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Ombudsman flags English proficiency gaps

Myriam Robin

Tue Nov 15 2011

Melbourne University

THE number of international students visiting the Ombudsman’s office has more than tripled in the last four years, according to acting Victorian Ombudsman John Taylor.

“Most contact my office because their university has, or is proposing to, exclude them (expel them) because of poor academic performance,” he said in a report tabled in parliament last month.

Taylor has noticed many of them struggled to communicate in English, despite universities having to make sure students have an adequate command of English before admitting them.

“I consider that the universities need to shift their focus from recruiting students and boosting their revenue to ensuring their international students have the necessary skills to study successfully,” Taylor said.

“I am concerned that universities are not doing enough to ensure these students have the English language skills they need to study successfully in Australia.”

Most of Victoria’s international students come from countries in Asia where English is not the first language.

Taylor said “witnesses who work with international students said they see a wide range of skills amongst students, and published pass rates show international students as a whole perform well compared with local students.”

“However, almost all witnesses who work with university students and graduates shared my observation that some international students struggle with English.”

He said similar concerns have been raised in government reports dating back to at least 2002.

All four universities assessed in the report (Ballarat, Deakin, RMIT and Swinburn) require prospective international students to demonstrate their language proficiency before being allowed to begin regular courses there.

One common way students can demonstrate their familiarity with English is through the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test. The test is independently assessed, and widely recognised internationally. However, the average entrance scores for all four universities were at the lower end of those considered acceptable by the testing organisation.

Despite its prominence, the use of the IELTS and similar tests are diminishing. At RMIT in 2010, only 15 per cent of new international students were admitted through an independent test.

Increasing an intensive language courses or TAFE program is undertaken instead, which students complete once they are already admitted into a university.

“The universities run some of these courses themselves,” said Taylor.

“They are meant to give students the language and/or academic skills they need for higher education, but the universities do not require students to take an independent test like the IELTS test at the end to verify their assumptions.”

A worrying finding of the report was that of the four universities, only Swinburne recorded and analysed data about the learning outcomes of students admitted through the different pathways.

This means outside of Swinburne, universities have no way of knowing if the students they certify as proficient through tests administered at the university actually have a good enough grasp of English to understand their classes.

Even should students fail, universities don’t always take their limited English into account.

“The letters that two universities send to students with poor academic performance would be hard for local students to understand, let alone students who may have limited English,” Taylor said.

“The systems do not identify struggling students until they are already failing; help is limited in practice; and students see the process as intimidating.”

As changes to visa rules stemming from the Knight Review encourage more students to gain work experience in Australia, many more students are unlikely to go back to their home countries immediately after graduation.

But even after living here for several years, poor English skills may stop some of them from taking advantage of work visas now offered to graduating international students.

Taylor noted that some professional bodies, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia and CPA Australia, are now setting their own language standards for former international students seeking to work in Australia, no longer satisfied that graduating from an Australian university is an indication of good English skills.

This is the first part of our series into the Victorian Ombudsman report into international student education.