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Is it all about the money?

January 19, 2013

I’m sure most of us would agree that money is one of the world’s great motivators (insert your preferred song lyric here). But when it comes to language learning does the source of funding have an impact on student motivation?

At the college where I work we have ESOL students from a wide range of backgrounds, whose funding comes from a variety of different sources. They can roughly be divided into three groups:

  1. International students, who pay or source their own funding. These are usually students who come from outside the EU and whose main reason for being in the UK is to study.
  2. Fee-waivers. These are long-term residents in the UK, mostly EU nationals or refugees, who don’t have to pay for their courses, either because of their status in the country or because of their financial situation.
  3. Bursary recipients. These students tend to come from similar backgrounds to fee waivers but, in addition to having their course fees waived, they qualify for a bursary to help pay their living expenses, childcare costs etc.

Unlike some institutions, the college doesn’t separate students according to their funding source; students who paid thousands of pounds for their course sit side by side with students who are receiving funding to study. Is it possible, though, to notice a difference in motivation between the differently funded groups?

You might expect the most motivated students to be the ones who are self-funding. They are investing directly in their studies so they need to be motivated to part with the cash in the first place, and once they have done so you would expect them to want to work hard to maximize their return. They also need to comply with visa regulations so regular attendance and evidence of progress are actual requirements and therefore an additional motivating factor.

However, other factors come into play that can impact on international students’ motivation to learn. For a start, few of them are actually paying the fees themselves; they tend to be funded by their families, employers or governments. Also, they usually join English courses because they have to rather than because they want to; most intend to progress onto other courses in the college or at university, and some resent the fact that they have to study English at all.

So what about the bursary recipients? They are being paid to come to college, so perhaps they will see it as a privilege and therefore be motivated in this way. In some cases, this is true. Certainly the attendance of these students tends to be very high.

But again, this funding model is by no means guaranteed to produce motivated students. As well as receiving a bursary for being full-time students, many of them also work and a lot of them have families to support. While they clearly acknowledge the importance of learning English for social integration and employability purposes, the majority of bursary recipients have so much else going on in their lives that it’s a real struggle for them just to turn up to class. The actual learning part of it seems to be secondary and the required commitment is sometimes beyond them.

So what about the fee waivers, the “funding-neutral” students? Maybe if you take money out of the equation in this way you are left with a group of students who are motivated purely by the desire to learn, with no other stakeholders pressuring them. Their motivation is entirely intrinsic; there is nothing external making them study, they only come because they want to. On the other hand, many of them still have other things going on in their lives and, because they are relying on themselves rather than something external, their attendance can be erratic and dropout rates are high (a bit like gym membership, perhaps).

It does seem to be the case that money can have an impact on motivation, but one funding model is not necessarily better than the other. This is because so many other factors come into play, many of which are more related to internal attitudes to learning. Perhaps, then, money is only a minor motivating factor when it comes to language learning. I would be interested to learn of any studies that have been done in this area.

One thing we as teachers can be sure of, though, is the need to be aware of our students’ backgrounds, their situations outside of class and their future plans/aspirations. This then allows us to crystallize and tap into their “future-selves”, connecting their progress in language learning with what they want to become. Learning English for the sake of learning English simply isn’t enough, no matter who is paying for it.

[To learn more about future self-guides and L2 motivation, try Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (eds.), Multilingual Matters 2009]

  1. Holly Pheby permalink

    It is not all about the money but money of course is part and parcel of creating the conditions conducive to learning. Without the means to pay for childcare, for example, parents would be unable to attend lessons in the first place. This is, typically, a problem for women more frequently than men. I have found that, as a result, many of the women able to attend classes do so only once their children are old enough to look after themselves or are limited to attending classes only during school time. It is worrying that changes in funding are most likely to affect those groups of people who already have the greatest barriers to learning.

  2. Paul Duffy permalink

    So, in conclusion…none of them are very motivated!!

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