Poor English, few jobs: Are Australian universities using international students as ‘cash cows’?
Recently at an elite Australian university, a senior humanities lecturer opened her office door to a young international student who was accompanied by another woman and seemed nervous. The student had emailed the lecturer in advance about changing to another degree — but right away there was a problem.
“She couldn’t speak any English and she didn’t understand anything that I said,” she told.
The woman accompanying the student, whom the lecturer assumed was a friend, was in fact a translator hired for the meeting.
The student had gone through the first year of her degree without the ability to speak English.
“Which floored me,” said the lecturer.
Universities and industry bodies insist nothing is wrong in Australia’s booming $32 billion-a-year international education industry, but an ABC investigation has uncovered an abundance of international students who describe struggling to communicate effectively in English, participate in class, or complete assignments adequately.
Academics as well as employment and education experts told the ABC that English language standards are often too low or can be sidestepped via loopholes, and that students are often put in stressful classroom situations that can lead to cheating.
Many of the students also often find themselves completing degrees which cost in excess of $100,000 that rarely lead to professional employment after graduation.
Despite this, international students continue to arrive in record numbers, with the most recent figures showing that there are now some 753,000 international students in Australia and 380,000 of them in tertiary studies.
Chinese students make up 30 per cent of all students, leading to a growing concern the sector has become over-reliant on one country while putting Australia’s education industry at risk of political and economic repercussions.
In some of Australia’s largest universities, international students make up nearly 50 per cent of the student body, while their tuition fees contribute an increasingly disproportionate amount of revenue — in some instances, over a third of total revenue, dwarfing domestic student fees and rivalling or even exceeding government funding.
‘Set up for failure’
It was while managing a master’s program at RMIT University that media academic Jenny Weight said she became alarmed by the number of international students struggling with basic communication and in some cases had studied “absolutely no English”.
“I have read a lot of assignments written by international students which appear to have been written in Chinese and then translated using Google,” she told the ABC.
“I don’t blame the students at all for doing that and I think many of them do leave with a somewhat bitter attitude about their experience.
“One of the struggles was to try and get our English entry level standards lifted higher, but the pressures on universities to make money from international students is such that they don’t want to, because that will knock out a lot of potential students.”
Journalism tutor Rose-Ann Manns who teaches at the University of New South Wales said that while many international students performed well, she also saw a significant amount struggle with English.
“In some cases, I wondered how the university did their assessment — particularly the verbal and oral skills — because it seems that in some cases it’s almost like they’re set up for failure,” she said.
Of the many academics and experts approached in the course of this story, only a handful would go on the record for fear of repercussions for their careers — such is the thrall of the higher education system to international fees, some claimed.
Others like Jenny Weight wound up leaving teaching in Australia all together.
“I think the umbrella response, if you like, is that universities don’t really want to be confronted with the problems that international students face,” she said.
“It’s a huge cash cow for them, in a cash poor sector. They’re almost desperately dependent on international student income.”
Dozens of students interviewed by the ABC painted a picture of dysfunctional learning environments where some struggled to grasp lessons or participate in group work; many said they struggled with assignments, often working twice as hard just to pass.
Former RMIT undergraduate student Olivia Zhou said the issue was rampant in her classes.
“If a student in the class can’t even understand what the teacher is saying, how can they finish their assignment,” she told the ABC.
Lu Yi who studied her masters in media at RMIT in 2016 said “language is a big problem” while adding that international students often felt discouraged or uncomfortable speaking English in a classroom setting.
“They [Chinese] don’t talk to local students because they think the local students don’t want to talk to them, and then they tend to get in to small [cliques] at university,” she said.
‘Too many students slipping through the cracks’
For international students to study at Australian universities, they must first pass an industry recognised language test — there are at least five, but by far the most common is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
The IELTS test returns a score of 1-9 in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, with a final score based on an average the four.
The majority of university courses accept IELTS scores between 6 and 7, however, according to IELTS, scores in this range still require more study before university entry, or are at best only “probably acceptable”.
However, some students do not score even this high before arriving in Australia.
The Federal Government sets a minimum IELTS score of 5.5 to obtain a student visa, but it will also allow students who score as low as 4.5, so long as they enrol in a short English language pathway course before entering university.
These paid courses — called English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) — provide students with 10-20 weeks of intensive English lessons and assessments, and from there they go straight into a university course without having to re-sit tests like the IELTS.
Universities Australia said about 25 per cent of all international university students obtain their entry via this method.
One current IELTS test provider who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity, said they believed that international students need higher scores than those being set by the universities.
“They need higher than a six or even a 6.5, and if you’re doing something that’s very linguistically demanding, like law, journalism, or teaching, you often need a much higher score,” they said.
By the end of last year, continuing reports of international students struggling with English were beginning to alarm the Federal Government.
“Too many students are slipping through the cracks. Some just don’t have the English language skills they need to succeed,” then-education minister Simon Birmingham told an international education conference last year.
His solution was to change the regulation of some short courses, yet the changes were minimal and largely extended existing regulations to the vocational sector.
Little changed for the majority of students using ELICOS courses to get into university, and it did not affect the standards applied to the almost three quarters who enrolled straight into a difficult degree using IELTS or an equivalent test.
In The Conversation earlier this year, Amanda Muller, senior lecturer in Nursing and English at Flinders University, warned that the Federal Government’s changes had ignored those entering university directly who are left to “either sink or swim”.
“We hear a lot about those who sink, and some are driven to cheat,” she wrote. “The changes in regulation do not deal with these issues.”
A 2012 study into IELTS found that only some international students improved their English while studying at Australian universities, while other students’ English skills actually became worse the longer they studied.
International education expert Michael Fay said that English is one of the first quality controls for students that is vulnerable to lax standards.
“A lot of the time the people who are in charge of the policy don’t actually understand the English language issues well enough and assume that students are going to somehow, through osmosis, improve their English as they go along through the program,” he said.
Meanwhile, the managing director of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), Phil Honeywood, cautioned against raising English test scores arbitrarily.
“We’ve just increased the English language entry level into Nursing to a level that many Australian born people would not be able to reach,” he told the ABC.
“It’s ironic that to be an engineer in Australia, you only need to graduate with IELTS equivalent 6.5, but to be a nurse before you even start your study, let alone graduate, you have to have IELTS 7.”
In a statement to the ABC, the current Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, said international student language abilities were a matter for the universities.
“Universities are responsible for ensuring the students they enrol have the required language skills,” he said.
But he rejected claims there were any serious issues with the admission standards.
“You can judge the quality of Australia’s sector by the number of international students that we attract.”
Workplace exploitation, mental health issues, and racism
UNSW commerce student Annie — who preferred not to provide her last name — is an Australian-born Chinese domestic student and said she noticed a stark contrast between the experiences of domestic and international students.
“International students, especially from non-English speaking countries, do feel alienated in class,” she told the ABC.
“You will often see the domestic students hang one side and international students will hang on the other side [due to language barriers].”
Concerns about international student welfare also goes beyond learning outcomes and English proficiency — the students are often are exposed to financial stress, workplace exploitation, mental health issues, and racism, said Bijay Sapkota, president of the Council of International Students.
According to Mr Sapkota there is a lack of meaningful access to services that properly engage and support international students.
“International students have to go through a rigorous process to get help. They have to go through the student centre, then the international department, and then counselling services, and you know, [completing] all these applications while the student is going through a difficult situation with limited English is hard.”
However, universities and some industry bodies insist the aforementioned group of students constitutes a minority.
UNSW dean of engineering Mark Hoffman said he believes these claims of neglect can be overstated, and that at his university the reality is different.
“With international students everyone hones straight in on the language skills, but a lot of it has to do with culture and all sorts of things, which everybody faces in a new country,” he told the ABC.
“Their ability to communicate and work in groups improves significantly though the course of their study and we put [in place] structures [of support].
“If you scratch below the surface, you’ll find that the international and local students mix it up and what [demographic] they are doesn’t really make a difference.”
English language surveys struggle to capture reality
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson did not state whether she thought the current English language entry standards were appropriate, but said international students ultimately achieved similar results as Australian students.
“Australian universities’ English language entry standards are as robust as other leading higher education systems around the world,” Ms Jackson told the ABC in a statement.
In a statement to the ABC, RMIT rejected any suggestion it was allowing students with less than the appropriate levels of English into its courses.
“International students, in the same way as all students do, also need to meet English proficiency requirements to ensure they are set up for success,” it said.
A spokeswoman for the University of Sydney said it had plans to continue to grow its international student numbers and said its English language entry standards were appropriate.
“Our English language proficiency standards are similar to other [leading] universities and for some courses our IELTs requirements are higher,” she said in a statement.
Analysts said part of the problem is that universities and the Federal Government rely heavily on student surveys to measure satisfaction.
The main survey run by the Commonwealth Department of Education body — Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILTS) — is a voluntary online questionnaire in English, with 75 per cent of international students rating their overall experience as positive, just below domestic students at 79 per cent.
More significantly, the primary survey that tracks whether graduates are obtaining jobs and if they are relevant to their degrees, the annual Graduate Outcome Survey, only publishes data on domestic students — the results for international students are withheld from the public.
ABC requests to the Federal Department of Education to see the data were denied.
Various experts and observers told the ABC that many employers do not want to hire international students, and often ask for language test scores way beyond their capabilities — the short-term visas students are on also presents another obstacle.
Media academic Jenny Weight said that in her experience, Chinese international students with limited English were unlikely to take part in surveys and those that did would not be critical.
“Most of our international students were from China and they are not accustomed to expressing any sort of dissent or political opinion to any sort of authority figure,” she said.
“I know this because they have told me they do not feel comfortable putting their real opinion [in the surveys].”
Michael Fay founded one of Australia’s first programs for international students, Insearch at UTS, and now runs a consultancy specialising in South-East Asia.
He told the ABC that the methodology of these surveys and the sorts of questions being asked had to be taken into consideration.
“Some perhaps don’t want to ask the hard questions — if you start asking really deep questions, well a lot of organisations don’t want to give answers that are going to be problematic for them,” he said.
So who is responsible for overseeing standards?
International students fall under a confusing patchwork of state and federal regulation.
The primary body responsible for regulating the industry — the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) — is responsible for ensuring both ELICOS and university degree courses are compliant with a set of national standards around course content and assessment.
But its five full-time investigators have to police some 170 different course providers across all areas of higher education legislation, not just English courses.
According to its own annual reporting, it’s struggling to manage a backlog with hundreds of unresolved cases being carried over year to year.
As a result, it generally focuses more on smaller course providers and largely leaves universities alone as they are considered a low risk for non-compliance.
A spokesman for TEQSA told the ABC that on average it received 200 student complaints every year, however they were unable to say how many came from international students because up until 2017 they didn’t record whether the complainants were from domestic or international students.
And while TEQSA is intended to oversee course content and assessments, state-based ombudsmen are supposed to deal with administrative and student service complaints in the tertiary sector — such as enrolment or being unfairly removed from a course — while the Commonwealth Ombudsman is supposed to deal with vocational and private college issues.
But often the lines get blurred about which overseeing body is responsible for what sort of complaint, and students often wind up going to and filing complaints at the wrong place.
As far back as 2011, concerns were being raised on the record about international students.
In that year a Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation found that while some support services were helpful, they were often being used as a “substitute for proper admission standards” and “not engaging many of the students who are at risk and need assistance.”
‘People question the quality of Australian universities’
Associate professor Fran Martin from the University of Melbourne, who has taught and undertaken extensive research into international students, said these problems have been increasingly apparent for some time.
“Somehow universities are happy to take that [international student] income or need to take that income, but they are not proactively investing a significant amount of it back into improving the experience,” she told the ABC.
“It’s crazy that it’s got to this point.”
UNSW dean of engineering professor Mark Hoffman said his faculty makes substantial efforts to support students, but also said students also need to take some responsibility.
“We do offer a lot of programs, but a lot of it does come down to the students’ confidence to go and do those programs,” he said.
“Just giving people a web page and saying ‘if you have any trouble just go and do this’ it’s not necessarily going to get a response.
“But what we try and do is set in place an accommodating environment so that they feel more confident to explore those sorts of things.”
Xiaolan Tang is a former international student who now works in China recruiting local students for overseas study — she told the ABC that it’s becoming harder and harder to sell people on Australian degrees.
“People question the quality of Australian universities when students who get refused by top universities in other countries can still easily be accepted by the same level Australian universities,” she told the ABC.
“They think that the entry threshold for Australian universities is set quite low.”
Twenty nine-year-old Zhao Chen studied architecture at the University of Melbourne in 2014 and told the ABC that she found Australian universities’ admission standards weak.
“I felt that it was very easy to get accepted by a prominent Australian school because their entry requirement was very low,” she admitted.
“I had a feeling that I could get lots of offers easily.”
University of Melbourne’s Fran Martin says Australian degrees no longer have the cachet they once did in China.
“Even 10 years ago [an Australian degree] was something that might make you stand out — but now almost everyone it seems is going overseas for a degree,” she said.
“So it’s no longer so much of a stand out factor for employers.”