very discriminatory, any normative bias (arising from the presence of a wide ability range) is offset by the use of clear and explicit criteria (benchmarked by external examiners) aligned on recognised national or international standards.

Generic vs specialist focus

When designing an IWLP there is, as noted above, a fundamental trade-off between specialism and cost-effectiveness. Different models emerge depending upon the level and concentration of demand in any given institution. The following considerations have to be balanced:

  • In favour of purely generic curricula it is argued that language learners' receptive skills are less constrained by any lack of specialist vocabulary than by their background subject knowledge (often taken for granted). Thus, professional interpreters with good general knowledge will successfully switch from halibut fishing to cold steel chemistry prompted by short lists of only 20-30 specialist terms. Analysis of collections of specialist teaching texts have also shown that most corpora contain fewer than 100 terms not common in general language. Consequently it can be asserted that specialist language knowledge is quite easily acquired by a subject specialist, and that general competence must be the main objective of IWLP modules.
  • However, a major obstacle to any generic emphasis in IWLP modules is client perceptions. This factor cannot be disregarded since it affects learner motivation. It also underlies many of the perceptions of language modules by client Faculties and Departments.
  • It must be recognised that some students on IWLPs do indeed have clearly specialist skills requirements which are potentially far greater than those of students on general language degrees: e.g. comprehension of native public discourse in professional conferences; telephone skills for call-centre work and in tourism; technical language for software localisation or legal work; writing accuracy for medical prescriptions.

Good practice

Given the competition between resourcing constraints and learner needs, good practice involves something of a compromise:

  • Specialist interests (commonly business, humanities, social sciences, and science) may be catered for in optional areas around a common core, with examinations used to test generic competence, and coursework (e.g. oral presentations, reports, written exercises) used to test subject specialisms.
  • A programme designed with a generic core but incorporating specialist elements also has the advantage of appealing to a wide audience, including fee-paying members of the public. This can effectively widen participation in UK HE.
  • The best curricula therefore find ways of introducing topics with wide and varied appeal, whilst also emphasising the challenge of unfamiliar subject matter.

4. Scholarly activity

The first national meeting of staff involved in delivering and designing IWLPs took place in 1995, and this has been followed by several other conferences in the UK, with refereed proceedings first appearing in 2000 (Fay & Ferney). Other national organisations (e.g. AULC and international bodies (CERCLES operate interest groups for the exchange of information between IWLP staff, and publish scholarly analysis. A survey of IWLPs has been produced by Pilkington (1997) and this remains the only recent and systematic source of data; the AULC is currently reported to be developing an update (2002).

Traditionally, the teaching materials used on IWLP modules have tended to be borrowed from other contexts or "home grown". Recently, however, there has appeared a Foundations Languages series published by Palgrove and addressing what is perceived as a specific need for IWLP courses at levels 1 and 2. To date courses have been produced for French, German and Italian.

Much of the debate surrounding the practice of teaching IWLP modules is informed by experience in designing and delivering LSP programmes, by the challenge of assessing small numbers of disparate learners, and by integrating self-directed learning and teacher-led classroom learning and providing the support structures this entails. These areas themselves attract considerable specialist and research interest, from which practitioners in IWLPs are able to benefit. See elsewhere in the Web Guide under Advising (Mozzon-McPherson, 2002).

5. Conclusions

Approximately half of all students registered as studying languag(s) in UK universities do so under IWLP-type schemes. In the last five years severe resourcing constraints, fuelled by falling numbers of specialist language students, have led universities to validate schemes combining both language named degree and IWLP provision under 'umbrella' or cross-university modular programmes. As a consequence, good practice in IWLPs and in language programmes for special purposes may well apply to all language programmes in a university. This has encouraged the erosion of any differentiation between classes for language specialists and those studying for special purposes.

However, the needs of the non-specialist language learner for specialised language work are arguably greater than those of the 'specialist' linguist who develops all-round language skills. To meet this need IWLPs have developed imaginative combinations of coursework, assessment, open-access to resources and advisory services.


Aub-Buscher, G. and D. Bickerton (2001). CercleS - The First Decade: 1991-2000. pt. 1. CercleS Bulletin, 14: 3-4.

Fay, M. & D. Ferney (2000). Current Trends in Modern Languages Provision for Non-Specialist Linguists. London: CILT.

Marshall, K. 2000. see Web Guide [link to be provided]

Pilkington, R. (1997). Survey of Non-Specialist Language Provision in F and HE Institutions in the UK. FTTP TRANSLANG Project.

Satchell, R. (1997). From ESP to FSP, GSP, ISP and SSP - putting languages at the centre. In Little & Voss (eds), Language Centres: Planning for the New Millennium, 299-314. Plymouth: CERCLES.

Related links

AULC - the Association of University Language Centres

CERCLES - the European Confederation of Language Centres in HE - publishes a Bulletin, back issues of which are are available on-line


BALEAP - the British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes

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