Opening the University for Language Learning: the Open Language Programme

Author(s): G. García-Soza, A.Callaghan
Institution/Organisation: University of Essex (UK)


1.1 Scope of the initiative

The Open Language Programme at the University of Essex is an ambitious project which has been running successfully since its beginnings in the academic year 1999-2000, opening up language learning opportunities to all members of the University, students as well as staff, and to the outside community, covering mainly the Borough of Colchester within the County of Essex as well parts of the County of Suffolk. Within the University, the programme has expanded language learning opportunities for undergraduates, which were limited previously mainly to the Faculties of Humanities, Comparative Studies and Social Sciences to new areas such as Law and Management as well as Science and Engineering, targeting students on degree courses without a language component. Another innovation of the programme was extending it to all postgraduate students who previously had no access to any language study whatsoever within the University environment. Members of staff who have benefited from this new opportunity include many administrators, librarians, catering and cleaning staff, contributing to the University’s international and democratic profile. The fact that the department’s language courses are not career specific but language driven makes it possible to cater for this variety of student backgrounds.

The programme has had an impact on the outside community, complementing the local Adult Further Education Institution by offering different languages at more advanced levels within a rigorous framework. A growing number of people of all age groups now come to the University and are awarded the OLP certificates and diploma. The project is serviced collaboratively by the seven language sections within the Department of Language and Linguistics and the University administration and is available to some 8.600 students and 2500 staff plus population of the Counties of Essex and Suffolk (approx. 2 million). Promotional efforts are made on a regular basis to increase the public’s awareness of the OLP. It offers a Certificate of Continuing Education in Modern Languages, a Certificate of Higher Education in Modern Languages and a Diploma of Higher Education in Modern Languages.

1.2 Range of languages learned

The programme offers 6 levels of French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish plus 1 level of Arabic and Chinese, with courses running for a full academic year. Furthermore, students can choose several language courses at different levels and in various combinations. OLP students are free to select the language of their choice and there is no dominant language, even though Spanish and French tend to be the most popular.

The following are the 6 levels available to OLP students at the University of Essex, in juxtaposition with the comparable Common European Framework/CEF Attainment Levels:

1.3 Learning outcomes

The Learning Outcomes for the OLP courses are as outlined for degree courses and are defined according to the CEFR. Following a longitudinal progression for instance, a student would have to reach A2 to obtain the Certificate of Continuing Education in Modern Languages; B1 to obtain the Certificate of Higher Education in Modern languages; and B2 to be awarded the Diploma of Higher Education in Modern Languages. However, taking into account existing prior knowledge, students can start at any level in the structure and the credits they obtain can lead them to get an award at various CEF levels. Thus, the Learning Outcomes are tailored to individual needs, with the minimum requirements set out in the programme specification approved by the University.

However, the learning outcomes for the awards can be grouped as below according to the Essex and CEF levels:

Knowledge and understanding

Intellectual/Cognitive skills

Practical skills

1.4 Practical realisation

The OLP is an optional programme of language learning which can be used by students to gain credits for the courses they take. Many students come to the University to do one level and end up staying to progress onto other levels and gain a Continuous or Higher Education award. The awarding of credits by the University is subject to its rigorous quality assurance procedures and all OLP student work is monitored by external examiners.

The demands placed on OLP students are exactly the same as those for University degree students, which means that every language course taken at one of the 6 levels is considered to be a full University course with an award of 30 credits on completion. Students must comply with all coursework and exam requirements of the course successfully; the students who are unsuccessful are offered the opportunity to resit coursework and/or the end of year examination.

The Essex credit weighting for the OLP awards is as follows:

The language courses typically consist of three (levels 1, 2, 3) to four (levels 4, 5, 6) contact hours per week and run throughout the year in 2 terms of 10 weeks each and 1 term of 3 weeks, from October to June. Students are expected to do 5 hours of self-study per course per week, in order to assimilate all the material covered in class. To do this, they are free to use the extensive facilities (e.g. library, laboratories) available on campus. There is a total integration between registered University students, staff and outside community students who work to the same curriculum. The Department also offers thematic/content courses exploring, for instance, cultural topics in the five main languages taught. These may be taken alongside the core language courses, reinforcing the basic language acquisition process whilst offering a more varied and wider learning spectrum.

Students have access to all the University facilities in terms of academic and pastoral support, they can call on any member of staff for advice on any issues regarding their courses, learning process or problems which may be impairing their studies. Because of its nature the OLP attracts students of all age groups, ranging from 19 to 70 years old, making the programme unique and all-embracing at University level.


2.1 Context

The OLP was created as a response to the increasing national decline in foreign languages take up in the secondary sector and its effect on the uptake for language degrees and courses at University level within the past 15 years in Britain. National figures published by Lord Dearing (2007), Sir Alan Langlands (2005) and even the most important Higher Education Founding Council for England, HEFCE, continuously manifest their deep concern about the consequence of this decline for employability and Britain’s international profile. From all quarters, there has been a call for widening participation in language learning and turning this into transectoral collaborative work between the three educational sectors and employers. Essex’s decision to extend language teaching to all University students (undergraduates and postgraduates), University staff and members of the outside community originated from the above national concerns and also from the local need to create a wider awareness of the possibilities to learn a language at any level and at any reasonable age.

The programme was launched as an initiative by the Modern Languages staff in the Department of Language and Linguistic and had to be approved at the various administrative and academic levels of the University. Previously, all language teaching in the Department was available for a limited number of students studying for degrees like European Studies and Latin American Studies, which have a compulsory language component, with the former offering Joint European degrees with French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and the latter Spanish and Portuguese.

Fortunately, because of the way it was designed, the OLP runs at virtually no extra cost to neither the Department in terms of staffing nor the University in terms of administrative and academic overheads because the courses were already established and the administration of the programme has been subsumed into staff duties.

2.2 Strategic goals of the initiative

The OLP is an optional programme that accommodates 6 language levels, has no career-specific limitations and unites University and town in the language class. The strategic goals of the OLP are related to widening participation, staff and student mobility, employability, internationalisation, and the democratisation of language learning.

On a more specific level, the OLP aims to:



The OLP has expanded optional language learning to hundreds of students since its inception and has successfully mixed town and University people on campus. The numbers have increased since the academic year of 1999-00 till now, with many students who came to do one course staying to take the next level or more in one language and then passing on to take another language. This shows a high level of motivation to continue learning a language and make it a lifelong aim. It should be noted that the University’s long term commitment to the programme allowed it to establish itself and develop. Had there been, as it is customary, a three year plan for this activity, it may have been closed down before it had time to mature and take off.





There is no doubt that the OLP has been a success at the University of Essex as indicated by factors such as general support, international climate, local need for language progression to the highest levels, employment possibilities, friendly language learning community and the continuity of the programme . On a more detailed level, the following success indicators are worth noting:



5.1 Lessons to be learned at institutional level

The OLP has been running successfully for 9 years; however the following are interesting lessons to learn from the experience:

5.2 Broader implications

It is safe to say that the OLP is changing the attitudes of people towards language learning within and outside the University of Essex because it has proved that: