Linguistic challenge

January 12, 2007

Jan Bamford is right to underline the need for a greater level of English-language support for international students ("UK told to raise language bar for foreign students", December 22/29). But she is probably pointing universities in the wrong direction when it comes to the minimum level of language proficiency stipulated by admissions tutors.

Ms Bamford argues that this should be raised without questioning the usefulness of the various tests such as the International English Language Testing System. Yet it is all too apparent that, while these tests are considered essential for admission purposes, their usefulness is limited.

A good IELTS score certainly indicates that the student in question has been trained well to pass the test. But it doesn't tell us with any certainty that the student has been suitably prepared for the day-to-day linguistic challenges of studying at a UK university.

If universities wish to have a better guarantee of international students' ability to use English in an academic context, they will probably have to exercise greater imagination and effort than some do at present. For instance, they could send specialist teams to their main overseas markets to assist partner institutions prepare students linguistically and test them in their own countries using assessment methods designed by the receiving university. This is probably the only way of ensuring that incoming international students will cope linguistically in the British higher education environment.

Ensuring that international students are able to use English for academic purposes is a process that needs to start well before they arrive in the UK.

David Head
Director, Plymouth University Business School

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