Academics Criticise Australia’s Foreign Student Intake


The discussion of academic standards with the older generation of HE academics will lead to the conclusion, in no uncertain manner, that standards are dramatically deteriorating.

For decades, University courses have been delivered to high standards by dedicated scholars who specialise in their respective disciplines at most of the established institutions around the Pacific Rim and Europe. This was a time when academics were respected for the breadth of their subject knowledge and revered by the students that they taught. However, over the last generation this role has changed dramatically, from master/apprentice to a service provider/customer relationship. Furthermore, student/teacher ratios in many universities have declined over the past twenty years.

Graph Via ICEF Monitor.

Education became a business when government funding to universities was cut. University management went out of their way to increase the enrolments of foreign students by necessity. This was necessary in order for universities and faculties to remain the same size. The successful recruitment of foreign students has actually been a source of renewed growth for the majority of higher education institutions.

Foreign students currently comprise 18-25 percent of the total enrolments in Australian universities. Many scholars will tell you of a rift developing between academics and university bureaucracies, due to management viewing foreign students as a crucial source of income. The management of universities don’t want to miss out on this extraordinary growth of international students.

Nevertheless, such a significant increase of students is adding pressure to the system, resulting in lower academic standards, as demonstrated by a number of emerging problems.

Although there are prerequisite and language proficiency standards that students are required to meet, many students’ basic English skills remain poor, with some, if not many, being unable to grapple with the standards of the courses they are undertaking. This is likely to be caused by two factors; the standard of English by student recruits in the first place is of concern. The Australian investigative journalism program Four Corners exposed how Australian universities were recruiting students who got around language requirements through forging transcripts.

The second root to the problem of low English proficiency comes from the failure of pre-entry English courses to enhance students’ basic English proficiencies. For example, most foreign students are grouped together in these pre-degree classes. However, certain ethnic groups, such as native Arabic speakers, require a specialised approach to learning English because of their lack of exposure to the language throughout their secondary education. In addition, the structure and linguistic of their mother tongue is the opposite of English, i.e. right to left. This demands a specifically tailored English programme for native Arabic speakers.

Surprisingly, few modern universities tailor their pre-degree language programmes to the diversity of their students.

There is little, if any, instruction to lecturers on the use of ‘special English’ to teach classes; therefore, many students find it incredibly hard to understand lecturers with strong accents using colloquial terms.

Today, university faculties are focusing on getting a large majority of students to pass their courses, which is sadly hindering the progression of teaching methods. It is now necessary for university teaching methods to satisfy big groups of students, so teaching options are limited beyond standard lecture and tutorial structures. Some academics who wished to uphold their anonymity have commented that university management seems to be more interested in providing a quality campus life as opposed to quality academic standards.

There are currently no incentives for scholars to evolve teaching methods. At one well-known institution in Melbourne, an innovative management behavioural laboratory, which was once utilised with great success, has been put in ‘mothballs’ because the facility is struggling to cope with a greater number of students. Most recent academic innovations are being lost as a result of larger cohorts.

The academics we spoke to complained of student disconnection in class and said that many tend to “…read much less than students a generation ago.” Today’s tech-savvy generation requires radical new ways of teaching that have left many academics faltering.

Consequently, many academics have complained that courses are being “dumbed down” to ensure that students can pass. Where they were once required to know and comprehend various perspectives on a variety of subjects, for modern day students, the “textbook view” is sufficient. Many classes are focusing on how to answer exam questions, rather than pursuing the knowledge of a subject in any in-depth manner. According to these lecturers, there is “…a disincentive to fail students, particularly foreign ones.”

Quality assurance systems within the universities are focused on procedure rather than outcomes, and have little bearing on the quality of the provided academics. ISO accreditations are concerned with paper flows, and course accreditations tend to be centred on faculties meeting particular KPIs. Although tools like Bloom’s Taxonomy remain the spine of curriculum structure and teaching methodologies, the taxonomy itself is not based on any solid research- it was formed by a consensus in meetings of academics held more than 60 years ago. Many scholars have openly criticised the taxonomy, claiming it has not been properly constructed as it lacks a systematic construction rationale, where thought and learning do not fit into definitive, neat compartments.

Some doctorial graduates, who also wish to remain anonymous, exclaimed that some UK universities employ two-tier standards. Foreign students who intended to return to their home countries after graduation were examined at a lower standard than those who wished to remain in the UK. A number of universities within the Eurozone are recognised for applying different standards for foreign post-graduate students, and are extremely active in recruiting foreign students who would have difficulty completing the doctorate requirements at other institutions.

Today’s student culture is categorically different from that of previous generations. Plagiarism, once taboo within any university, is increasingly common among current student cohorts. Many assignments are loaded with “Googled” information. There are a number of websites that allow students to purchase assignments, and even people they can hire to write a doctoral thesis at a negotiated price.

It is the academics who bear the knowledge that a university disseminates. However, Australian universities appear to be increasingly losing talent to competition overseas. One reputable Professor of Entrepreneurship was dropped by Deakin University due to the sudden closure of an institute and university policy of seniority based purely on length of employment. He now serves as a Professor at EGADE Business School, in Techologico de Monterrey, Mexico. It is now bureaucracy, as opposed to academics, that controls who can or can not be staff.

Higher Education institutions objective is now focused on providing a process that leads to the awarding of a degree which serves as a “meal ticket” for international students. It would also seem, with the exception of a few highly ranked universities, that academic standards have been allowed to slip in pursuit of the above objective.

The balance of power within these institutions has so drastically shifted that academics now have very little say in how universities are run. Academics are being pressured into following strict policies rather than their sense of what would be most beneficial academically.

Ever since the influx of such large numbers of international students, academic standards have continued to slip, and Australian Higher Education is no longer what it once was.

This article first appeared on Asian Correspondent.

Image via Shutterstock.

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