“Recently I quit my academic job at XXXX University. One of my reasons was that I could no longer stomach how Australian universities treat international students. ”
This is how Jenny Wright opens her blog. Here I am quoting from her blog in bits and pieces (that suits my theme) with her permission and all those who want to read about her should visit the blog.
“As a Program Manager in a course that attracts more international than local students, I have been the interface between students and the institution for a number of years. I’m the one who’s meant to come up with strategies when a student is struggling with their study. I have seen the same problems faced by international students for many years, and my attempts to change the situation have been stymied at every turn. Whenever I see an international student who is struggling, I feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame. I can’t do it any more.”
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Our international students need to meet an English threshold to be admitted. There is a standardised test, called an IELTS test (there are others, but this is the most common in Australia). Our students must attain an average of 6.5 on the test results, with no band below 6.
Students who only just meet this criteria struggle in the classroom. They take a long time to read, and so get left behind in debates. They spend at least twice as much time reading than local students (and usually longer) and even then, their comprehension is poor when it comes to anything technical or sophisticated.
They are generally silent in class, because they can’t follow the conversation, or if they can, are ashamed to speak because they will be slow, or difficult to understand. It is extremely difficult for them to collaborate (and in my program, collaboration is key), and from a teacher’s perspective it is difficult to force inter-cultural collaborations when some of the students can’t communicate. This leads to the formation of class-based ghettos. The best English speaker will then emerge as the ‘spokesperson’ for a group of internationals, further silencing the ones who struggle.
The prevailing theory is that international students with poor English will quickly improve. Indeed, this is often the case – commencing students who are struggling in week 1 are usually much better by week 8 (although still facing significant academic hurdles). However a percentage of internationals do not improve. Indeed, as they become more ghettoised and isolated, their English can actually deteriorate.
Research is a compulsory aspect of a Masters by coursework degree under the Commonwealth government’s AQF framework. A certain type of international student finds this requirement extremely difficult. On top of the poor English, some students come from a very different educational system and struggle to understand the concept of research. The fail rate in our research methods course among this demographic is very high. We are constantly trying different things, but we are constrained by what policy and procedure allows.
It is difficult to explain what research is, develop an appropriate methodology, and develop a research idea, if a student cannot read sophisticated English, and relies on Google translate to fix their writing.
I have been shopping my concerns through the institution for at least two years. They are met by superficial commiseration, suggestions that I consult with someone else, and promises that it is on some agenda somewhere. Sometimes – very rarely – I have encountered other staff who are desperately concerned about it, but they simply share my frustration. I have never been invited to the high-level meetings that are allegedly occurring.
I am so annoyed and offended by the ‘run-around’ managerial technique which sends me off on a goose-chase to some other area. Another managerial technique that I have encountered way too often is to turn the ‘solution’ into a shit-load of work for yours truly. Since I have no power, it’s not even a solution. It’s just a way to shut me up.
I have formatted portions from her blog in a way that you can differentiate it from my comments. Now that she has listed the problem from an academic’s perspective, I am going to share her solutions along with my comments…
SO, WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?
The most obvious one is to raise the IELTS entry score. I am reliably informed that this will never happen because the University is too dependent on international students for income, and they know that a lot of our students struggle to meet 6.5. Indeed, some other universities have an IELTS score for a Master degree of only 6 – so XXXX already has a relatively high entry score.
I agree with Jenny that Universities tend to find short-cuts to the English requirements. She talks of Universities that even has a requirement of only IELTS score of 6.0 for Masters entry and thus her concern that 6.5 can also be low for several programs was non-considerable by her University.
I am going to shock Jenny here: Forget 6.5 or 6.0, there are Universities that have in the past waived the IELTS altogether if the student could provide an MOI letter. MOI is Medium of Instruction letter. This kind of letter is very easy to procure in India and it will be too simplistic to assume that the policy makers at the University were not aware that MOI letters mean non reflective of the English levels of the International students. Often it turned out that students who couldn’t meet the IELTS threshold ended up hiding the score and just providing the MOI letters.
I did a blog on this in May (see link) and can say with some satisfaction that several Universities have stopped this practice from the next intake. At-least this is what I believed.
However bottom-lines do matter and recently I find several Universities finding another shortcut. They have begun to waive IELTS all together and now they do that for students from India who have studied at Indian Universities that are graded as Section 1 Institutions. I am all for selectively waiving the IELTS requirement for a student who has demonstrated through alternative means on their English Language Proficiency. But since when and how can an University believe that “all” students graduating from anan Indian University being in Section 1 possess an English Language level that is equal to atleast IELTS of 6.5. I can show them hundreds of students who graduate from Section 1 and will fail to even get an IELTS score of 6.0. The parameters for the institute qualifying as a Section 1 is around the academic abilities of the student and not English Language Proficiency. Further the Indian Universities are structured differently and unlike Australian Universities they have many colleges under them of varying quality.
The most popular solution is for students to continue learning English while doing their study. Indeed, I myself privately embraced this solution. At no cost the the university, I trained up as a TEFL English teacher and I used my consultation time to run English sessions for commencing students. The take-up of these sessions has been low. Our international students who are struggling have no extra time for more lessons. Although there probably would be a pay-off down the track, they are already exhausted and flat out with their compulsory coursework.
Yes and No. I know of International students who are aware that due to changes to the Permanent Residency requirements, they often require a higher IELTS to be eligible and thus if properly counselled, they will enrol in such programs. Students need to know why they are required to do what.
XXXX also has a centralised Study and Learning Centre which offers some help with English. Our students appear to under-utilise it.
Ultimately, we can never go down the path of obliging or expecting international students with poor English to do more English study. It is inequitable to expect some types of students to do more work than others. The bottom line is: if a student is not qualified to study a course, they should not be admitted. If they are admitted, the institution is failing in its duty of care. Indeed, it could almost be called a type of fraud. Institutions who promise that a student can get a qualification which they don’t have the ability to get are on very thin ice, not only morally but possibly legally too. Of course, universities earn as much, or even more, from students who fail, as from students who pass.
Our international students come to us in good faith. The ‘barely 6.5’ students have no idea that their English standard is actually insufficient. It is only after they start their course, having invested huge sums of money, moved countries, and made huge promises to their families, that they realise that they can’t manage. It is too late for them to back out by that stage.
I find it very ironical that we are expecting the institutions to apply duty of care. At an address on the sidelines of the recent AIEC conference I spoke to over hundred policy makers from education providers and shared my frustration on how institutions often choose to ignore the duty of care and even the Standard 2 of the ESOS Act. My points at that event was around the fact that institutions hide the fact “knowingly” from Indian students who have commenced a Bachelors in Australian through a pathway or a D2D packaging that the program that they are studying or have been recruited to will not lead to a qualification that will allow them to pursue further studies in India or even be eligible for jobs that require an equivalence as a Bachelors. For years I have been lobbying for the institutions to ensure that students are pre-cautioned in all fairness but then almost half of the undergraduate students from India have arrived using a package.
The youtube of the speech that I made on the sidelines of AIEC event in Melbourne that I refer above is here…
(I may add here that my company that is also in the space has put out the Indian Government notification on our website and also has it pinned to top of the FB page.) (see link to the notification.)
Other solutions start with the premise of keeping the 6.5 score, but changing the course. These are more complex solutions which probably involve revision of Commonwealth policy. For example, we could have different qualifications for different English capabilities. We could have three-year Masters degrees, in which students with good English get credit for the first year. This would allow us to incorporate a discipline-specific English language program into the first year. Then we could potentially stream the 2nd and 3rd years so that students with poor English continue to build their English skill. The problem from the current policy perspective is that students from the different streams may not emerge with the same skill-set. Perhaps international students would not accept (or be prepared to pay for) an extra year.
It is unrealistic to expect International students to study for a Masters that is longer to that offered to a domestic students. It will keep them from mingling with local students and further ghettoise them. Also the high cost of education will not work in recruitment efforts.
At the very least, integrating discipline-specific English language teaching into the actual curriculum, rather than as an add-on, is necessary. It will require streaming, because we don’t want to alienate students who don’t need it. Again, this probably means a policy change.
I encourage you all to take a look at Jenny’s blog which has now also been quoted on SBS social media page. You may consider my comments above too. I look forward to your thoughts either emailed directly to me or through social media.
I also feel that 90% of students from the Indian sub-continent reach Australia with the intention to seek out post study work and possibly settlement. The current observation of the skill select system is that only those with a high IELTS have a fair chance. It is unrealistic to expect a student recruited with 5.5 in IELTS to actually lift his or her level to that of IELTS 7.0 after 2-3 years of studying in Australia. At most it might improve marginally by 0.5.
I believe that it is also time to re-pitch the Australian vocational sector to the International markets once again as students with low English proficiency are better fit for a more hands-on education format and unsuited for the Universities.
Let me wrap up this blog with the following further quotes from Jenny. As I stated above, I have only shared bits and pieces from it and you may consider visit the her blog for her full thoughts.
Potential students are often misled by agents and recruiters, whether it is about the academic aspects of their proposed study, or the life that awaits them in Australia.
International students don’t just subsidise the budgets of our universities, they are a huge source of foreign income for local, state and federal governments. There is a collusion amongst all these institutions to prop up an unethical system. Neither government nor university administration wishes to take this issue seriously. So long as the international students themselves (and/or their governments on their behalf) do not take their money elsewhere, there is no political desire to tackle the problem.