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April 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Creating a Level Playing Field for EMI Business Degree Students

Michelle  Hunter teaches at universities in both Germany and the UK. Her subjects are communication in business and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She has written and co-authored numerous articles for the ELT market, including the A-Z Coaching activities book. Currently she is pursuing her doctorate, researching how lecturers and students regulate affect in the English medium classroom. Findings from her pilot study are reported in chapter 15 of the open source eBook  The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe.



In the competitive market of global employment, having a good business degree from a recognised university can boost a graduate’s employability chances. For those looking to work internationally, being able to demonstrate English language abilities further increases their attractiveness to international companies. Or so many students believe. However, having high social and cultural capital and knowing how to ‘play the game’, can be stronger indicators for employability success (Leug and Leug, 2015). Evidence from the field of English Medium Instruction (EMI) research suggests that there is a gap between privileged students with high degrees of English language (EL) proficiency, and disadvantaged students who have lower levels of EL proficiency (e.g.: Macaro et al., 2018). The former engages with EMI learning, and benefits from the positive outcomes of an EMI degree; the latter tends to shy away from and avoid being confronted by English during their studies from fear of failure (Leug and Leug, 2015). While empirical evidence as to a correlation between academic success and EL proficiency is contradictory (e.g.: Daller and Phelan, 2013; Civan and Coşkun, 2016), a Danish study by Leug and Leug (2015) suggests a disparity between higher and lower strata students on EMI business programmes. In this article, I explore whether a level playing field can ever be achieved; or have internationalised higher education institutions (HEIs) gone too far down the neoliberal road to ever consider what is fair and equitable for all?


The cultural capital gap

According to French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, those with higher status in a society have a collection of competencies, skills and qualifications that confer on them cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Individuals with characteristics prized by society – a legitimised form of cultural capital – have higher self-esteem (Leug and Leug 2015, p.11). Students from privileged families with concomitant high self-esteem and cultural capital, are more likely to choose an EMI programme when looking to attend a business school (Leug and Leug, 2015). These young adults also tend to come equipped with strong EL proficiency, usually arising from extra-curricular EL activities and travels abroad. More often than not, they are also prepared to relocate to wherever the ‘best’ programmes are on offer. These “very gifted, highly motivated, extremely flexible, dynamic and creative individuals” (Wilkinson and Gabriels, 2017) are exactly what internationalised universities are after. Demonstrating an ability to attract excellent students in turn attracts excellent staff, and vice versa; consequently, industry is drawn to the region which then increases “the power and value of the university to the community” (Wilkinson and Gabriels 2017, p.342). It is easy to see how higher education has become an important prop in the growth of neoliberal principles and policies and could favour those with higher cultural capital and linguistic skills.  As the commodification of higher education continues, it is the most consumer-savvy, high-achieving and privileged students who get first dibs on the ‘best’ university programmes (Hazelkorn, 2011). With their EMI degree successfully achieved, these students get to convert their cultural capital as embodied by EL proficiency to “a legitimised form” of cultural capital (Leug and Leug 2015, p. 11). In contrast, some students with lower EL proficiency are held back from their full academic achievement potential (Shohamy 2012, p.198)


An ideological view of higher education

Paul Ashwin’s (2020) view that an undergraduate university education should support students in achieving “an understanding of knowledge that can change their sense of who they are, what the world is and what they can do in the world” (Ashwin, 2020, p.66) may feel like a rose-tinted, ideological one. Within a business education department, the drivers behind learning tend to be more pragmatic and instrumental. Students enrol on a business degree programme with the intention of improving their employability opportunities; universities publish graduate success statistics to market their courses; governments proudly promote their national universities’ global ranking positions so that that the cycle continues uninterrupted. Even parents are more preoccupied with what their offspring get after leaving university than what they gain during their time there (Shohamy 2012, p.200).

Factor in the increasing use of English as the language of instruction, we have another variable contributing to the wider discussion of who wins and who loses in the game of getting the best post-graduate jobs in a competitive global market. Institutions of higher education around the world have been jumping on the unstoppable English Medium Instruction (EMI) train (Macaro 2020) with little regard for who falls off along the way. Business is among the disciplines with the highest number of EMI programmes (Maiworm & Wächter 2014, p.67). On the one hand, we can argue this reflects the demand from global industry for international graduates; the need in our societies to maintain our knowledge-based economies; the desire for ambitious students to study business.  On the other hand, such provision can be seen as calculated to maximise student enrolment, and consequently boost fees and / or institutions’ reputations. As pointed out above, more ‘excellent’ students attract international academics; more ‘excellent’ academics bring more funding and published research. All this feeds into raising a university’ reputation, and therefore status and world ranking.

What then happens to the ideological knowledge-development reasons for gaining a university education? How should those students who, for whatever reason, do not have high levels of EL proficiency, but still want to increase their chance of employability, be handled?


Language as symbolic capital

In a study into the effects of EMI on academic success, a former Director of Education from Sri Lanka is quoted as applauding the return to their national language as the medium of science instruction. This transition removed a significant barrier between the “privileged English educated class and the non-English educated deprived classes” Ranaweera 1976, p.423 cited in Civan and Cokşun, 2016). The long-standing trend, however, of associating serious academic knowledge with a prestige language remains dominant. It is undeniable that an academic lingua franca which no longer ‘belongs’ to native-speakers, makes education available to the many who want their slice of the globalisation pie. Being able to make use of such a prestigious language places the speaker (or writer) in a stronger position within their chosen market. Following this train of thought brings us to Bourdieu’s (1977) conception of language as “practical material activity”, as a source of symbolic capital (Cavanaugh 2018, p.262). Language is effectively being used as a commodity to drive “global economies, materiality, branding, mediatization, and late capitalism” (ibid.). As one language commands higher value than others on the linguistic commodity market, we see lesser valued languages – and consequently nationalities – losing out. Delving into the implications and knock-on effects of linguistic hegemony or Confronting the Hydra (Bunce et al. 2016) that English is seen to be by some, is too large a topic for this short article. Suffice to say, for those individuals with a large share of the high value language and the high cultural capital it infers, they are more likely to gain access to the highly ranked business schools than the “culturally underprivileged” (Leug and Leug 2015, p. 6).


Sensing one’s place and limits

Once enrolled on their management education courses, privileged students may not encounter their peers from ‘lower strata’ as these young adults may have rejected the EMI option out of fear of failure (ibid.). According to Bourdieu, it is a cultural distance from educational institutions, rather than one’s aptitude that results in academic success or failure (Bourdieu et al., 1994). Students whose parents have no academic background, aren’t familiar with and don’t know how to deal with what goes on at university. Many of us have personal experience to prove that intelligence is not dependent on social background and circumstances. In social media, we see examples of individuals with high cultural capital endowed on them by their upper-class parents and expensive educations, yet seemingly lacking of common sense ‘intelligence’ (e.g.: Super-rich-discover-hidden-risks-instagram-yachts-jets). Their strong sense of place in the world enables them to achieve the successes they enjoy. In the case of students rejecting the option for EMI business studies, a decision they know is likely to adversely impact their attractiveness to employers, there must be some way of convincing them they too deserve a place at the table.


Mindful implementation of EMI programmes

This article has, until now, painted a bleak picture of EMI business education for students from lower social backgrounds. It is important to note that many of the points discussed were raised in a paper looking specifically at Danish EMI students. The authors’ perspective relied heavily on Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital. Their studied concluded with some interesting findings which I will briefly summarise, and then relate to my personal views on how the EMI educational field could be made more level for more students.

Leug and Leug (2015) found the following:

  1. Social background, language proficiency (cultural capital) and a sense of one’s place in the academic arena substantially affect the choice to embark on EMI studies
  2. Students reject EMI options in the belief their perceived poor EL skills will adversely affect their grades, thus thwarting their goals.
  3. The perception among ‘lower-strata’ students is they face higher barriers to EMI than is actually the case
  4. All students in this study had “outstanding English proficiency”
  5. Higher social background “is systematically related to higher levels of perceived English proficiency (‘linguistic capital’ Bourdieu, 1991: 57)”
  6. The tendency of higher- (lower-) strata student to choose (reject) EMI was based on students’ beliefs about their intellectual abilities rather than their actual capabilities.

EMI in higher education literature presents a strong case for the instrumental benefits of EMI for many students from around the world. There seems, however, to be less exploration of the consequences for ‘lower-strata’ students on business degree programmes. Leug and Leug’s study certainly opens up the conversation; they call for HEI policymakers and course leaders to proceed mindfully. As a teacher on an international business degree programme, I agree. However, having little sway at policy level, I strive to be mindful in my classes. Borrowing from Leug and Leug’s “contributions for practice” (p.23), I focus on content and knowledge; I carve out time and space for reflection on that developing knowledge, as well as consideration of the language need to communicate what they have learned; I remind my students that fluency (comprehensibility) trumps accuracy; I call on their lived experiences and encourage sharing those experiences collectively in class, with the intention of reducing barriers and boosting self-efficacy.

I have seen so-called ‘lower strata’ students being put off by the perception that they do not belong in a group of apparently more privileged students – students who are demonstrably more confident EL speakers. I have witnessed the tears of shame, the written-test cheating, the work-study-balance stress among certain students who didn’t have access to the additional after-school English classes or international travel. While I cannot change the social system in which this happens, I can change the way each student is encouraged to participate in my classes; I can continue striving for a level field in my classes, allowing those with lower social and cultural capital to feel that they have the chance to mix on an equal footing with their peers who have benefited from higher social and cultural capital.



Ashwin, P. (2020). Transforming university education: A manifesto. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Bourdieu, P. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson, 241–58. New York: Greenwood.

Bunce, P., Phillipson, R., Rapatahana, V., & Tupas, R. (2016). Why English?: Confronting the Hydra. Multilingual Matters.

Cavanaugh, J. R. (2018). Linguistic Economies: Commentary on Language Policy Special Issue “Policing for Commodification: Turning Communicative Resources into Commodities.” Language Policy, 17(2), 261–273.

Civan, A., & Coşkun, A. (2016). The Effect of the Medium of Instruction Language on the Academic Success of University Students. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 16(6).

Daller, M. H., & Phelan, D. (n.d.). Predicting international student study success. Applied Linguistics Review, 4(1), 173–193.

Hazelkorn, E. (2011). Globalization and the Reputation Race. In Rankings and the reshaping of higher education (pp. 1–25). Palmgrave Macmillan.

Lueg, K. and Lueg, R. (2015) "Why do students choose English as a medium of instruction? A Bourdieusian perspective on the study strategies of non-native English speakers." Academy of Management Learning & Education 14.1 5-30.

Macaro, E. (2020). These are the drivers propelling the EMI train forward. EL Gazette, Jan 2020(468), 36–37.

Macaro, E., Curle, S., Pun, J., An, J., & Dearden, J. (2018). A systematic review of English medium instruction in higher education. Language Teaching; Cambridge, 51(1), 36–76.

Shohamy, E. (2012). 10 A Critical Perspective on the Use of English as a Medium of Instruction at Universities. In English-medium instruction at universities (pp. 196–210). Multilingual Matters.

Wächter, B., & Maiworm, F. (Eds.). (2014). English-taught programmes in European higher education: The state of play in 2014. Lemmens Medien GmbH.

Wilkinson, R., & Gabriels, R. (2018). Adapting to EMI in Higher Education: Students’ Perceived Learning Strategies. In J. Valcke, A. C. Murphy, & F. Costa (Eds.), Critical Issues in English-Medium Instruction at University (Vol. 2/2017, pp. 341–360). Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.


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