International students dodge English language requirements

Underlying the deep problems surrounding Australia’s international student industry is the degradation of English-language entry and teaching standards.

In a nutshell, Australia’s universities have significantly lowered English-language requirements to facilitate the admission of huge volumes of international students from Non-English Speaking (NES) nations, in particular China, India and Nepal:

As illustrated above, the number of international student enrolments from China has ballooned by 96% over the past six years, with Indian and Nepalese enrolments exploding by 198% and 428% respectively over the same period.

This explosive growth in international students enrolments has given Australia’s universities the title of having the largest concentration of overseas students in the OECD, measuring roughly 2.5 times the number per 100,000 population of second-placed United Kingdom and around three times Canada:

Australia’s universities have accommodated these NES background international students by restructuring their assessment criteria away from individual assignments towards group assignments. This has required international students with poor English-language proficiency to be partnered with domestic students. Accordingly, domestic students have effectively been turned into unpaid tutors, carrying the load in assignments, cross-subsidising the marks of foreign students, and helping them to pass.

Underpinning this whole scam are the so-called “foundation” programs run in partnership with the universities. These are non-degree courses that function as a paid workaround for universities that bypass the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test for direct admission and funnels international students with poor English language proficiency into their regular degrees.

As noted by Salvatore Babones – adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and an associate professor at the University of Sydney – these foundation courses are the “ticking time bombs of Australian higher education” and “serve as alternative admissions streams for international students who can’t pass the usual English language tests”:

Foundation programs are usually run at arm’s length from the university itself, often by pro-profit companies that partner with universities…

The widespread provision that students who complete foundation programs need not re-sit their English language exams is ripe for abuse.

Requiring students to re-sit external exams (rather than demonstrate English proficiency through class grades) would hold students, teachers, unis and external program administrators accountable.

By marketing reduced-standard pathways to underprepared international students, Australian unis can seem to be selling places.

A standards-first approach would apply the same criteria to the graduates of paid preparatory programs as they do to all other applicants.

Universities’ addiction to Chinese student money does not end with foundation programs. But it starts there. The campaign to bring good sense to our international education industry should start there, too.

Warwick Lough, a former Monash College English language teacher, raised similar concerns about these foundation programs late last month:

[Lowe] said the university’s intensive English courses for international students did not give them enough language proficiency and left them struggling in university study. “This is not a grey area. It is an absurdity that they can enter with language which is wholly inadequate,” he said…

Mr Lough said most students who completed the English bridging courses at the college did not reach the standard of a 6.5 score in the IELTS English test that is the usual benchmark for international students to get entry to most ­degrees.

“In my view, most students at the end of the course appear to be well below 6.5”…

“The assessments are carefully crafted to allow about 90 per cent of students to pass.” He said speech and writing components of the internal test were often “very carefully rehearsed”…

As noted separately by Salvatore Babones in his CIS paper, these foundation programs can cost over $30,000 for a 40-week course.

Thus, Australia’s universities have engineered a lucrative double-dipping business, whereby they earn a nice cut on the tens-of-thousands of dollars spent by NES international students on foundation programs to circumvent IELTS requirements. And then, once these NES students have gained backdoor entry to degree courses, the universities earn many thousands more dollars in fees.

The forgotten losers in this scam are Australia’s domestic students, who are having to carry the load and play tutor in group assignments, as well as suffering from an overall degradation in the quality of their education and the value of their degrees.

Don’t expect any significant changes, however. Because tightening English-language requirements would necessarily reduce the inflow of international student fees from NES nations, thus placing universities’ entire business models at risk.

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  1. This is so emblematic of Australia as a whole.

    Benefits (to the very few) in dollars and cents. Costs (to everyone else) are denied and difficult to measure. Spurious and unquantifiable benefits (vibrancy, diversity and soft power ftw) are touted as being shared by everyone. We all agree to pretend it’s evidence of how “world class” or at least “best in the Southern Hemisphere” we are.