The university sector is failing international students before they even arrive

by | 31 May 2019

At the age of 16, Adrian Chu boarded a flight from Kuala Lumpur to the UK to start his A levels in London. Over the next two years he worked hard, passed his exams and got into Durham University to study Politics. He was happy, loved England and wanted to stay — but under the new immigration rules imposed by Theresa May he was booted out two months after his graduation day.

Not an uncommon story. But equally, not the whole story. I’d like to argue that it’s not just the government that’s letting down overseas students at the end of their degree courses; but that the university sector itself is failing them before they even arrive. I believe there are three simple ways we can do better through the effective application of technology, which is my field.

Let’s start with the recruitment cycle. Typically, overseas students accept an offer of a university place about six months before the academic year begins. However, most will not take their IELTS test until three months later, and inevitably a certain percentage fail to achieve the band score required for the course. By this time, it’s too late to apply elsewhere, so they have to go through the upset and heartache of losing the place. For the university, there is generally no time to recruit someone else from overseas, so they lose both the international student and the revenue that comes with them.

Why not test their English right at the beginning of the cycle? All that’s needed is a level test, remotely delivered, and with an output that correlates with IELTS (or TOEFL) bands sufficiently accurately. This would enable two outcomes.

Firstly, a university department could filter out those applicants whose level of English is just too low — and could do this right at the start of the process. This benefits everyone: the unsuccessful applicant can immediately move on, which is kinder; the university can target offers of places more effectively. In industry, this approach is routinely applied as an early-stage filtering mechanism by large employers such as Amazon, L’Oreal and Samsung. They test in skills areas such as verbal reasoning and maths, and it’s equally logical to use it for language. There are high quality level tests which can do this effectively.

A second outcome from this approach is to help identify the level of IELTS preparation needed by applicants. According to Dr Victoria Clark of the British Council, ‘depending on motivation and talent, a student can raise their level of English by half to one IELTS band score in three months if they put in enough work.’ For those who need to improve their level of general English, then, an early diagnosis is essential, given the time available.

And general English level is only part of the story. Clarity runs an IELTS Facebook page, which receives dozens of comments like these:

  • ‘Warm greetings! Please, how to get started?’
  • ‘I want to learn IELTS for my university, but what should I do?’
  • ‘We need to take IELTS for our university application. How do we start? Please guide us accordingly. Thank you.’

As these comments show, all too often students are left to devise their own IELTS prep strategies. Most of them can’t do this because they are neither sophisticated language learners nor aware of the particular challenges posed by the IELTS task types. The application journey should therefore explicitly and actively include IELTS guidance, using online IELTS preparation tools. As a minimum, universities should ensure that international students are familiar with the IELTS task types before taking the test.

Finally, most universities provide EAP orientation once students have arrived. For example, Katie Skarlatos, a first year Psychology student at Bath University, says that:

‘We had a whole module dedicated to academic study skills. Our tutors taught us a) how to write in an academic style b) to read, critique and present academic papers and c) to reference all our sources in APA style. The department encouraged us to ask questions and become familiar with the process of writing university-level papers. Heading into the second semester I feel much more confident to take novel approaches in my assignments because my department took the time to teach me the basics.’

This is great, but there are other elements of EAP that would be better addressed pre-arrival. Marc Lebane of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University considers these to be:

‘Firstly, making notes from reading, but more importantly from lectures. Secondly, improving vocabulary through listening, not reading. When they hear an unknown word, their brain freezes while they try to define it, rather than trying to understand it from context. Thirdly, paraphrasing.  It’s not just rearranging words; it’s identifying the main ideas and rewriting them. Plagiarism amongst Asian university students is very problematic.’

Students are right to feel that they should be treated better both at the beginning and the end of their university courses. We can’t do much about what happens after they’ve graduated, but there are measures we can put in place to make students feel more wanted when they first apply.

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish