Thursday, 1 January 2009

Limited by their English?

With increasing numbers of international students, especially at Masters level, us UK education risking its reputation?

Matt Salusbury


(This article first appeared in English Language Gazette of January 2009)

ACADEMICS are sounding the alarm about the huge number of overseas students recruited to UK despite some of them barely speaking English, and the effect is it having on the quality of their universities’ brands. (And see the front page for news of 46 international students at Newcastle University whose TOEFL scores were faked.) But there are also many international student success stories in UK universities, and we analyse below some of the secrets of their success.

The UK has been keen to embrace international students. BBC News estimated that as of July 2008, more than 60 per cent of the UK Masters students are from outside the country. In 2007, there were 44,225 non-EU overseas students in the UK.
Dr Avrind Sivaramakrishnan of the Asian College of Journalism, writing in Education Guardian in July, reported that 20 out of 80 foreign students reputedly left one particular course because they found their English was inadequate. Sivaramakrishnan says educational agents ‘are sometimes economical with the reality.’ One of his students ‘went to a British recruitment event, and returned saying they only wanted MBA and technology students with chequebooks at the ready.’
A British academic based in Chinese university, using the pseudonym Victoria Adam, told Education Guardian that Foundation programmes were an excellent idea, but ‘as the programmes proliferated, standards have not been maintained. In China, a business teacher said that in one of his classes, 75 per cent of students failed.’ The consequence, according to ‘Victoria,’ is that ‘Chinese students who cannot listen, speak or write after eight years of formal English education may well still find themselves on the way to Britain.’

An anonymous academic from a prestigious Russell Group university told BBC News this summer that ‘I tried to speak to a student who could not understand a simple request; in the end, we had to resort to pen and paper…once students have arrived at the university… it becomes difficult for them to be failed or sent home.’

The BBC News report highlighted another problem – it’s ‘unusual for students to fail postgraduate courses.’ Higher Education Statistics Agency analysis of trends for degrees ‘does not explicitly contain the concept of failing a course.’

One reader of this report posting a comment on the BBC News website claimed that ‘Our university is known for passing students with poor English skills.’

The repercussions for the reputation of the UK’s universities was highlighted by the case of Kai Lee, a Chinese Masters student whose ‘essay-writing empire’ was busted last November. Lee advertised his services through Mandarin-language posters on the campus of the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), charging up to £1000 for essays and dissertations for students at several universities. Lee was uncovered by Uclan student newspaper Pluto, but many Uclan students leaving comments on Pluto’s web forum felt it was a victimless crime, blaming a ‘university system’ that recruits high-paying non-English proficient students.

Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute warned BBC News that ‘the concern about international students and their language ability is actually two way.’ Bekhadnia says foreign governments are concerned that students they send to the UK on scholarship programmes spend so much time getting their English up to scratch that that they don't learn much of their subject. This problem influenced the Chinese ministry of education’s decision to end its funding for students on UK Masters courses. The British Council in Beijing confirmed that the Chinese ‘ministry of education support (in the form of scholarships) is now focused on PhD students and not Masters’

What solutions are there to the problems posed by a surge in non-English proficient international university students? A coherent programme of mentoring is a must (see my article on this here). Universities should admit only those international students who are strong academically. No amount of EAP support will help a student get a degree in a subject in which they are weak. Get students on Foundation courses as early as possible, and our earlier survey of EAP courses produced general agreement that students need a minimum IELTS score of 5 even to get on a Foundation course. (See the April 2008 Gazette.)

We asked some EAP units with a good reputation what factors they felt influenced non-native speaker international university students succeeding

Alison Strandling, from the Language Centre of the world class London School of Economics (LSE, part of the University of London) says its centre has one-to-one consultations for EAP students as part of its programme, and its EAP teachers also have office hours when students can receive individual help and support. LSE’s virtual learning platform is becoming increasingly important in supporting international students. No additional fees for EAP are charged on top of the standard subject course tuition fees, which encourages students to maximize their use of them.

University of East Anglia’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (academic) Professor Edward Acton told the Gazette, ‘ I think each of the solutions you cite is important. The one we have poured much energy into is the development of pre-university pathways,
combining academic and intensive English language tuition, provided on campus… Immersion in an English-speaking environment and habituation to UK study methods before starting a degree course seems to be paying great dividends. As a group, international students coming to us from this route are thus far distinctly outperforming those recruited directly.’

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