Australia: Report criticizes poor English-competency screening

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 31 14:12:33 UTC 2007

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Report Criticizes Australian System for Admitting Foreign Students Who
Later Failed English-Competency Tests

Wellington, New Zealand

The English-language abilities of more than a third of all fee-paying
foreign students who obtained permanent-residence visas after completing a
degree in Australia is so dismal that they should never have been given
visas to study in the country in the first place, according to a scathing
report published this week. The report, "Implications of Low English
Standards Among Overseas Students at Australian Universities," describes a
study by Robert Birrell, director of the Centre for Population and Urban
Research at Australia's Monash University, and appears in the latest issue
of the demography journal People and Place. Mr. Birrell's findings are
based on previously unpublished results of language tests of foreign
students who obtained permanent-residence visas in the 2005-6 academic

The period was the first time university graduates applying for visas had
been required to demonstrate "competent" spoken-language skills as a part
of the application process. Around 34 percent of the 42,295 successful
applicants fell short. Mr. Birrell said in an interview that the findings
dovetailed with what he described as "a mountain of anecdotal material"
about such graduates' inadequate use of English in the classroom. "It
confirms the seriousness of the situation," he said. The data showed that
more than half of all Thai and South Korean students in Australia, along
with more than a third of those from China and sizable minorities of
students from countries where most would have been exposed to English as a
secondary language of instruction, had flunked the language test.

"There are two questions flowing from these findings," wrote Mr. Birrell.
"The first is, How is it that those who could only achieve 'vocational'
English at the time of their test, gained entrance to a higher-education
course in the first place? ... The second is, How did these students pass
their university examinations?" Gerard Sutton, president of the Australian
Vice-Chancellors' Committee, said the data used in the study, which
related primarily to the spoken-English skills of accounting and
computational-science students, rather than their ability to complete
written tests, had already led to tougher language requirements for
student visas that will be put in place later this year.  The material
also showed that two-thirds of foreign graduates from Australia's 40
universities return to their countries of origin, and, Mr.  Sutton added,
"with the language capacity they've acquired here in English, no doubt as


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