Universities Told To Boost English Programs

Universities told to boost English programs

Guy Healy and Andrew Trounson
From: The Australian
February 10, 2010 12:00AM

UNIVERSITIES are being warned to increase their English language programs for international students given the potential for a review of the migration points system to recommend higher levels of proficiency.

While universities are set to benefit from the Rudd government's move to refocus skilled migration on higher skills and qualifications, experts are warning it could put pressure on the sector to lift English standards.

Demographer Bob Birrell yesterday warned that there was a real threat to presently enrolled students if the government were to raise English standards.

“It's quite possible they could toughen up English standards in the new migration points test midyear,” Dr Birrell told the HES. “That would threaten the prospects of much of the overseas students class, especially those from China,” he said.

Last year Dr Birrell's research highlighted the poor standard of English among accountancy graduates, who were failing to find work in the industry.

In announcing the government's shake-up of skilled migration on Monday, Immigration Minister Chris Evans stressed the need for proficient English to ensure migrants quickly gained work in the areas in which they were trained.

“Evidence shows that the best way of doing that is to select those most likely to quickly secure skilled work on the basis of their knowledge and experience and proficiency in English,” Senator Evans said.

A spokesman for the minister could not say whether the government planned to raise the English entry score from six to seven under the International English Language Testing System. “We cannot pre-empt the outcome of the review,” the spokesman said.

Dr Birrell and University of Melbourne migration expert Lesleyanne Hawthorne said too many overseas students were emerging from the nation's universities with little or no official improvement in their English.

Professor Hawthorne said universities should be prepared for a surge in demand for more English support as students realised achieving an IELTS score of seven made them eligible for priority migration processing.

“Universities should pay very great heed to the entry level of the students' English, but also actively enhance their English during study,” she said.

IELTS six became the threshold competence score in September 2007.

University of Sydney economist Peter Abelson, who in 2005 blew the whistle on the dumbing down of standards for international students when he was at Macquarie University, backed the government's changes.

But he said quality assurance mechanisms needed to be boosted at universities.

“There are no external examinations in undergraduate courses in universities so each university sets its own standard, and it is many years before the market really catches up with how those standards might get eroded,” Professor Abelson said.

Tony Pollock, chief executive of international student recruiter IDP said the changes will strengthen export of education services in the long run, but warned: “It is going to be a painful process for many in the vocational education space. It is going to strengthen the demand for some university programs but it is certainly going to diminish demand for some vocational programs.”

Stephen Connelly, pro vice-chancellor international and development at RMIT University and president of the International Education Association of Australia, said the short-term effect on universities was likely to be minimal but positive in the long run.

“Some oversubscribed university programs, such as masters in professional accounting, may be impacted but overall if higher level skills are the order of the day then universities must benefit,” he said.

Professor Hawthorne said the 129,000 business and commerce students in universities and vocational education with aspirations for migration will be “deeply disappointed” by the changes. Since these students were not in an immigration priority course, they would need to make a compelling case to local employers for sponsorship, she said.

It is unclear whether the changes will benefit overseas PhD holders seeking to parlay their advanced science degrees into Australian residency .

As the HES has reported, these students have become unintended victims of tougher rules for skilled migration.

Additional reporting: Bernard Lane