STORY OF THE MONTH – Soft Marking: Should Australian universities go easy on international students?

AUSTRALIAN universities have been battling accusations their entry requirements for international students are too low – and in some cases, lecturers are too lenient on foreign pupils. Grace Yew speaks to academics and students for their thoughts.

Photo: Chris Lawrence via flickr

Academic standards in Australian universities have often been disputed, with recent claims of “soft marking” being particularly prevalent within the international student sector.

Soft marking, or lenient marking standards for international students with weaker English, is a taboo topic. Just this June, former University of Canberra journalism tutor Lynne Minion went public with a complaint that two international students had passed their course through unfair marking by their course convenor.

The two Chinese students reportedly had their marks moderated in order to pass a journalism unit which they had previously failed. But the investigation found no evidence assessment policies were breached.

Course convenor and former Canberra Times editor Mr Hull asserted English expression comprised 20 percent of the overall mark. Upon applying the other criteria, Mr Hull found the students were eligible to receive a passing grade. Moreover, he claimed that the students would eventually be working in their home countries, where English expertise would not be necessary.

Despite the lack of evidence, the soft marking incident sparked a debate across Australian institutions: should international students be subject to relaxed standards of assessment?

Naysayers 

Contrary to public perception, international students do not always possess a substandard command of the English language. Students in Australia hail from a wide variety of backgrounds, with many international students learning English in their home countries.

To third-year media student Edwin Wong, the notion international students require lenient marking is highly stereotypical.

Generally, I do not think that we are getting an easier way out,” he says.

As a Singaporean, Edwin is a native speaker of both English and Mandarin Chinese, communicating effectively in both languages.

“Even if you’re not a native speaker, the tutors try to give you as much help as possible,” he says.

“Standards vary from tutor to tutor, as some focus more on your structure, some on your grammar.

“But the onus is still on the students to improve themselves and use the language.”

Malaysian design student Wan Kimm Cheng also voiced her agreement, particularly with regard to academic writing standards in specialised or vocational courses.

“In the design industry, there is definitely less emphasis on English as a whole, regardless of background,” she observes.

“When you have to write an essay, they look more at your content, phrasing and structure.

There’s less emphasis on the writing component, so international students don’t get penalised as much. Besides, local students also have difficulty producing quality work for academic writing.”

Wan Kimm believes lenient scoring “devalues the degree” and limits effective communication.

“It restricts international students’ capabilities to grow, as they may use their English standards to justify themselves in future,” she says.

“When you graduate and enter the workforce, are you going to give your employers the same excuse?”

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Charitable marking

Nevertheless, students from countries such as Singapore and Malaysia possess an undeniable advantage. There, English is usually a part of their schools’ curriculums and in Singapore, respective mother tongues are compulsory components of their formal education. Outside of these countries, there are still many students for whom English is a second language.

In such cases, Taiwanese student Anna Ko feels soft marking should be permissible to an extent.

“I don’t think they mark it more leniently for international students,” she says, “but they should do so if the student has provided a valid answer, even if the English isn’t perfect.”

“It’s a second language for many students, and a lot of them only come for the Bachelor degree,” she adds, echoing Hull’s earlier assertion that international students do not need to master English in order to work in their home countries.

Anna is completing her Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne, which –– like many other Australian institutions –– accepts international students with International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores of Band 6.

This, says Anna, is actually only a medium level of English. If universities do not want to practice soft marking, they should raise their admission standards.

“It’s quite harsh on the student otherwise.”

University policy

 In August, Victorian Ombudsman George Brouwer denounced Swinburne University for soft marking on a mass scale.

The Ombudsman based his report on a claim made by a whistleblower at the university. The whistleblower alleged a Swinburne supervisor had directed a teacher to pass all of their students so the university would continue to receive federal government funding.  The case was eventually determined to be baseless.

Elaine Speight-Burton, a Language and Academic Skills Advisor at Swinburne University, says fair marking standards apply equally to all students, regardless of background.

“We have very clear guidelines, or assessment rubrics, for every student. They’re clearly outlined in the Blackboard Online Learning System for every subject,” she explains, referring to the virtual learning management system many Australian universities use today.

“The students can see what basis the mark will be given on, whether it’s grammar, presentation, coherency or research.”

Rubrics vary with each course, but Ms Speight-Burton, who provides academic writing advice to Swinburne students of all disciplines. asserts there is no soft marking policy in place.

“If it’s not at a particular standard, the student is given a chance to bring it back to the advisor and we discuss feedback with the students, so they can prepare for their next assignment,” she says.

A representative from the University of Melbourne’s 13 MELB Contact Centre states the university treats all students as equal, and that there is no institutional pressure to reduce standards.

We don’t grade any easier for international students, or students with English as a second language.”

“The university has a requirement that all international students achieve a certain English proficiency mark before they can enter a course. This is to ensure that they have an ability high enough for academic writing.”

Universities generally offer individual consultations and tutorials for students who feel they may be lacking in certain aspects of their academic writing, says the representative.

“We have specific staff who help students develop those skills,” he adds.

Solutions?

Soft marking is arguably part of a larger overarching issue. International students may not be subject to soft marking, but the increase in marking scandals is certainly cause for concern.

Every university has existing measures in place to provide academic assistance. In that case, why would international students still be in need of soft marking, essay-writing services, and other means of bypassing the system?

In Professor Webb’s report, he recommended the University of Canberra formalise unit review processes for each subject, implement a university-wide benchmarking of assessments, and keep assignment records on hand.

Perhaps a better method of reducing incidents such as the Swinburne scandal would be for universities to enhance their academic resources and support. This would greatly benefit international students in an increasingly globalised educational landscape.

But in the face of federal cutbacks to Australia’s tertiary education sector, this will likely be an increasingly difficult task.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

Meld Magazine’s editors picked this as Story of the Month for October for its relevance to our readers and the reporter’s initiative, research skills and creativity.


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  1. After reading this article, I was reminded of an occasion that have occurred to me a few weeks back. I was in a language class with a tutor from my university, but she wasn’t aware that I go to that Uni, nor was she aware that I am an International student. She was loudly complaining about how the universities don’t allow her to down mark the International students due to their poor expression and grammar in writing. She clearly argued that she would like to correct these students’ works for them to be able to improve. I thought, well, that’s not wrong. But, then, she’s an engineering tutor and, as have mentioned in the article above, English writing skill would somehow be irrelevant to engineering skills. Furthermore, these students would most probably work back in their home country so English would not be such a crucial factor in their professional life. It would be so unfair to down mark an excellent work just because of an unfortunate aspect of it. You can read more about my thoughts here: https://iwanttotalktoyou.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/international-students-never-fail/

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