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…

The BBC reports on a whistleblower of a reputable British university making similar claims about foreign students in British higher education. In the Independent, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London, warns that ‘league table culture’ has led to an explosion in the number of firsts awarded and that universities have been particularly lenient with overseas students because they rely on them so heavily for fee income – so much so that they turn a blind eye regularly:

”Standards of English literacy at UK universities are often poor. To compensate for this, lecturers are pressured to ‘mark positively’. This is particularly true in relation to international students, whose full-cost fees are now a lucrative and essential source of much-needed revenue.”

And here, the same kind of denial seems to occur. Universities UK says there are “rigorous” checks on standards. All courses are subject to regular internal monitoring and review by the university and the university’s processes and mechanisms are, in turn, subject to additional external scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. In Alderman’s view, these new inspection systems concentrate on whether lecturers have followed procedures correctly – rather than questioning grade boundaries and the quality of marking.

The comments on the BBC article as well as the ones on the Indepent’s blog indicate that the issue is real and denial is not very useful. Of course it is only anecdotal evidence – mainly from lecturers and students – but all commentators seem to agree on the issues raised in the article.

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