Process of the dialogue and issues addressed
There were 36 participants in the dialogue comprising experts, providers of scholarships, government representatives, university representatives, teachers of English, and Syrian students. All took active part in the discussions, and the views of the students were particularly sought.
Welcoming remarks were given by Dr Abdel Nasser Hindawi of the HOPES project office, providing a background to the HOPES project and to this series of national stakeholder dialogues focused on language for resilience. Harry Haynes, the HOPES project lead for the language programme spoke of the 17 partner universities involved in the Higher Education English Access programme, including four in Jordan.
Mrs Maria Rosa Vettoretto, Attaché, representative of the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis, the ‘Madad Fund’ and EU Delegation to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, noted that both the hosts, the German Jordanian university, and the HOPES programme were designed around scholarships. She noted the importance of being self-critical, and learning from the experience of the last few years.
She stressed the need to start the process from the needs of students. Students need to know what options they have, and they need to know that English is essential for success. She noted the need for language improvement to be clearly linked to the requirements of higher education, or the workplace, or the needs of scholarship providers.
By focusing on teacher development, the programme had built capacity within universities to provide English language courses, but it has meant that the overall target number of students has not yet been reached. There is a high level of dropout from the English courses and ways of addressing this, and more clearly linking language skills with scholarships, need to be considered. She recommended that students actively participate in the design of future language learning programs.
Dr Dhiah Abou-Tair of the German Jordanian University, summarised his university’s scholarship programme the EDU-Syria, also funded by the Madad Fund and which was supported by the EU funded, British Council managed, LASER programme. This provided English language support to scholarship holders in parallel to the academic programme. In 2016, 200 Syrian undergraduate students were enrolled without any English language requirement, and the LASER programme provided linked English language training in-session. Students found it difficult to do both their higher education course content together with intensive English language learning (as well as work and family responsibilities). For Master’s level students, there was a requirement that they complete an English course before they begin their academic course. But, even when completing that through LASER, most of the students failed their university entrance English test. This was partly due to the method of English teaching in LASER, which was communicative and interactive, compared with the University exam which was structural and grammar focused.
Dr Ahmed Hawamdah, of Jerash University discussed his research into the language needs of Syrian refugees. He noted the lack of coordination between donors and scholarship providers and the overlap of some issues and the differing requirements of different donors in regard to language.
English language training was rarely closely linked to either the scholarship requirements or the subject that the student sought to study.
He highlighted the need for greater clarity for Syrian students about the central need for a command of English when attending Jordanian universities. Unlike Jordanians, who have been studying English for many years before attending university, most Syrian students have very limited experience of English and are unprepared for the high-level of English required in Jordanian universities. There is little in-session language support for Syrian students within Jordanian universities.
Dr Nahed Ghazzoul is a Syrian professor at Al Zaytoonah University in Amman. She reported on a recent study she undertook by questionnaire to approximately 1000 Syrian students in five WhatsApp groups. She got 494 responses.
The survey asked three broad questions: Is English-language important to you? What is your opinion of the HOPES English language programme? What else do you want to say about English language learning?
90% of the students responded that English language programmes were very important to them, and 10% noted the need for certificates. The HOPES English language programme was seen as extremely useful buy almost all respondents and helped them in applying for scholarships. But 80% felt the APTIS certificate was insufficient, and they would have welcomed a longer course, or the opportunity to do a follow-up course. She mentioned that high course dropout was primarily due to issues around distance and transportation costs, as well as inconvenient timing for courses. Most students would prefer highly intensive courses to reduce travel costs and to learn more quickly. They would prefer native speaker teachers if possible and would welcome some more innovative teaching approaches, for example, they felt writing is not currently a focus for the HOPES courses.
When the panel opened for questions and comments from the floor, Dr Awad Al Sheikh of the UNHCR recognised the importance of skills in English, and that our task is to help and support students to achieve the English language level they need. He suggested that, as a general rule, teachers in Jordan teach rules of English rather than teaching how to use English. The UNHCR can support any programmes proposed for Zaatari camp.
This was followed by a lively discussion from members of the panel with regard for access to Zaatari camp, connectivity within the camp, and its suitability for successful language learning. Dr Hawamdeh noted that any single course is not suitable for everyone and that more specific English-language teaching is required for induction into universities. A teacher suggested that blended learning courses needed to be designed with care particularly if they are to be delivered within the camps. Limited connectivity and the timing of courses make them difficult to sustain.
The discussions ended with Dr Awad suggesting that, in future planning, it is best to speak to the people who are living and working in the camp to decide what is possible or not, as connectivity has been greatly improved in the recent past.
A student spoke up to praise his non-native speaker teacher in helping him achieve an upper intermediate level of English. But now he was looking for access to an IELTS preparation course which was difficult to find.
During the coffee break participants were asked to comment or make recommendations against five flipchart headings, and that the end of that session they moved into groups to discuss each of the issues.