Despair over home students' grasp of English

December 11, 2008

It may come as no surprise that the explosion in overseas student numbers has brought an element of "lost in translation" to the UK's universities.

But if academics have become resigned to dealing with foreign students who have problems with English, they may feel less charitable towards those who were born and bred in Britain but lack basic language skills.

Yet this is a burden identified in new research into academic standards and internationalisation.

The study's focus is on selection processes used by universities, as internationalisation strategies have led to a situation in which many courses, particularly at postgraduate level, rely for survival on overseas students.

Although systems are in place to weed out those with inadequate English, notably the International English Language Testing System, stories of academics grappling with students incapable of operating in another language are commonplace.

As well as underlining this anecdotal evidence, the paper, which was due to be presented this week at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference, suggests that it is not only overseas students who increase the supervisory burden.

One lecturer quoted describes a British student whose writing is so bad that, had they been forewarned, they "would have wanted to see who had recruited him".

"I mean, he is bright enough, but we are on to a sixth chapter-rewrite of one chapter (of his thesis), and we have had to extend his time here to take account of the extra time that it is going to take to write up the final thesis," the lecturer said.

The researchers found broad agreement over concern about standards of written English, particularly in theses.

This "recurring problem", the paper says, is seen as significant not only because of the extra burden it puts on supervisors, but also because "as a publicly available document, (the thesis) is a manifestation of academic standards that is open to external scrutiny".

The research was carried out by Gaynor Lloyd-Jones and Charles Neame, of Cranfield University, and included interviews with registry administrators, academic staff and course directors of masters programmes.

Dr Lloyd-Jones stressed that the views expressed are those of individuals, but the report suggests that the extent to which English proficiency tests can be relied on to indicate whether a student is capable of successful study is "contentious".

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