Ombudsman: universities admitting students with bad English

Rob Behrens warns some international learners cannot express themselves properly, let alone follow a course

March 17, 2016
Question marks inside a speech bubble
Source: iStock

Universities are admitting international students who cannot express themselves properly in English, let alone study for a degree, the sector’s outgoing ombudsman has warned.

Rob Behrens, who steps down next month as independent adjudicator for higher education in England and Wales, said in an interview with Times Higher Education that English was a “challenge” for some overseas learners.

“We can see from complaints that we receive from a small number of international students that they can’t explain what their complaint is in English in a way which enables us to understand what the complaint is,” Mr Behrens said. “If they can’t do that, I can’t see how they can pursue a programme in English.”

Under Mr Behrens, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator has consistently received a disproportionately large number of complaints from non-EU students: they accounted for 24 per cent of grievances in England and Wales in 2014, despite representing only 14 per cent of the student cohort UK-wide.

- Read our full interview with Rob Behrens

Mr Behrens said that the discrepancy could be explained in part by the higher stakes that come with the higher tuition fees paid by international students, but that this was not the only factor.

“Sometimes international students are not clear about what the rules are and what the expectations are when they come to the UK,” he said. “[And] for some international students, despite the tests that they have to go through, English is a challenge for them.”

Universities are not solely to blame for the issue, since Mr Behrens said it was a “matter of record” that there was “fraud” in the language testing system.

But he said that action needed to be taken, and not just for the sake of international recruits.

“If you are going to charge people for a service, it’s unfair to domestic students to have in the class people who can’t speak English,” Mr Behrens said. “I’m aware from my visits – I’ve been to 100 universities, I’ve talked to every students’ union there – that this is an issue.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Universities, especially lower rung post-'92 institutions, desperately want warm, paying bodies. They'll let in almost anyone from abroad who can pay full fees, irrespective of language ability. I saw this with my own eyes at Kingston.
Yep, seen it in the (supposedly) 'good' former 1994 group as well, especially in the business schools. And an astonishingly lax approach to 'plagiarism' cases from internationals: "Oh, so your turnitin score is 80% (main body not references), never mind - have a chat with your personal tutor about how to use direct quotations and then resubmit it". "Oh, so your turnitin score for your resubmission is 55%, ok, well, you can have another go if you like, but do try and make sure you get it right next time". "Uhh, umm, well, your turnitin score for your third effort is 30%, clearly your getting there, so have a pass!"

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