University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Comment: Assessing lecturers’ English proficiency

Teaching in English is a way of recruiting students from around the globe. In Denmark, English-language programmes have been in place for over 20 years. Parallel language researcher Joyce Kling sums up the developments at this university.

The implementation of English as the medium of instruction (EMI) has caught the attention of international offices and department heads as a means of recruiting students from around the globe. In Denmark, EMI programmes have been in place for over 20 years. At the start, much of the focus was on course content and availability. However, as the years progressed, concerns pertaining to the adequacy of linguistic proficiency for teaching and learning have been debated across the country.

In March 2003, Universities Denmark (formerly, the Danish Rector’s Conference) had noted the changes in language requirements at Danish universities and had issued a report on language policy which included recommendations Danish universities should consider to address the changing needs of the stakeholders involved in the internationalisation process. One of the specific recommendations in this report was that lecturers should have the chance to develop their foreign language and (intercultural) communication skills in order to effectively cooperate with international partners, as well as teaching their subject in a foreign language. Additionally, reports on the internationalisation of Danish universities the following years specifically recommended that universities should have a policy and guidelines for quality control of teaching in English by non-native English teachers and for in-service training, and that higher education institutions should develop a plan for improving the linguistic competences of lecturers.

Parallel language policy

In response to this call to arms, in 2007 the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe and the largest institution of research and education in Denmark, adopted a parallel language policy in its university strategy, ‘Destination 2012’. To support this policy, UCPH launched the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use (CIP) in 2008. This research and language competence training centre quickly became engaged in activities linked to the ongoing national debates taking place at the time, which included focus on goals, requirements, and competence of both students and staff for successful teaching and learning in EMI courses.

Based on input from the academic community, as well as discussions in the media, it quickly became apparent that the topic of lecturers’ English language proficiency for teaching in English was high on the agenda. UCPH commissioned CIP to develop an in-house assessment procedure that could be used to certify the English language skills of university lecturers teaching these select graduate programmes. This resulted in the development and implementation of the Test of Oral English Proficiency for Academic Staff – TOEPAS.

Certifying lecturers’ English proficiency

The TOEPAS was developed as an assessment procedure for certifying university lecturers’ English proficiency, which takes the specialised teaching at university level into account. As part of the certification process, in addition to an overall result on the test, TOEPAS examinees receive extensive oral and written feedback, as well as a digital video copy of their performance. This detailed feedback linked to the video recording provides a solid description of lecturers’ oral English competence, which can serve as the basis for further competence development.

Since the initial implementation of the TOEPAS for quality assurance, the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) contracted CIP to assess all its active lecturers. Certification of English language proficiency for teaching has become a stable element in the teaching profile of the scientific staff. Once assessed, the lecturers are aware of their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to teaching through the medium of English. Regardless of the result, the requirement to have their language assessed has changed the way the lecturers think about their language. For example, for one lecturer, being certified made her focus more on the way she uses her English on a daily basis, stating: “… I think the certification started a process … and I’m thinking about it every day. … I’m listening more carefully when I’m watching TV and I’m listening carefully how do they say specific words so I think I have become more, … I’ve given it more attention now. I’m more aware.” (Associate Professor, UCPH, LIFE).

The certification process, which provides not only an overall result, but also detailed formative feedback, offers lecturers a benchmark from which to proceed with their own development.

Effective marketing tool

In addition, although the original concern about lecturers’ English proficiency was quality control, the inclusion of language testing for lecturers has also been used as a marketing tool. With over 95% of those lecturers who have been through the TOEPAS assessed as linguistically qualified to teach their subject in English, administrators at UCPH find that documented language proficiency for the teaching staff offers a positive tool in a competitive market.

Thus, while initially quite controversial, the consequences of implementing a broad scale language assessment scheme for tenured staff have provided LIFE with both competence development support for staff, as well as a branding tool for the Faculty as a whole.

Language testing for both academic and administrative staff in non-Anglophone countries is presently on the rise. In Copenhagen, UCPH continues to refine the TOEPAS and investigate how to best utilise this linguistic proficiency assessment tool to meet the needs of the universities internationalisation process.

Like us on Facebook for features, guides and tips on upcoming events. Follow us on Twitter for links to other Copenhagen academia news stories. Sign up for the University Post weekly newsletter here.