Mind your English language

June 11, 1999

Frank Furedi describes how lecturers are coming under pressure to pass students whose grasp of English is less than adequate.

Recently, one of my former students, who now lectures in a new university, asked me whether I had devised a technique for teaching overseas students who do not speak or understand English. Before I could reply in the negative, he let rip with a stream of invective about university administrators, who casually pretend that this problem does not exist.

I had to admit that he had a point. Unfortunately, for many lecturers the experience of teaching overseas students is far from positive. For most British universities, overseas students constitute an important source of income. And competition to get fee-paying overseas bums on seats has become fierce.

But market-driven overseas recruitment drives often avoid confronting the problem of what happens to students whose command of the English language is wholly inadequate for following basic undergraduate courses. Colleagues from a wide cross-section of universities suggest that far from being an exception, the number of overseas students who cannot communicate in English is on the increase.

University administrators often claim that they have done their best to guarantee that overseas students possess the linguistic competence needed to study for a degree. They point to their admissions policy which requires that students take a TOEFL or ILTS exam to show that they have achieved the requisite standard of English. Whatever the merits of these exams, large numbers of overseas students who on paper appear to possess the necessary qualifications turn out to be devoid of even a basic grasp of the English language. For many such students, university life is demoralising.

University teachers are placed in the invidious position of being forced to teach students who can neither follow lectures nor understand the reading material on their course outline.

Lecturers feel that they are in a no-win situation. One friend says she has given up trying to prise a few words from some of the Greek and Far Eastern students. "You feel like a racist," she says.

The dilemma of pretending to teach pales in comparison to the difficulty of how to grade the work of students who are unable to write English. Teachers sometimes feel that it is not the students' fault that they are attending courses that are not suitable for them. They also face pressure from university authorities to pass such students.

Lecturers have become resigned to perpetuating the pretence of teaching undergraduates who do not understand English. However, their anger becomes far more intense when they are expected to adopt the same practice with non-comprehending postgraduates. Many university lecturers spend hours rewriting and editing essays and theses on MA courses. It is when this charade imposes a serious demand on teachers' time that the sense of frustration becomes most vocal. Expediency demands that such complaints are rarely articulated outside an examiners' meeting.

The demand of balancing the books will mean that universities are unlikely to become more selective in their admission policies. So can anything be done? University authorities could stop giving the impression that once admitted, a student has an automatic right to a degree. Having paid considerable money for their fees, many overseas students believe that they will have no problems in getting their degrees. This sentiment appears to be inspired by universities' hard-sell recruitment drive, which emphasises the opportunities but not the difficulties.

Universities should also stop pretending that all overseas students who have paper qualifications in English can actually use it as a language of study. Much more money needs to be devoted towards providing language support. It would make sense to get overseas students to arrive a couple of weeks before term so that their language skills can be assessed and if necessary an individual programme of learning put in place. Hopefully, debating in public what is otherwise an open secret may generate some ideas to how to tackle this problem.

Frank Furedi, reader in sociology, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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