English standards spark row

February 23, 2007

Australian academic attacked for detailing language failings of overseas students, reports Geoff Maslen.

Politicians and bureaucrats have accused an Australian professor of bringing the nation's universities into disrepute by publishing a report on the low standards of English among foreign students.

The report says that more than a third of foreign students granted permanent residence last year did not have sufficient command of the language to justify university admission, let alone earn a degree. Of the 12,000 students tested, more than 50 per cent of those from Korea and Thailand failed to demonstrate adequate command of the language, as did 43 per cent of students from China and 17 per cent of those from India and Singapore.

Bob Birrell, director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, analysed English test results compiled by the Immigration Department. Since 2004, the department has required that foreign graduates seeking to stay in Australia as permanent residents take an English language test.

Professor Birrell found that, on average, more than a third of the students granted a residency visa did not have sufficient command of the language to justify university admission, let alone earn a degree.

After his report attracted the attention of the national and international media, Professor Birrell received calls from senior education bureaucrats who claimed he was ruining Australia's A$10 billion-a-year (£4 billion) education export market and bringing the nation's universities into disrepute. Julie Bishop, the federal Education Minister, accused him publicly of making an "extraordinary attack on universities" and said he should name the institutions and professors that were lowering standards.

The alarm in Canberra is understandable given that 400,000 foreigners are enrolled in Australian schools, colleges and universities on and offshore - a huge increase over the 5,000 enrolled in 1986 - and that they contribute an estimated A$10 billion a year to the national economy. The fees paid by the students prop up many education providers, and the money they pay in university tuition charges represents the institutions' largest source of private income.

But Professor Birrell said there was "a mountain of anecdotal material"

that showed that many overseas students struggled to meet their course requirements. Universities coped by lowering the English demands and, in subjects such as accounting and IT, lecturers focused on problems not requiring essay-writing skills, or by setting group assignments on which students with good English could help those who did not.

Many in academe welcomed Professor Birrell's report.

One senior academic praised his "rigour, independence and guts" and said the situation in universities was appalling. "There must be 85 per cent of the tertiary teaching workforce (and students) with anecdotal evidence of what you've proved objectively," the academic wrote in an e-mail to Professor Birrell. "The ramifications are far wider than those for employers, but I guess that's the raw nerve these days."

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