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

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Author: Tracey Bretag
Date: Apr. 2007
From: People and Place(Vol. 15, Issue 1)
Publisher: Monash University, Centre for Population and Urban Research
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,203 words
Lexile Measure: 1730L

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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...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A163051303