Language requirements for international students are too low

Overseas students’ academic potential is hobbled if their English does not far exceed current thresholds, says Danijela Trenkic

May 10, 2018
uk overseas divide
Source: Nate Kitch

Although some international students rank among the top performers in UK universities, they perform notably less well on average than home students. Since for many international students English is a foreign language, it is important to consider the role that language plays in their lower level of academic success.

Language and literacy are cornerstones of attainment in every academic subject. Limited proficiency in the language of instruction diminishes the opportunity to learn and makes assessment challenging. The system recognises this to some extent by asking international students to take a recognised language test to prove their readiness to study in English. One such test is the IELTS, which is scored from 1 to 9, with 5.5 representing the government’s minimum requirement for degree-level study.

International students accept their offers in good faith, believing that if they have met the entry criteria, their English must be good enough to allow them to fulfil their academic potential. But the fact is that an IELTS score of 5.5 – or even one a few notches higher – may not be sufficient for them to learn and perform at the true level of their ability. And, for some, that realisation can be devastating.

In a recent University of York study, psychologist Meesha Warmington and I asked how much the language and literacy skills of international students differ from those of home students, and how much they affect academic success.

We recruited 63 newly arrived Chinese students and 64 home students. The international students had a good command of English by the sector’s standards, with IELTS scores between 6.5 and 7.5. We tested the non-verbal intelligence of both groups and found no differences. For language, however, a very different story emerged.

International students had an average English vocabulary just under half the size of that of the home students. Furthermore, they read and processed information in English at half the speed, understood significantly less of what they read and were less able to summarise in writing what they had read.

They were at a striking disadvantage regarding the language skills that are essential for academic success, despite arriving with a proficiency well above the government’s minimum threshold. To put this in context, their difficulties with reading and writing were far greater than those reported on the same tests for home students with dyslexia.

You might assume that while international students may struggle at the beginning of their courses, their immersion in an English-speaking environment would soon get them up to speed in linguistic terms. But we tested both groups again at the end of the academic year and the gap had not narrowed. Our next step will be to replicate these findings in a larger sample, including students from different countries.

Critically, English skills on entry were strongly linked to academic success for international students: those arriving with better English achieved higher grades and failed fewer credits. Home students’ language skills, by contrast, were not predictive of their academic success. This confirms that English skills constrain academic success below only a certain threshold of proficiency, and suggests that the government’s minimum standards are not aligned with this threshold. 

So where does the threshold lie? Our study cannot provide a definitive answer, but it suggests that the threshold should be set at, or above, a level equivalent to an IELTS score of 7.5. A student at that level performs, on average, a whole degree classification better than a similarly able student with a score of 6.5. This further demonstrates that the problem is not the language test but in how high (or, rather, low) universities are ready to set the bar.

No one should take our findings to mean that international students cannot do well in UK universities. On the contrary, our findings show that many are capable of doing much better than their language abilities allow them to. The question is, what could universities do to better recognise and support these students’ additional learning needs?

Greater caution is clearly required in setting language entry requirements; assumptions that students will quickly catch up when immersed in the environment are unrealistic even when dedicated language support is provided. In addition, applicants should be made aware that if they hope to perform as well as they are capable of, their proficiency in English should be much higher than indicated by current minimum entry requirements.

Most crucially, reasonable adjustments that recognise the disadvantage with which many international students pursue their education should be made. Students who read and write in English at half the speed of their peers will need extra time in exams. They may also need two years to meaningfully engage with material that other students can cover in a year. And universities could abolish policies that disproportionately affect international students, such as bans on using dictionaries in exams.

International students are hugely important to UK universities, financially, culturally and academically. It is only right, therefore, that the sector and its regulators do not turn a blind eye to the differential attainment problem they face – and to the important role that language plays in it.

Danijela Trenkic is an associate professor in second language education at the University of York.


Print headline: Language standards for international students are too low

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Reader's comments (9)

We've known about these deficiencies and these problems among international students for some time surely?? Their language disadvantages do affect their performance and it is therefore both cruel and ignorant to recruit students with such easily detectable deficiencies. It is plainly stupid to think that international students immerse themselves in their host language ... few do. Most international students ghettoise themselves on or off campus and immerse themselves in their own language. I have found International students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels to be wanting because of their language NOT because of their intellect. I have also found international students to be, in the main, dignified and accommodating with an impressive work ethic. Let's not try and kid ourselves here, the importance of international students to a University is financial. Yes of course it should also be academic and cultural in equal measure, but it isn't. So good luck with the good idea of increasing the IELTS score because doing so will shrink the lucrative pool from which these students are drawn.
This finding, which is perhaps not unexpected, is the reason I do not like to see research groups consiting of only one ethnicity - PhD students who just see and speak with other students from the same ethnic group do tend to not improve their language skills at the rate they should.
"We've known about these deficiencies and these problems among international students for some time surely?" Yes Descartes, and some Universities 'employ' translators to translate lectures for those not fluent enough in English to follow the lecturer directly. Of course they should be able to IF their IELTS score was actually what they should have scored, not a score awarded following a suitable payment/bribe. The extra income from 'pre-sessionals' is valued by the University, how many actually benefit from attending however is another question.
Sadly enough english is not everything. English didn’t make UK best place in Europe, it didn’t also stop Brexit. There is too much emphasis on this language, but human lives do not seem to circle around it. True, some of us our minds don’t have that volume of vocabulary. China has become a much greater nation, and quite obviously, they are less obsessive with IELTS. I hope one day we can have more options than just one language, as the white western language.
What the article says is kind of true, but the study they cite here is too partial. Chinese students (and Asian students in general) have undoubtedly more problems with English than Europeans or Africans: their language is so different that it really takes a lot of time and effort to improve English. Also, China being such a competitive and big country, their study of the language tends to be test-oriented, often differing from their actual level of English.
“Most international students ghettoise themselves on or off campus and immerse themselves in their own language.” While I agree largely with your perspective Descartes, I’d stress that many international students do not ghettoise themselves. Rather they are ghettoised by circumstances and denied the opportunity to immerse themselves in the host country language. Many Master’s students are on courses where the vast majority of participants are from the same country and may well be placed in halls of residence where the residents are mostly of the same nationality and mother tongue. Most universities have been complicit in creating this situation in their drive to compete for international fees.
I totally agree with your parting sentence. As for your other sentiments?? well, I think we're expressing the same view aren't we??
My point was that they do not choose to be ghettoised. "Ghettoise themselves" suggests that the responsibility is theirs. I've known university staff - both administrators and academics - to criticise Chinese students for not integrating and not speaking enough English - when in reality these students are recruited into a largely monolingual environment. But otherwise, yes we are arguing the same thing.
I have 2 comments: (1) I think we might not need a study to understand that non-English speaking students can not do as well as home students in terms of language competency. (2) The question is not about shifting the language bars but about how hungry universities are for the lucrative sources of international students rather than the altruistic concerns of their actual performance.