From where I sit: Repulsion and attraction

July 8, 2010

Australian universities are worried that bad publicity is putting off international students. Such students are lucrative business and one of the reasons they flocked to Australia in the past was because study offered pathways to permanent residence.

But now the government has promised changes to visa regulations - details of which have yet to be announced - in an attempt to curb shoddy "educational" institutes that are merely covers for migration agencies. But as The Australian newspaper reported in late June, the "negative perceptions the changes (are) generating in international markets" may have a knock-on effect on mainstream tertiary education.

One can add to this the uncertainties surrounding the new Prime Minister - Julia Gillard - for whom her former education portfolio is still dear. Ms Gillard says that unlike former prime minister Kevin Rudd, she does not believe in a "Big Australia" that aims to double its population in the next few decades.

Despite these worries, Australia remains a magnet for many international students, particularly those from Asia.

Forget the stereotype of the diligent Asian student who does nothing but study to get ahead and "beat" Aussie students. From my experience, no matter where they come from, students are the same. Whether international or local, they are out to have a good time and make the most of their youth, while somehow managing to get a piece of paper (we call it a degree) that will lead to a well-paid and fulfilling job. Some international students do work very hard, just as some locals do; some international students are slackers, just like some locals.

The great challenge for international students is their standard of English and this is not improving. I partly blame the aforementioned shoddy "English" schools. In my experience, students who have gone through a pathway institution affiliated with a major university have a better standard than those who attend smaller institutes. The mainstream institutes, however, can cost about A$45,000 (£25,653) in fees alone for an 18-month to two-year diploma that guarantees a place on a university degree programme. This is followed by university fees of about A$21,500 a year, depending on the course.

Because the fees are steep (although not in comparison with other countries - the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, charges £23,130 a year for international undergraduates), there are high expectations that the student will indeed attain that piece of paper.

Yet the truth is that many are not up to it. This is not because they are unintelligent, but because their lack of English skills means their ability to understand lectures and tutorials and express themselves in written work is reduced.

It must be awful for those who are excellent students at home to just scrape through here. But in my opinion, too many scrape through who cannot write English well enough even to construct a proper sentence.

But do we have to treat them the same way as we treat local students? After all, we give special consideration to students with conditions that impede their progress - medical problems, learning disabilities and so on. Are international students special cases?

I always ask myself: "If the name of this student were John Smith, would he pass with a written expression like that?"

Is that fair of me, or should I have a double standard when marking? If anyone has an answer, I would love to hear it.

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