The level of students’ English language proficiency as they enter university, the quality of their academic language skills and their work-ready communication skills have all been the subject of concern and debate for many years in universities across Australia and in other countries as well.
The perceived problems have been described in a wide range of terms, from pedantic concerns with students’ lack of grammatical accuracy to a perceived lack of overall written and oral communicative proficiency.
There are general concerns with the communication skills of all students as well as worries about identifying groups of students with particular needs. Some people focus on the transition difficulties of new university students, while others fret over the more complex communication demands of advanced study.
It is widely acknowledged across the Australian tertiary education sector that many students are to a large extent unprepared for university study.
English language proficiency-related issues are manifested in higher education institutions in various ways: resourcing of academic language and learning (ALL) services and related educational strategies are inadequate and inconsistent; academic staff are increasingly frustrated by students’ lack of preparedness and academic language; and university policies and rules regarding academic language and learning matters are inconsistent.
“English language proficiency” is defined as the ability of students to use the language to make and communicate meaning appropriately in spoken and written contexts in the course of their higher education studies and in their life and work after graduation. Such uses may range from a simple task such as discussing work with fellow students to complex tasks such as writing an academic paper or delivering a speech to a professional audience.
While some students will enter higher education with a high level of general English language proficiency, all students will need to acquire specific academic language and learning skills during their studies, and the acquisition of these skills is part of improving language proficiency.
English language standards on entry are not adequate to ensure students’ language proficiency on graduation. However, some students will require more assistance than others in developing specific aspects of their proficiency. It is for this reason that higher education providers should identify the developmental needs of individual students at an early stage of their studies.
Recent initiatives offer guidance for effective English language support for university students. First, the English language competence national symposium organised by Australian Education International in 2007 proposed key actions that reflected the industry’s view of how policy and practice should enhance student capabilities. Priorities identified were, not surprisingly, provision of stronger in-course language and academic support and wider diagnostic language assessment for all students.
Language and academic support should be embedded within curricula, monitoring, evaluation and, if necessary, action to ensure that students maintain adequate English competence during and at the end of study.
The symposium found that quality assurance should require more effective auditing of students’ language entry and academic progression standards. Consideration should be given to establishing national standards for all English language proficiency programmes focused on outcomes measures. There was recognition of the need for more research, investment and collaboration between higher education, employers, professional groups and governments, to ensure quality outcomes.
A second important positive addition to Australia’s higher education context, carrying significant ethical implications for universities and all students, was provided by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations’ Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for International Students in Australian Universities. This project’s focus was international students studying in Australian universities.
Following extensive consultations with the higher education sector, DEEWR reconvened the Good Practice Principles steering committee in 2010 and asked it to develop the principles into English standards that would apply to all students in the Australian higher education sector.
The outcome of the work of the reconvened steering committee, the English Language Standards for Higher Education, was submitted to DEEWR in July 2010. The final document can now be accessed at: www.aall.org.au/sites/default/files/FinalEnglishLanguageStandardsMay2012.pdf
The inclusion of the ELSHE in a global standards framework is essential in the current context of developing a national framework for academic standards that would assist the sector in setting up quality systems, in particular, to respond to recent government regulations and initiatives, such as the Knight recommendations and the Bradley social inclusion agenda.
What the providers have to do
The six English language standards for higher education apply to all higher education providers operating in Australia:
1. The provider ensures that its students are sufficiently proficient in English to participate effectively in their higher education studies on entry
2. The provider ensures that prospective and current students are informed about their responsibilities for further developing their English language proficiency during their studies
3. The provider ensures that resourcing for English language development meets students’ needs throughout their studies
4. The provider actively develops students’ English language proficiency
5. The provider ensures that students are appropriately proficient in English when they graduate
6. The provider uses evidence from a variety of sources to monitor and improve its support for the development of students’ English language proficiency.
These standards emphasise the development of English language proficiency throughout students’ studies, and they are guided by a number of key ideas:
• With widening participation across higher education and the increasing numbers of international students, it can no longer be assumed that students enter their university study with the level of academic language proficiency required to participate effectively in their studies
• Irrespective of the English language entry requirements of the university, most students, in particular those from language backgrounds other than English, will require English language development throughout the course of their studies
• Different disciplines have different discourses of academic inquiry
• Students’ English language proficiency can be developed through appropriate course design, supplemented where necessary by other developmental activity
• Development of academic language and learning is more likely to occur when it is linked to need (eg, academic activities, assessment tasks)
• English language proficiency is one part of the wider graduate attribute agenda since English language communication skills are crucial for graduate employment.