English Medium Instruction in Saudi STEM programmes: A case study

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Recent decades have witnessed the spread of the English language as a global lingua franca, alongside an accompanying rise in the use of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) in education internationally. In the context of globalisation and the increased internationalisation of education, the spread of EMI is often presented and accepted as being beneficial and, indeed, inevitable. However, a growing body of research has questioned both the concept and practice of EMI, stressing its potentially negative impacts in terms of academic outcomes and broader socio-cultural concerns. Saudi Arabia is no exception to the international trend towards EMI, with English now the mandatory medium of instruction for all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses in higher education. The Kingdom provides a particularly interesting example of EMI implementation because it is taking place in a context in which practically all students share the same mother tongue (Arabic), the internationalisation of education is largely absent, and the relationship between the national religion and the national language potentially renders EMI particularly controversial. This research is a qualitative case study examining the implementation of EMI on STEM programmes in one Saudi university, exploring the experiences and perceptions of six students, five lecturers and three managers through a series of semi-structured interviews (COVID-19 lockdowns, unfortunately, restricted the researcher’s ability to make field visits to the case institution). The research questions focused on how EMI was being implemented, stakeholders’ perceptions of that process, the broad range of pedagogical, social and cultural challenges they have identified, and the strategies they have used to try to overcome the challenges associated with EMI. The case also provides an opportunity to study what happens during the process of attempting to implement an unwritten policy in a context in which key stakeholders appear insufficiently prepared. The findings show that the implementation of the EMI requirement is highly variable, with much evidence for the continued use of Arabic in teaching. Further, the stakeholders hold ambivalent views of EMI, with all claiming to be supportive of it but many identifying challenges in terms of its academic and social consequences. Finally, the research reveals the wide range of strategies employed by students to overcome EMI-related challenges, with social strategies most commonly employed.

The study also highlights significant differences between the EMI experiences of state and private school graduates, which threaten to exacerbate inequality in Saudi society, and identifies the potential benefits of introducing translanguaging pedagogies to EMI classes, two issues that warrant further exploration through future research.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSimon Coffey (Supervisor) & Nicholas Andon (Supervisor)

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