International students who speak little English are struggling to keep up with their peers at Australian universities, prompting the Victorian government to call for a review of entry requirements.
Premier Daniel Andrews has written a letter to the National Tertiary Education Union promising to take up the issue of English entry standards with the federal government.
Acting Minister for Higher Education James Merlino said the situation was unfair on international students and teachers.
“International students are a vital part of Victoria’s education system but it’s concerning that some students are enrolled in courses without adequate English language skills to complete them,” he said.
Academics, tutors and students say some international students are struggling to understand instructions in class, complete assignments and communicate with other students.
They say English standards have been set too low and can be bypassed by enrolling in bridging courses.
The National Tertiary Education Union’s Victorian president Nic Kimberley, who has tutored and lectured at many universities and works at RMIT, said many international students at Australian universities lacked the English proficiency needed to succeed.
“This is something that should concern everyone,” he said. “If they fail, they have to repeat and there is often a lot of shame. We don’t want to see international students fail.”
Mr Kimberley said he often received emails from international students begging him to increase their grade to a pass.
“It is incredibly stressful. As someone who teaches students, you do feel very guilty about it because of the high stakes.”
He said while many international students had a strong grasp of the English language, local students tried to avoid working with them for group projects.
The union is calling for a review of the English standards required for student visas and those set by universities for different courses. It’s also pushing for more English language support for international students.
Federal government rules require those wanting a student visa to achieve a score of at least 5.5 in the International English Language Testing System. This test gives students a score out of 9 for listening, reading, writing and speaking and most universities require students to receive a score of between 6 and 7.
But students can also receive a student visa with a score of 4.5 – which means they have a limited or modest grasp of English – if they enrol in a 20-week intensive English course before embarking on their university course.
While they must pass the course, they do not have to resit the international English test.
About one-quarter of all international students enter Australian universities via this pathway.
The peak body for overseas students, the Council of International Students Australia, is backing the calls for higher English entry standards.
The council’s national public relations officer, Manfred Mlestin, said while fewer international students would be accepted into courses, potentially eroding the country’s $31.9 billion a year international student industry, the quality of graduates would improve.
“If a student doesn’t understand what a teacher is saying, how can they finish their assignments?” he asks.
When John Chen* arrived in Melbourne on a student visa, he couldn’t order food in English.
“I would just use pointing, it was horrific,” he said.
The Chinese student spent 18 months at Trinity College in the hope of improving his language skills.
At university, he struggled to understand his lecturers and write essays, and barely spoke in tutorials. He switched from arts to science at the end of his first semester, hoping it would be easier.
While it wasn’t easier, he eventually improved his English by watching Youtube.
Chinese student Adam Zhao* said he failed a subject last semester because of his language difficulties.
He was working on a group assignment with three native English speakers who struggled to understand him.
While Adam has been in Australia for five years and completed two years of high school here, he still struggles with the language barrier.
His communication difficulties have affected his mental health, leaving him feeling isolated.
“I felt like I should be able to communicate, but I couldn’t,” he said.
A recent report by the Coroner considered the extreme stress experienced by some international students, highlighting the case of a 24-year-old Chinese international student who died in a fall that was later ruled to be suicide. He was believed to be suffering from depression and struggling to understand his English-language course.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said Australian universities set English language requirements that were comparable to other world-leading education sectors.
“Many universities have standards for particular courses that go above the minimum standards set by the student visa,” she said.
She said students who passed bridging courses had the English skills required to complete a higher education qualification and succeed.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said it was the responsibility of universities to ensure that the students they enrol had the language skills to participate fully in their education.
“You can judge the quality of Australia’s sector by the number of international students that we attract,” he said.