Calls for tougher English language requirements for international students

International students looking to study at Australian universities may face higher English language entry requirements after a push from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

International students in Australia.

Over 72,000 Indian students are currently enrolled in Australia, which makes India the second-largest source of international students after China. Source: Reuters

There are calls for the federal government to review English entry requirements at Australian universities over concerns international students are falling behind.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has written to the Victorian branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), saying he will urge the Morrison government to make changes.

Under current requirements, those wanting a student visa need a score of at least 5.5 out of nine in the International English Language Testing System.

Most universities require students with a score of between six and seven, but the government will grant a student visa with a score of 4.5 - classified as limited or modest grasp of English - if the student enrolls in a 20-week intensive English course.

While students need to pass that course, they do not need to resit the language test.

Victoria's acting Minister for Higher Education, James Merlino, issued a statement saying it's compromising international students' ability to learn in Australia.

"International students are a vital part of Victoria’s education system but it's concerning that some students are enrolled in courses without adequate English language skills to complete them," he said.

"This isn’t fair to either those students or teaching staff, which is why we will look at raising this issue at a federal level."

International students at Melbourne University
Source: (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

But Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has issued his own written statement.

In it, he said it's the responsibility of universities to ensure their students have adequate language skills.

“You can judge the quality of Australia’s sector by the number of international students that we attract, with the British-based Centre for Global Higher Education predicting Australia will leapfrog the UK to become the world’s second-most popular destination for international students this year," he said.

"Universities are responsible for ensuring the students they enrol have the language skills to participate fully in their education and meeting the requirements of the Higher Education Standards Framework 2015.”

National President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Dr Alison Barnes, said federal funding cuts to the university sector have not helped the situation, with fewer staff available to help students.

But she agreed the onus remains on the universities.

"Australian universities are autonomous, self-accrediting institutions and they are responsible for setting their own standards," she said. "So we're calling on universities to act responsibly when it comes to enrolling students." 

But International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said universities already set high English standards for international students.

"Australia already has some of the most stringent English language entry requirements for any post degree education in the world," he said.

"Our tough regulations in this area are the envy of countries such as Canada, New Zealand and the UK who we actively compete with." 

The Council of International Students Australia said it would welcome a review of English language entry levels for student visas.

But Council spokesman Manfred Mletsin said the universities also need to play their part.

"They would have to work together on this one definitely," he said. "It's not just only by the university or by the government because obviously the university are looking to get more students for them but at the same time they have to keep the quality of their education on a high level."

"And same with the government because obviously the government wants successful graduates."

Some argue regional universities are not yet equipped to handle a large number of international students.
Source: AAP

Mr Mletsin is currently studying in Darwin after moving from Estonia.

He grew up learning English at primary and high school so he said his language skills have not compromised his university education.

But he said for international students who are not proficient in English, it can have an impact on their mental health. 

"There's a number of students that suffer from anxiety, suffer from depression and, I'm not a psychologist, but I can sense that among students," he said.

"And there's a problem where students struggle in lessons or participating in group work and many actually struggle with the assignments, often working twice as hard as they should be."

The International Education Association of Australia's Phil Honeywood said international students themselves also have a role to play.

"They often make the mistake of sharing accommodation with students from the same nationality and therefore speaking the same language and not English in their shared accommodation," he said.

"So there's an element of personal responsibility combined with education providers having the primary responsibility when it comes to ensuring their students are meeting standards that Australia very stringently applies."

Published 24 January 2019 at 9:31am
By Tara Cosoleto