Earlier this year, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called for a review of university English-language standards out of concern that many international students were struggling to keep up with their peers, were placing intense strain on both university lecturers and teaching staff, and were eroding the overall quality of education provided at Australia’s universities:
“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 Premier’s call follows an explosion of international student numbers, which surpassed 600,000 for the first time in March 2019:
As well as an extreme concentration of international students at Australia’s Group of Eight universities:
In the wake of last month’s explosive Four Corners report, which revealed that Australia’s universities were overlooking their own English language requirements in order to lift international student numbers and profits, federal education minister, Dan Tehan, on Friday announced that the Coalition would tighten rules around English standards. From The Canberra Times.
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the independent regulator of universities, recommended to Mr Tehan in March that tougher English language standards be applied to academic foundation courses that provide foreign students with a pathway into enrolment at universities… the regulator also advised that monitoring of universities’ compliance could be sharpened, including by forcing them to “record, in detail, the basis on which a student met the required English language entry standard”…
Mr Tehan is said to be supportive of the changes and the Department of Education is now developing advice for him on how they would operate…
Ben Fordham (2GB): “I’ve had mums and dads calling me… They say “look, it’s not fair. My kid’s off at university doing a group assignment and, in some instances, they are the only ones that can understand English”.
Dan Tehan: “Look, we do have to make sure that we protect what is now a $35 billion industry for Australia. We are about to pass the UK as the second most popular destination for international students. So, we’ve got to ensure that our English language skills are up to scratch. And that’s why I’ve asked the regulator TEQSA to come back to me with some proposals. They’ve done that. And we are going to look at strengthening the English language requirements for our overseas students”.
Ben Fordham (2GB): “Am I right in saying that at the moment it’s a case-by-case basis: universities decide for themselves?”
Dan Tehan: “Universities are required to meet certain levels. What we’ve gotta make sure is that uniformly they’re doing that and that we do have the supervision there ensuring no one is cutting corners. Because, what the impact could be is that it could undermine what is nearly a $35 billion international export sector. And we don’t want that to happen. Ben Fordham (2GB): “And that’s the thing. It’s such a lucrative market that a lot of Australian students feel that the institutions are taken in by the attraction of the money, and therefore they are willing to overlook these shortcomings when it comes to English”.
Dan Tehan: “That’s right. We’ve gotta make sure that isn’t happening. And that’s why I’ve asked the regulator to come up with a couple of things which will put tighter requirements in place. They’ve made two suggestions. We’re seeking advice on that. And then we are looking to implement them. Because, we have got to make sure that we are protecting what is a vital sector to our economy”.
The Coalition’s attempts to tighten English language standards are likely to face opposition from the Greens, which has labelled the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) a “money making business” and wants it watered down:
A good English score in IELTS is often a pre-requisite for international study…
Navdeep Singh, a Greens Senate candidate for Queensland… said the English language requirements set for international studies and for the migration purpose are making peoples’ lives difficult… “regretfully, this whole system especially the English Language test IELTS has turned into a money-making business”…
Mr Singh alleged that the system is designed in a way that if an applicant fails in one module but clears the other three, he’ll need to book the whole test again…
Mr Singh said that Greens have pledged to make English requirements within the reach of migrant communities.
Meanwhile, the International Education Association of Australia chief executive, Phil Honeywood, has firmly rejected calls to lift English language requirements:
“Australia already has some of the most stringent English language entry requirements for any post degree education in the world,” he said.

“Our tough regulations in this area are the envy of countries such as Canada, New Zealand and the UK who we actively compete with.”

Let’s be honest: the Coalition’s announced reforms to English language standards are merely window dressing and will only address the issue at the margin.

As stated by Dan Tehan above, the Government clearly wants to protect the $35 billion international student trade at all costs, irrespective of its negative externalities on: education standards, overcrowding in Australia’s major cities, and wages (given international students are key victims of exploitation and wage theft).

If the federal government was serious about addressing this issue, it would task the Productivity Commission (PC) to undertake a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the international student trade to ascertain whether it is maximising net benefits for Australians, as well as ask the PC to provide recommendations on how the system could be improved.

Australia desperately needs a holistic assessment of the international student trade from a respected independent organisation like the Productivity Commission. Only then will policy be calibrated correctly to benefit Australians, rather the education industry.