Is the UK going Down Under?

During my years in Sydney, the issue of language skills and foreign students has come up repeatedly. The claim was that the financial reliance on foreign students had forced Australian higher education to accept students that lack even the basic English language and communication skills.

Most critical on this issue is probably Bob Birrell, Director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University in Melbourne. Last year he published a study finding that one in three overseas students which were granted permanent residency after graduating from an Australian university does not have good enough English to handle a professional job.

An analysis of government visa testing, the first of its kind, found 34 per cent of 12,116 graduating international students who received permanent residency in 2005-06 did not have the English standard needed to be admitted to university, let alone to be awarded a degree. For students from China, the fastest growing international student market for Australian universities, the proportion with poor English leapt to 43 per cent.

The question is of course: how did they get into an Australian university anyway? And even more: how did they ever get a degree? With respect to the second question, Birrell claims that universities dealt with the poor English language skills of their students by lowering teaching and assessment standards. On the question of how they get in, Birrell has another explanation.

Applicants for a higher-education student visa must score at band-six level, rated as “competent”, under the International English Language Testing System, if based overseas when they apply. But international applicants can avoid the testing by basing themselves in Australia earlier to complete either year 12 or an intensive language course. Dr Birrell found that about 40 per cent of overseas students followed this path.

Professor Peter Abelson – a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney at that time – summarised the issue correctly:

“These figures are a very stunning result, but not entirely surprising to people who are in tertiary education.”

Former Minister of Education, Julie Bishop, and former president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee Gerard Sutton basically denied the problems. Sutton didn’t accept that there is a problem in universities in terms of soft marking of international students. Julie Bishop rejected claims that a large number of foreign students graduating from Australian universities have poor English skills:

“Australian universities only enroll foreign students once they have achieved international standards of language proficiency. This has been an extraordinary attack by Professor Birrell on our universities. International students must meet international benchmarks in English language in order to get a place at a university in Australia.”

The denial of the problem is astonishing. Yes of course, there is a lot of money involved and the stakes in international education are high. If the international student market would plummet, so would much of the Australian higher education sector. But denying the problem while more and more foreign graduates fail in their job search because of their language skills, does obviously not help in the long run.

And now the debate has moved up north…

Continue reading Is the UK going Down Under?


After the proliferation of accreditation bodies in the 1990s and 2000s, the sector witnessed the appearance of meta-accreditation. Do we – after the proliferation of rankings in the past 10 years or so – witness the first meta-ranking?

It looks like it, however I must admit it’s slightly different. It won’t be a meta-ranker, but more an accreditor of rankings. I’m talking about the establishment of the IREG–International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence:

On April 18, 2008 an important decision was reached by the International Ranking Expert Group (IREG) to consolidate its partnership arrangement with the   creation of the IREG-International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence.

Bob Morse, director of data research of one of the first and one of the most influential rankings – US NEWS & World Report – is one of the Executive Committee members and he writes on his blog Morse Code:

The International Observatory, headquartered in Warsaw, will conduct reviews of various ‘academic rankings’ and measures of ‘academic excellence’ to assess how well they serve higher education stakeholders and the general public. The observatory will use the recommendations formulated in the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions. Members of the body also will meet at the request of various ranking agencies to review their particular methodology criteria and standards. Ranking entities that receive observatory approval will be able to declare themselves ‘IREG Recognized’.

Especially that last item seems to point to an accreditor of rankings. But then, what gives IREG the authority to declare a ranking recognized or not? Well… at least they have some ‘recognized’ persons in their Executive Committee. Next to Bob Morse there are Gero Federkeil (CHE, Germany), Liu Nian Cai (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) and Alex Usher (Education Policy Institute, Toronto, Canada). The Committee is chaired by Jan Sadlak, the Director of UNESCO-CEPES in Romania. I wonder how this all will develop. And I wonder who will first get the ‘IREG-disapproved stamp’. Plenty of candidates…