Overseas universities must do more than check IELTS scores

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

Concern has recently been expressed over problems faced by overseas students taking up studies in English-speaking countries, whose level of English may not be strong enough to enable them to succeed. Chinese students struggling at British universities have been specially mentioned.

The IELTS system has been criticised in relation to this. However, the fault lies not with any particular internationally recognised test of English, or the students themselves, but inappropriate admission decisions made by these foreign universities.

In selecting overseas students for study in a university in Britain, Australia, Canada or elsewhere, university admissions tutors need to consider many factors. However, it seems that applicants presenting just IELTS scores of 6.5 or above, plus adequate funding, are automatically welcomed. These two points alone are far from being enough to give an applicant a good chance to do well on that overseas course. Some universities are now coming to appreciate that.

The IELTS - or International English Language Testing System - is expressly intended not to be used in that way. The IELTS application form clearly states, 'IELTS is specifically designed not to be the sole method of determining university admission'.

Furthermore, it states that, 'IELTS is designed to be but one of many factors used by academic institutions ... in determining whether a test-taker has sufficient English skills to successfully be admitted as a student'. It seems that many admissions tutors have not done their own homework.

A good score obtained a while back, perhaps just after attending one of the many intensive IELTS-preparation courses, may well not equate with that student's English level a year or two later, when the time comes to start a course overseas.

The applicant may have given much less attention to the active use or study of English in the intervening period. Thus the first day at an overseas university can present huge linguistic difficulties to a foreign student.

Many students seeking to attend university overseas will be putting themselves up against tremendous personal challenges.

They will likely have never before lived away from home and must learn how to look after themselves and make the best use of their time. They will likely be parachuted into an unfamiliar, indeed baffling, foreign environment, including all the problems associated with moving to a new country.

This would be challenge enough, even for a new student who speaks English as a native. But the candidate's adaptability and independence are factors apparently not investigated - or even considered - by admissions tutors in some establishments of higher learning. Greater concentration on these vital factors would help to ensure that a higher proportion of university students recruited overseas are able to fully benefit from the experience.

Such points of character cannot be gleaned from a test. An interview, or at least accurate references, would be of more value in judging such points.

And then, is the widely required 6.5 minimum in IELTS really a 'good' result? Does it accurately indicate that a candidate has the level of English required to study a technical subject at university level? Many people think not: especially lecturers at the receiving end of the long-drawn-out application process for overseas students.

It is understood that you don't have to be especially good at communicating with English to be able to obtain such a score.

Probably, many universities set the English-language entry requirement at that comparatively mediocre level in the hopes that by living in the host country the new student's English will automatically improve. They are thereby stating a minimum of 6.5 as a starting point.

But their expectation that student life in the English-speaking country will do much to enhance the English skills of overseas students is not automatically fulfilled. Some universities are victims of their own success in recruiting overseas students - where a high proportion come from the same place.

It is an excellent thing for students to undergo several years at university in close company with an international mix of people. The host country students can derive great benefit, interest and pleasure from this experience, just as much as can the visiting students from other countries.

But what of the real experience, in the many Australian and British universities which have recruited actively, mainly for Chinese students? Having a very large proportion of its overseas student body all coming from the same place does little to make a campus truly international.

The disadvantages are now emerging for all to see. While they may live in Britain, Canada or Australia, in fact some foreign students spend every free moment with their fellow students from back home, speaking their own language and living almost entirely within their own culture.

Universities in English-speaking countries should continue to attract the best students from around the world but, preferably, welcome them not just for their money.

Using Chinese students as cash cows cannot be the right approach. It would be fairer to offer them additional English courses before launching them on their longed-for foreign university courses; especially as a fair proportion of them have little wish to ever return home.

Paul Surtees is a Hong Kong-based commentator.