Higher English entry standards for international students won’t necessarily translate to success


For some time, lowering standards and inadequate English language proficiency have dominated discussions about international students in Australia. Studies show many international students struggle in their relationships, with their finances, feelings of isolation and belonging, all of which affect their educational experience.

The suggestion that raising entry standards would ensure success and a higher quality of international graduates is not necessarily true. Achieving a higher level of English proficiency through a standardised test will not guarantee international students’ motivation to fully participate in their degree programs.

Universities need to look beyond language proficiency at the point of entry, and do more to support all facets of academic, linguistic and social development. These include discipline-specific language, mental health, and culturally appropriate pastoral support throughout their degrees. While language proficiency is the most important factor, these other factors have been shown to impact students’ academic performance.

Focusing only on increasing entry scores on standardised tests like the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is unlikely to help. We also need to provide them with support after they’ve arrived at an Australian university. If we don’t, the number of international students who choose to study in Australia could decrease, hurting the A$32 billion a year industry.

What is IELTS and how does it work?

One of the most popular proficiency tests is the International English Language Testing System, which costs A$340 and consists of four tests. Despite its dominance in global language testing, the IELTS has been criticised by university academic and administrative staff for being a poor predictor of academic performance.

The federal government requires student visa applicants to achieve at least a 5.5 on the test. Alternatively, they can get a 5.0 and do at least 10 weeks of intensive English language learning, or a 4.5 and do at least 20 weeks of intensive English language learning. The highest a person can achieve is a 9.0.

The test is comprised of a 15-minute speaking test, 40 multiple choice questions each in listening and reading, and a two-part writing test. Here is what a 5.0 sounds like:

This test-taker has enough vocabulary to talk about familiar and unfamiliar topics, but meaning is occasionally lost through limited vocabulary. Her basic grammar is reasonably accurate but she struggles with complex sentences.

A student who achieved a band 8.0 speaks much more fluidly, drawing on a wide range of less common words and phrases, but she still has to occasionally pause to search for the right words.

Like all standardised tests, IELTS suffers from the weight of expectation about what it can actually assess. IELTS can only offer a snapshot of students’ use of language. As you can hear in the video, the activities test-takers do in the IELTS test are generic and poorly reflect the kinds of language use and literacy students will need to complete their degrees.

It also can’t assess understandings of cultural norms, conversational ability, or capacity to engage in the host country’s social life. These are also important for success. The score can only indicate someone’s proficiency in a familiar testing context, and their tolerance for high-stakes exams.

For success, international students need ongoing support

Universities profit massively from international student enrolments. If they don’t do anything to support these students through their studies (instead of just raising the entry requirement), they’re likely to lose significant income. There is also a moral obligation for universities to better respond to the needs of these students.

Universities should recognise that for international students, disciplinary specific, people-rich supports work better than general study skills models for most students. Accessing medical or mental health support through digital booking systems could prevent international students from seeking help. They’re already less likely than domestic peers to seek support.

Despite the economic incentive to make sure international enrolments remain steady, collaborating to set up and share more responsive forms of support on the ground is difficult. The siloed nature of university departments hinders collaboration.

For example, there are many language specialists in English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) centres at universities. Universities could draw on their expertise to work with university teachers in their specific disciplines to support international students. They could help the students learn the language and literacy practices relevant to their disciplines, as well as help improve their oral and written expression.

So what would work?

Universities need to work towards students feeling confident about asking for help, and knowing who to talk to and where to find the right information.

Universities need to ensure support services are targeted to the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. They also need to ensure there are many types of support available to avoid a backlog that would see students giving up or not having access to the right support at the right time. This should be a core part of university business.

Specific strategies to promote cultural and linguistic diversity include:

  • taking an approach to teaching and learning that encourages multilingual students to use multiple languages to make sense of course content
  • establishing language ambassadors who can help newly-arrived international students navigate their new university and find services such as counselling or language supports
  • explicitly teaching cultural diversity to students and staff, offering safe spaces to unpack assumptions and biases and creating culturally safe institutions which promote inclusive and supportive environments in both policy and practice.

Finally, universities need to encourage and offer training to support staff to engage in these practices. Many academics and support staff come up with excellent strategies, but these are often ad hoc or isolated. Universities should also offer incentives to collaborate and showcase best practice strategies for others to use and adapt.

Author Bios: Sally Baker is aLecturer, School of Social Sciences and Caroline Lenette is a Senior Lecturer both at UNSW