Recent revelations in the Sydney Morning Herald that a number of international students at universities across New South Wales are ‘functionally illiterate’ and have submitted assignments written by ‘ghost writers’ is not exactly striking news, at least not for many university academics and administrators.
Despite all the institutional talk about ‘world class education’, ‘excellence’, ‘quality assurance’ and so forth, educators who mark assignments and engage with students in tutorials and online forums, are acutely aware of literacy problems that beset both international and domestic students.
Many of these problems can – at least in the case of Australian students – be traced back to the education they receive at school. Research by the Australian Council for Educational Research in 2013 clearly indicates a drop in levels of academic performance among Australian school children when compared to their counterparts in many Asian countries.
More generally, it is the enrolment policies of universities themselves that have exacerbated literacy and related problems.
‘Flexible entry’ schemes, including low Australian Tertiary Rank Scores (in some cases in the 30s), bonus points, principles' recommendations and other creative ‘pathways’ have enabled universities in an uncapped system to fling open their doors to a vast pool of prospective students. Indeed, vice chancellors and others regularly justify absurdly low ATAR offers with the equally absurd claim that this score is nothing more than an indicator of supply and demand.
Meanwhile, back at the coalface, it is academics who have to mark essays written in broken English, and learning support staff who are obliged to deal with the remedial consequences of excessively generous entry schemes.
Many academics get around the problem of poor literacy standards by scaling back assessments (a practice often referred to as ‘soft assessments’), or by employing quizzes, multiple choice and take home examinations.
Such practices are legitimated on the grounds that academics find it difficult to cope with inflated student numbers and/or that they are overwhelmed by competing demands (like having to undertake research, produce publications, and attend to onerous administrative demands).
They further justify what many see as the ‘dumbing down’ of higher education, or its reduction to ‘education by numbers’, on the grounds that in a digital age there are now ‘new literacies’ that require more creative forms of assessment. Meanwhile, that traditional and once highly valued artefact of higher education, the essay, is increasingly under threat as other more administratively convenient and readily answerable assessment items come to the fore.
When it comes to the question of how and why international students with low levels of English language proficiency manage to get into university, we need look no further than the cash register. The fact is that international students are now big business for universities and for the Australian economy in general, accounting for over $16 billion dollars in annual revenue, making it the country’s fourth largest export industry.
Given the precarious nature of government funding, universities have become heavily reliant on income generated from the upfront, full fees paid by international students.
With this cohort comprising just under a third of all Australian university students, and in the case of Bond University, Federation University and Central Queensland University exceeding 40 per cent – this is an important revenue source (especially when you consider that international students pay up to three times more than domestic students for the same course).
It’s not too difficult, therefore, to see why universities are reluctant to go public about literacy and other problems facing international students. After all, it’s in their interest not to disclose such things, for fear of losing much-needed revenue in an extremely competitive higher education market.
When in 2011 Dr Gigi Foster from the University of New South Wales asserted, on the basis of a study of 12,846 business students in Adelaide and Sydney, that soft marking was enabling many international to get through courses, universities went into lock down, claiming scholastic integrity and teaching excellence.
Yet ask any academic, and she or he will tell you about the enormous challenges associated with international students, and the fact that universities apply less than subtle pressure on staff to pass poor performing students.
That’s why when it comes to those end-of semester committees that adjudicate on grade distributions and related matters, eyebrows are raised and questions asked if too many students fail units.
In such cases, the spotlight soon turns on the assessment set by the unit coordinator. The upshot is that assessments are invariably adjusted in order to make course completion a little easier – a practice that applies to both domestic and international students.
Not that you’re likely to hear about any of this in the hyperbolic blurb pumped out by university marketing divisions, who go to extraordinary lengths to help snare international students.
Prospective applicants are told that upon completion of their studies, there are fantastic job opportunities to be had back home. The problem, however, is that with the emergence of ‘world class’ universities in China and other parts of Asia, many international graduates from Australian universities find that their expectations of a lucrative career back home simply fail to materialise.
In a study conducted in 2012, researchers Cate Gribble and Mingsheng Li from Massey University in New Zealand, noted that the level of expectations among Australian-educated international students are grossly unrealistic, with many failing to demonstrate to employers that they have the required knowledge and skills to carry out some of the most basic work demands.
This situation is made worse by the fact that their English language skills are often extremely poor.
Gribble and Lifurther show that English language proficiency among Chinese students is often better for those graduating from Chinese universities. Indeed, graduates from Chinese universities tend to secure employment more easily than their Australian educated counterparts.
So what is going on here? Why are so many international students functionally illiterate? Part of the answer is to be found in the recruitment practices of many universities.
A few months back, I spoke to Roy, a former international recruitment officer at a leading Australian university who, for many years, dealt with recruitment agents of ‘varied integrity’ and similarly suspect ‘middle men’.
Roy alleged that the ‘international recruitment racket’ was just that, replete with fraud and corruption, including ‘sweeteners’ paid by ‘dodgy’ agents to bank managers in order to obtain favourable financial statements, and the ‘coaching’ of applicants by agents to get them through English language tests.
Such practices have been well documented in a number of studies.
Writing in the November 2014 issue of World University News, journalists Philip Attach and Liz Reisberg noted a range of ethical and procedural problems associated with international recruitment practices, particularly in relation to overseas agents and recruiters employed by universities in the UK and other western countries, including Australia.
They observed that: ‘…it is difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly what takes place between the agent and student, periodic inspections notwithstanding.
Anecdotal reports suggest that many agents ‘help’ clients by doctoring academic records, writing essays, preparing letters of recommendation, and providing other kinds of dubious “assistance”.
In some cases, agents are reported to charge both the student and the university, a practice of questionable ethics’.
Clearly, as most academics can testify, the fact that many international students enrol in universities with extremely poor English language skills reflects badly on recruitment processes.
While politicians and free market advocates have been panicked by the Sydney Morning Herald’s revelations (mainly because of ‘reputational’ concerns that may impact on applications from international students), the language problems of international (and other) students reflects more broadly on how universities seek to balance academic integrity with often severe financial pressures.
The challenges faced by international students, and the questionable practices of university management along with their agents and recruiters, are to a considerable extent symptomatic of precarious government funding and the vagaries of the so-called free market.
Gaining a slice of the global international student market is, for many institutions, as much about survival as it is about trying to provide a decent sort of higher education.
Sadly, financial imperatives of some universities tend to override a quality student experience. Adequate safeguards – including scholastic standards – are not in place to ensure that new enrolees have the required literacy and other skills to complete a university education.
It's not surprising therefore, that international students are outsourcing their assignments to dodgy online companies – why wouldn’t they? After all, students need their degrees and the universities need their students.
But there are many other challenges faced by international students as they try, often punishingly, to get through three years or more of expensive higher education.
In a 2011 report, Daniel Pejic from the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Science, noted that international students lack access to some of the most basic welfare, industrial and education rights afforded to domestic students.
As non-citizens, international students are not entitled to Medicare, and medical expenses have to be paid up front, which is, of course, a big impost on poorer students.
Private health insurance does not cover dental treatment, pharmaceuticals, or pre-existing health conditions. In addition, communication issues, lack of family support, isolation and loneliness, stress of study, exploitation by employers and dodgy landlords, overcrowded and dilapidated housing (often in distant outer suburbs), and lack of legal information and support can make life in Australia less than a pleasant experience.
Pejic concludes that: ‘a paradigmatic shift is required from thinking about international students in economic terms, to considering them in human terms’.
He has a point.