Minimum English standard is set too low, tutors say

Study reports poor language skills can leave foreign students floundering. Melanie Newman writes.

February 7, 2008

Minimum English-language standards for foreign students are not high enough to ensure that all students can cope with the academic rigour of their courses, according to lecturers who participated in a University of Reading study.

Most universities require overseas students to have a minimum score of 6.5 to 7 in an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam before admission to a degree course.

Focus groups held with teachers of Chinese undergraduates and postgraduates by Viv Edwards, director of the National Centre for Language and Literacy at the University of Reading, found that not all students with these threshold scores were equipped to deal with their courses.

Professor Edwards's paper - which was published in the December 2007 issue of the journal Race, Ethnicity and Education and titled "Uneven playing field or falling standards: Chinese students' competence in English" - cites remarks such as "(A score of) 7 doesn't mean you can do a PhD".

Participants in the survey recognised that many Chinese students coped well in the British system, and they expressed sympathy for the predicament of those with poor English. There was broad support for allowances to be made for the additional hurdles faced by non-English speakers.

At the same time, Professor Edwards reports, "there was deep-seated concern about the vexed question of maintaining standards".

External validation of courses was of particular concern.

One focus group participant says: "On a number of occasions our external examiner has demanded a rewrite of a project, even though the content is excellent, because he says: 'Do you really (want) something with that sort of grammar to sit on your shelf as a public statement of your university?'"

Another recalls her experience as an internal examiner for a Chinese student with weak writing skills.

"The external examiner said that she didn't see the point in asking questions the student was not going to be able to answer ... I felt extremely uncomfortable."

Tutors were unclear as to how much intervention by them, including rewriting, was acceptable. One participant says: "There is a very fine line (sometimes) between who is writing the thesis, them or me."

Professor Edwards suggests that a pool of tutors with experience of English for academic purposes (EAP) should be available for help in writing dissertations. "Similarly, there is scope for exploring ways in which EAP tutors can collaborate with subject teachers to ensure that support materials are more sensitive to the needs of students speaking English as a foreign language."

In a globalised higher education market, academics may have to "broaden their areas of tolerance for language variation", she suggests.

UK students may also have to change their expectation that most of their fellow students will speak English. Stuart Hill told Times Higher Education that he abandoned an MSc course at the University of Southampton in economics and finance in 2006 partly because of the standard of English of foreign students on the course.

"One Chinese student could not even say her name, and the course she was on in English - and she was a staff/student representative. Is having 25 foreign students out of 26 enrolled on the course really acceptable?" he asked.

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