The emperor's new clothes: yes, there is a link between English language competence and academic standards.

Author:Bretag, Tracey

Australian universities have struggled to compensate for funding cuts by taking in large numbers of full-fee-paying international students. Concern is mounting about falling standards and the growth of plagiarism. The author interviewed 14 academics from 10 universities and found that all were concerned about the inadequate English of many international students. Most reported pressure to pass such students despite poor work, and to overlook plagiarism. Where academics did report plagiarism they found the process time-consuming and often futile.


The underfunded higher education sector

During the period 1995 to 2003 Australia's public share of total expenditure on tertiary education fell by 16.8 percent. (1) In 2003, other than the United States and Japan, Australia had the lowest share of public expenditure on tertiary education of all the OECD countries reported. (2) This fall in public spending is part of the government's neo-liberal policies; Australian universities have not resisted these policies and the associated discourses of marketisation and consumerism. Instead they have looked to full fee-paying international students to subsidise the under-funded sector. As a consequence international education has become a multi-billion dollar business enterprise. Paradoxically, the quality of the 'product', an Australian university education based on internationally recognised standards of academic excellence, has been undermined by a rush to recruit students who may not be adequately prepared for a new academic environment in a second language.

Anyanwu and Innes conducted a yearlong Australian study beginning in October 2003 which involved focus group sessions with 150 academics, 25 administrative and support staff, 240 undergraduate international students, 136 undergraduate domestic students, 43 postgraduate international and domestic students. Based on this they concluded that the internationalisation of higher education led the participants in their research to believe that there has been 'a decline in academic standards across the board'. (3) In addition to research conducted by academics, concerns about the correlation between the increased reliance on overseas students and declining academic standards feature regularly in the media. (4) While the data is not conclusive, it is clear that a serious problem is emerging.

English language entry requirements

There are a number of standard tests used to determine the English language competence of international entry-level students to Australian universities, with the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) the most commonly used. Undergraduate entry level is typically a score of 6.00 to 6.5 on the IELTS test, and postgraduate entry-level is usually 6.5 or higher, depending on the discipline area. (5) This standard has been criticised as being 'barely adequate' for university study by a number of researchers. (6) In addition to the IELTS, most universities accept alternative pathways into a degree program, which for example, might entail 12 months' study in English or the completion of a diploma at an Australian post-secondary institution. Standards reached via these pathways are difficult to monitor, particularly in the case of offshore students.

In addition to entry requirements, a significant factor affecting the ability of students with English as an additional language (EAL) to reach their academic potential is the length of time they have been in the new environment. While second language learners master basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) within a relatively short period of time, generally agreed to be about two years, these language skills are not sufficient for students to succeed in academic learning contexts. (7) Rather, these students need to develop cognitive academic linguistic proficiency (CALP) if they are to succeed in academic second language learning contexts, particularly at the tertiary level. Research over the last 25 years indicates that it takes between five and ten years to develop CALP. (8)

The issue of socio-linguistic competence in a second language has implications for the way that academics assess international students' written and oral work. The minimum English language levels that students are required to meet to enter an Australian university (6 to 6.5 IELTS) are significantly different to the linguistic competence of an educated native speaker, who, for example, could reasonably be expected to achieve 8.5 or 9 IELTS. Given that IELTS educators recommend at least 100 hours of intensive English language instruction to achieve each 0.5 band on the IELTS score, international students accepted on the basis of minimum language requirements will require significant assistance to complete assignments in English successfully. The IELTS Handbook provides an interpretation of the band results that states very clearly that for all academic courses, even those considered less linguistically demanding such as pure mathematics or technology, a score of 6.00 will require additional English study. Even a score of 6.5 will only be 'probably acceptable' for these less linguistically demanding courses. The only band range where the English language level is considered 'acceptable' for all forms of study is 7.5 to 9.00. (9)

Academic staff have difficulty grading work submitted by some international students, which, while seeming to demonstrate some understanding of the content area, is written in virtually incomprehensible English. This situation becomes even more complicated in the case of postgraduate students who are expected to demonstrate critical and in-depth analysis of conceptually advanced subjects, but who often submit draft after draft of literature reviews that are nothing but cut and paste quotations from texts, with either poor referencing or none at all. Academic staff members find themselves in a dilemma. If they mark the work according to the same academic and linguistic standards expected of local students this may result in fail grades for the significant number of international students who have entered university on the basis of a minimum IELTS or equivalent. However, if they focus solely on the student's perceived understanding of content this would create a separate assessment standard for international students which may threaten academic integrity.

Support for international students

While assistance to international students is offered at most Australian universities via student support centres, funding cuts to the tertiary sector have meant that international students' fees are...

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