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Canada: Lecturers ‘pressured’ to pass international students despite bad English

The faculty has to cope with the hidden costs of the rise in international students. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Underbar dk

Two lecturers at a Canadian university are breaking the silence on the strain the increasing number of international students are placing on their English classes.

English instructors at Langara College in British Columbia (BC) Peter Babiak and Anne Moriarty are concerned about these students’ lack of fluency in English – a distressing situation for the students, their parents, lecturers as well as other students in the classes, according to Vancouver Sun.

“I do feel sorry for the (international) students, of course, but that’s not really the point. When I assign grades, presumably I need to be objective and not let emotions get in the way,” Babiak says.

Moriarty says:

“There is a booming industry dedicated to helping students jump through English-language hoops, which teachers like me everywhere work hard to defend.”

“Being part of this is weighing heavily on my conscience.”

According to Langara’s website, the college has 6,177 international students during the 2016/17 academic year. Vancouver Sun notes their numbers have multiplied five times in the past four years.

The increase is even bigger among students from India, which saw a 40 times hike from just 68 students in 2014 to 3,084 students in 2017.

Despite this growth, without a certain level of English, these students are not able to keep up and pass their mandatory English courses, which leads them to sometimes resort to emotionally pleading their lecturers to pass them regardless of how they did in the course. The lecturers say students with higher levels of English are shortchanged as class discussions are sometimes severely restricted because of language barriers.

Langara’s provost Ian Humphreys denied there’s any pressure on the school’s faculty to “pass” students who do not meet the course requirements. He said the college had a diverse student cohort, both domestic and international, with a “high proportion of English language learners” and that graduates successfully transfer to other institutions and enter the job market.

Yet, Babiak and Moriarty say their colleagues fear of repercussions if they fail international students, such as getting poor rankings on “rate-your-professor” websites or getting on university administrators’ bad books.

When Babiak gave a low mark to an international student in one of his English literature class, she complained to Babiak’s head of department, alleging he was a “racist”. The student later dropped out.

And Babiak and Moriarty aren’t the only ones concerned about this.

Patrick Keeney, a B.C.-based education professor wrote about the hidden costs of a booming international education sector in Canada, a side usually not written about among all the good news about how international students help prop up the local economy by creating jobs, spending on retail goods and add to campus “diversity”.

But in classrooms, Keeney said he had seen how both local and international students struggled when their peers from abroad did not have the required level of English, especially those studying humanities and social sciences.

While these students may have passed the English language tests necessary to be admitted to university, Moriarty and Babiak say those tests aren’t a good measure of whether the student has the language skills to do well in literature and humanities courses.

Keeney says:

“How is that someone who has only rudimentary conversational English should now miraculously be expected to read, write about and speak substantially to scholarly texts?”

“The answer is that many simply cannot,” says Keeney, who is now at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University.

For Moriarty, the time has come for higher education administrators, faculty and politicians to have “a thorough, transparent and measured conversation” on these issues.

“The conversation would embrace multicultural classrooms as a healthy given, while not ignoring or denying whether they’re working for BC students of all ethnic backgrounds.”

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