By Alexander Gudic-Hay
The controversy over the language skills of foreign students hints at a much larger problem pervading the Australian psyche — the world should adapt to us, rather than us adapting to the world. (Unsplash: Banter Snaps)
An investigation into foreign students attending Australian universities has found large numbers do not speak English well, and some lecturers have described pressure to pass underperforming international students.
The result — as Four Corners found — is that universities fear they will lose intellectual rigour and global standing.
If you have been to a university in Australia in the past few years then the fact that some international students at Australian universities struggle with literacy in English is not a surprising finding.
As a current university student in Melbourne, I’ve studied alongside many: some with complete fluency, some with enough proficiency to speak casually in English, and some with barely enough English to communicate.
Language barriers can create both social and academic issues for some of these students.
Without the ability to connect with other students due to language difficulties, social isolation can — and in some of the cases I see, does — become a significant problem for international students without English comprehension.
Why don’t we offer bilingual classes?
The time it takes to become fluent in a language, coupled with a university structure that requires a straightforward “pass”, can lead to the systemic issues of plagiarism and essay buying which plague Australian universities.
But if Australia wants to continue attracting revenue from the business of international student education something has to change.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink the system.
International students pay a lot to study in Australia. Australia has some highly ranked universities, and according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, education is Australia’s third largest export behind iron ore and coal — worth almost $33 billion to the economy.
Students are not getting their money’s worth.
Most Australian universities offer a range of English language classes to help students improve their skills. But as the Four Corners program suggests, these classes are clearly insufficient.
Services to translate academic material into another language is one way, but it doesn’t overcome the need to produce assignments or keep up in tutorial classes in English and in these cases international students are naturally disadvantaged due to a lack of language support.
A reductive “learn the language” approach to international students is detrimental.
How about offering courses in these high-demand languages and providing employment opportunities for bilingual lecturers in the process?
This is not an unrealistic pitch. There are many universities in European countries, including Germany — and crucially also in China and India where large numbers of Australia’s international students come from — that offer university courses in English as a method for attracting international students. So, why aren’t we extending that bridge to other nations?
If universities invest in improving infrastructure for students with limited English language comprehension everyone would benefit. Universities could overcome the problem of failing students because of their language comprehension; international students would feel supported and local students would continue to benefit from access to different cultures, ideas, and opportunities.
We’re not so good at languages ourselves
However, this small controversy hints at a much larger problem pervading the Australian psyche — the world should adapt to us, rather than us adapting to the world.
Australia’s record of language learning sums up the problem: Most Australians are far from A+ students when it comes to learning foreign languages.
According to the New South Wales Education Standards Authority well under 10 per cent of students enrol in a second language course for the Higher School Certificate.
English may be the language of international trade now, but as China and India become global trade powerhouses, our English-centric education system will limit Australian students’ ability to communicate on the world stage.
Australia should adapt to the changing reality of foreign language or risk our entire education system lagging sorely behind.
We need to fix our higher education system for all the students enrolled. We need to adapt to the future of language rather than remaining in the past, and end the ‘English is enough’ mindset that plagues us.
If universities are taking thousands of dollars to admit these students, then universities should be held accountable if they fail to provide these students with the means to succeed and ensure that our higher education system is actually able to provide a higher education — regardless of birthplace.
Alexander Gudic-Hay is a journalism student at RMIT in Melbourne.