Big is beautiful: Institution-wide language provision for two universities

Author: Andrea Dlaska


In this paper, the author describes the operation of a Language Centre which offers its services to two institutions, the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The advantages of such a system are described, especially with regard to size and diversity. The Centre sees its role as an engine of cooperation between the two institutions.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction and background

The joint Language Centre of the University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (hereafter referred to by its German acronym ETH) was founded in April 2002. The University of Zurich did not offer an institution-wide language programme prior to the institution of the Language Centre, whereas the ETH as a university of Science and Technology provided language courses for its students as part of its institution-wide Social Sciences and Humanities programme.

The two universities' collaboration in institution-wide language provision builds on an informal tradition of cooperation, which was brought about by students from both institutions, who attended language courses wherever they could find them at the two universities. The result of this language tourism across institutions was that courses tended to accommodate 50 to 100 students and that groups were very heterogeneous in terms of language proficiency and learning needs. In 1999, a study about the situation of institution-wide language learning at the two universities confirmed that existing provision was inadequate, that there was little accessible or co-ordinated information about language courses for non-specialists, and that there were no criteria for admission. These findings and the pressures of internationalization led to the institution of the joint Language Centre.

The new Language Centre took over the ETH's existing language courses and the two universities' jointly offered courses in German as a Foreign Language. The University added its language courses for law students and courses in Modern Greek and Hungarian. The Language Centre also took over the University's courses in Latin and Ancient Greek for students in the Humanities. An additional 40 courses were introduced to accommodate numbers and to offer more range in terms of proficiency levels and subjects. Today the Language Centre offers 90 courses in 12 languages in its student programme. The courses are open to the two universities' 35000 diploma students (BA and MA students). A programme for PhD students and members of staff was established in 2003. 2500 students register for a Language Centre module each semester. 450 people take part in courses for PhD students and members of staff, for which the Centre charges a fee.

2. Student registration

The Language Centre is not able to offer a place to all students interested in taking a language module in a given semester. Therefore, clear and transparent criteria of admission have to be applied:

  • students may only attend one module per semester;
  • students in higher semesters have priority;
  • students need to have the required level of language proficiency;
  • the date of registration is considered.

Registration for courses is online only. Students are required to provide information about their institutional background and about their language learning history. Online registration facilitates keeping statistics for the Centre's financing, which is based on the proportion of students from each university in a given year. An archive permits the Centre to follow developments and trends in student enrolment. At the moment, 60% of students are from the University, 40% from the ETH.

3. Advantages of cooperation

Size matters in providing languages for all in the university. Because of the large number of students it caters for, the Language Centre is able to offer a broad range of languages, courses at more levels of proficiency and variety in terms of course aims and contents. Such a diverse and custom-made programme is more easily realized when the number of potential participants is large.

Another major advantage is the diversity of the student population: students come from two institutions with different philosophies and learning cultures. Not only do they learn a foreign language together, they also learn about each other's subjects, learning experiences and plans about their professional futures. This cross-institutional exchange has also become the thematic focus of some courses and thus provides a university-adequate context for language learning.

The Language Centre derives a sense of identity from its cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional character and stresses its role as an engine of co-operation between the two universities. The Centre also positions itself as a precondition as well as a proponent of internationalization.

4. Diversity as identity

A crucial aspect of cooperation is the integration of two institutional cultures and traditions, the need to reconcile different expectations and demands. Developing a joint identity in the face of largely differing ideas of what constitutes language learning in the university is the biggest challenge for a joint centre. Establishing the Zurich Language Centre was primarily a question of organizing diversity, of tolerating difference and benefiting from it on the basis of clear principles. Integration has to take place at the level of such underlying principles of quality assurance.

Chief among these principles is transparency. In a language centre with a large student population from two universities and a diverse portfolio of modules ranging from subject-specific courses to courses with a cultural or literary focus, transparency involves a detailed description of course aims and contents as well as levels of proficiency. The Common European Framework serves as a point of reference for tutors, students and departments. Students are required to assess their own level with the help of the Framework's proficiency scales, which are accessible on the Centre's website. The Language Centre is in the process of evaluating this process with the help of a survey among students and tutors. Experience has already shown that groups have become more homogeneous and that students take responsibility for choosing a course at the right level.

5. Conclusion

In summary, co-operation between two institutions offers more advantages than handicaps to the extent the challenges usually constitute a chance for development. The healthy competition between institutions usually works in favour of a joint centre, which has at its disposal the resources and know-how of two universities. In Zurich, finding the golden middle between diversity and an identifiable joint identity through quality has been the key to managing big and ending up with beautiful.