[lg policy] Australia: Policy failure is to blame for university students' lack of English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Apr 27 14:52:22 UTC 2015

Policy failure is to blame for university students' lack of English
Over a quarter of all first year university students, both domestic and
international, have difficulty with English language.

by Alex Barthel

Last week's ABC-TV Four Corners program Degrees of Deception, highlights
that Australian universities are not providing adequate support to the
significant number of students found to have serious English language
difficulties. Funds generated by overseas student enrolments that are being
used to address a shortfall in federal government funding should instead be
directed towards providing academic language and learning support to these
students.  An integrated, discipline-specific approach would be the most

Based on personal observations and communications over the past 15 years
with Australian universities, where post-enrolment language assessments are
conducted, it is estimated that between 25 and 35 per cent of all domestic
and international first-year university students have moderate to severe
English language difficulties, creating considerable challenges for
academic staff as well as the students themselves. Employers report that
many university graduates are not employable as their language proficiency
is below that required to start a university course.

"English language proficiency" is defined as the ability to use the English
language to appropriately communicate meaning in spoken and written
academic contexts. This can range from simple tasks such as discussing work
with fellow students, to more complex ones such as writing an academic
paper or addressing a professional audience.  Problems with students'
academic language and learning skills can range from specific concerns over
lack of grammatical accuracy in speaking and writing skills to a lack of
overall written and oral proficiency.

Irrespective of the English language entry requirements of the university,
most students, in particular those from language backgrounds other than
English, require English language development throughout the course of
their studies. Even students who commence their higher education with a
high level of general English language proficiency still need to acquire
specific academic language and learning skills during their studies, and
the acquisition of these skills is part of improving English language

University policies, rules and procedures regarding academic language and
learning matters are inadequate and inconsistent, as is the resourcing of
academic language and learning services and related educational
strategies.  Consequently, academic staff are increasingly frustrated about
students' lack of preparedness for university-level study and the lack of
institutional support.

Universities have been slow to adapt to the wide-ranging support needs of a
student body whose demographic composition has changed drastically over the
past 50 years. Multiculturalism and other equity policies have increased
access for students from a wider range of educational and socio-economic
backgrounds than in the 1960s. With an increasingly diverse student
population in Australian universities, it can no longer be assumed that
students commence university study with a sufficient level of academic
language proficiency.

What the Four Corners program barely mentioned is that the federal
government fails to adequately fund tertiary education to meet Australia's
skills needs. It only provides about a third of university funding.  The
recruitment of overseas students, who now represent over a quarter of all
university students in Australia, has expanded to partially address this
shortfall. International education is Australia's largest services export,
contributing $16.3 billion to the economy in 2013–14. But the funds
generated from international education are rarely invested in providing
necessary language support to students.

The recent report Learning the hard way, by the NSW Independent Commission
Against Corruption, highlights the extent of mismanagement of the
recruitment processes of international students by universities. For
example, under the streamlined visa processing arrangements introduced in
2012, universities, rather than the Department of Immigration Border
Protection, now determine what language tests are acceptable for study visa
purposes, provided these have been checked by overseas agents who, as the
Four Corners program says, are often not trustworthy people.

At most Australian universities there are some high-quality language
support structures and educational strategies in place to develop students'
academic and professional literacy.  However, these support services are
not adequately resourced to meet the growing need.

Recent research has shown that academic language and learning is most
effectively taught when it is integrated into the curriculum of each
degree. Because reading and writing practices are specific to each
discipline, these discipline-specific literacies are most effectively
learned in conjunction with course content. In an integrated approach,
learning how to write in a particular field of study becomes an integral
part of this field of study. Development of academic language and learning
is more likely to occur when it is linked to need within a particular
course, for example academic activities or assessment tasks.

This approach, as well as the need for national English language standards
in higher education, has been endorsed by the English Language Competence
National Symposium, which was organised by the federal government body,
Australian Education International, in 2007.

In 2010, the former Department of Education, Employment and Workplace
Relations (DEEWR) developed six English Language Standards for Higher
Education that applied to every Australian higher education provider and
required them to:

    Ensure that its students are sufficiently proficient in English to
participate effectively in their higher education studies on entry.
    Ensure that prospective and current students are informed about their
responsibilities for further developing their English language proficiency
during their higher education studies.
    Ensure that resourcing for English language development meets students'
needs throughout their studies.
    Actively develop students' English language proficiency during their
    Ensure that students are appropriately proficient in English when they
    Use evidence from a variety of sources to monitor and improve its
support for the development of students' English language proficiency.

At the time of their development, it was thought these standards would be a
crucial part of establishing a global standards framework.  However, the
Higher Education Standards Panel is not including these newly developed
English language standards in its current review of the national academic
standards framework, thus leaving the higher education sector to
self-regulate language proficiency levels.  With current funding pressures,
this will lead to increasingly inadequate support mechanisms for the many
students requiring assistance with academic language and learning.

The Australian economy benefits from the rich diversity of students and
graduates of our universities. But if adequate language support structures
are not maintained, academic standards will decline and the national and
international reputation of our university sector will suffer greatly.

Alex Barthel is a higher education consultant in language and learning and
the former president of the Association for Academic Language & Learning.


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