Australian regulator to probe English language waivers

TEQSA also promises not to pursue ‘innocent mums and dads’ over contract cheating

November 27, 2019
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Australia’s higher education regulator has put universities on notice that they will have to be able to justify waivers of their normal English language requirements when they admit international students.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) said it wanted to see evidence that such decisions were vindicated by students’ subsequent performance.

“If you issue waivers, are you sure that the students…are then progressing successfully?” chief executive Anthony McClaran asked delegates at a Melbourne conference hosted by TEQSA. “We’re looking to see some analysis.”

The use of waivers was among the issues highlighted in a May broadcast by ABC Television’s Four Corners team, which claimed that international student entry requirements were being relaxed by universities seeking to maximise revenue.

The peak body for education agents in the subcontinent, the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, has also sounded the alarm about waivers.

Mr McClaran said there was a perception that Australia’s higher education sector was guilty of “a widespread failure…to maintain entry standards which will ensure that all overseas students are able to fully participate and succeed”.

He said there was little evidence of widespread failure, citing 2017 figures suggesting that international students typically enjoy success rates almost 5 percentage points higher – and attrition rates almost 7 percentage points lower – than those of domestic students.

But he said TEQSA had “concerns” over the admission of foreign students using either language-test waivers or English tests other than those specified on providers’ “confirmation of enrolment” forms – typically, assessments such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Mr McClaran said that at some institutions, between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of students were admitted on the strength of these “other” tests. “It’s not easy to get a clear picture…of what [these] students have actually achieved,” he said.

He said assessments of English language competency would be one of four “sector-wide issues” that TEQSA intended to focus on in the year ahead. The others were general admissions transparency, universities’ handling of sexual harassment and assault claims, and academic integrity issues including contract cheating.

He said TEQSA supported the federal government’s draft legislation to make contract cheating services illegal.

“It sends a strong signal about the unacceptability of what is in effect organised academic corruption,” he said, acknowledging concerns about “innocent mums, dads and other close relatives being prosecuted for helping their offspring”.

“TEQSA has neither the resources nor the intention to approach the problem in this way,” he insisted. “Our focus is on support, intelligence and good practice, not in seeking to apply punitive regulatory sanctions to providers who are doing their best to tackle [an] insidious and often very technologically sophisticated problem.”

Mr McClaran said stakeholder surveys had revealed general support for TEQSA’s risk assessment framework but also concerns about some of the indicators used. For example, graduate destination measures were perceived as too narrowly focused on full-time employment and further study.

Providers had indicated a preference for the graduate success measures outlined in the government’s proposed performance-based funding scheme, he said.

“It takes context very much into account [and] could conceivably be an alternative approach,” he told the forum. “We’ll be considering these [potential changes] very seriously.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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