Time for a rethink on English language competency levels for international students?

As the year draws to a close, it is a good time to review the news that made the most impact.
Funnily enough, it’s not a Brexit story that has stuck in my mind, but the drip, drip of news stories about accusations of cheating, directed against international students in general and Chinese students in particular.

In January, for example, there was the notorious email from the University of Liverpool international advice and guidance team about exam conduct, which translated the word “cheating” into Chinese but no other foreign language, on the grounds that Chinese students were “usually unfamiliar with the word” in English. A student petition condemned the email as “racially discriminative”.

However, underlying these headline stories is a real concern that we seem to be making it too hard for international students to thrive when they come to the UK to study…

One thing we can surely do is to make sure all international students have the language skills necessary to make the transition as smooth as possible?

To apply for a Tier 4 general student Visa, for degree study, a non-EU student needs a minimum IELTS 5.5 score- but is that enough? It is arguably interesting that it isn’t ‘enough’ for selective boarding schools that often ask for IELTS 6.5 for pupils as young as 13, so they are suitably set up to deal with the rigours of GCSEs in Year 10.

So we asked someone who would know, Fiona Wattam has been teaching EFL for 28 years, working abroad with the British Council (France, Japan, Taiwan, Poland and Sri Lanka) and currently working part-time at Essex University, teaching Academic Skills and pre-sessional courses. She also runs this website.

“Students are stressed, tired, anxious, homesick and suffering from culture shock when they arrive”

Her view is clear, “I feel desperately sorry for students who’ve been told that a 5.5 IELTS score and a 5-week pre-sessional course will equip them with enough English to cope with the demands of a degree course. They need at least a year of immersive language training post-IELTS before they are anywhere near ready to start.

“Students are stressed, tired, anxious, homesick and suffering from culture shock when they arrive – this is not a good time for intensive training on how to critically evaluate academic research articles, especially ones that they can barely understand.”

Isn’t it time for a rethink to stop so many international students going home disillusioned by their experience of living and studying in the UK? Language skills impact on every aspect of their lives here in the UK, not just their academic success…

About the author:  Pat Moores is director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.